By guest blogger Amy Broadway
Earlier this May, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus escaped from a partially boarded-up home in Cleveland, Ohio. The nation suspects 52-year-old Ariel Castro individually kidnapped the women over a decade ago, imprisoning them in his home and psychologically and physically torturing them until their escape.
Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Brian Murphy said that Castro made “premeditated, deliberate and depraved decisions to snatch three young ladies … to be used in whatever self-gratifying, self-serving way he saw fit”. (CNN staff 2013)
Let us assume that Castro committed these crimes. Just reading about it in the news emotionally pains us. For years Castro heartlessly ignored three people’s visible suffering, using them as props for his private horror film. How could anyone possibly behave this way? Castro’s actions demonstrate an extreme inability to empathize with others, or what Simon Baron-Cohen calls empathy erosion.
Empathy erosion occurs when people fail to attend to the humanity—the feelings, interests, kinship, etc—of others. Either they don’t cognitively understand others’ feelings or they aren’t emotionally affected by others’ feelings. We all vary on the empathy spectrum at any given time, but some people persistently express poor or absent capacities to empathize. In your romantic relationships, you may want to avoid people who lack empathy. If your partner doesn’t empathize with you or other people, trying to be in a relationship with him is a losing battle.
When you empathize, you attend to the feelings of those outside of you. You understand another person as a separate individual with needs and desires unrelated to your own. At the same time, you appreciate what it would be like to be that other person. Rather than thinking from a singleminded, “me”, perspective, you adopt “a double-minded focus of attention”. (Baron-Cohen 2012)
Some people cognitively empathize but fail to affectively empathize. Ariel Castro knew that Amanda Berry felt pain when she watched TV footage of her family looking for her. That was why he made her watch it. However, he was not moved by her pain. On the other hand, some people, such as those with autism, may have trouble cognitively understanding someone else’s feelings at first. But once they learn of that person’s feelings, they are affected by this information.
Levels of empathy vary for most of us. Fleeting emotions, such as rage or fear, may diminish our ability to empathize. Typically, though, when we’re able to successfully interact with others, we do so because we’re able to understand their feelings. On the other hand, some people have personality traits that ensure they lack empathy all of the time, even under average circumstances. You may have dated some of these people, but I hope not.
Perhaps, like Echo, you are in love with someone who is in love with himself. A narcissistic personality by definition has difficulty suspending his single-minded focus of attention. Since he sees the world only in how it relates to his needs and desires, he has little room to consider the interests of those around him. Trying to build a partnership with a narcissist is likely deeply unsatisfying, since narcissists do not see the intrinsic value of other people.
Another example of common empathy erosion occurs in people who hate particular groups, such as homosexuals or women. A man who hates women, for instance, fails to the see the individual behind a woman’s sex. Losing sight of the humanness of women, a misogynist may see a woman as a conquest and merely a tool for making himself feel better.
Not everyone who lacks affective empathy is as dangerous as Ariel Castro. There are people who ostensibly function in romantic relationships and yet do not really care about the feelings of their lovers. By nature, those who lack empathy do not relate to others as human beings. If you want healthy, rather than sick, romantic relationships, avoid people who don’t care about your feelings and and practice attending to the humanity of your partners.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2012. The Science of Evil: Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.
CNN Staff. 2013. “Three long-missing women freed in Cleveland: Latest developments”, CNN.