Thursday, 21 April 2016

Empathizing and Systemizing - evolutionary paper pre-published and open for review

Those who are interested by the personality traits of Empathizing and Systemizing, as defined and elucidated by Simon Baron Cohen, may like to read and perhaps comment on a theoretical paper now online at The Winnower in a pre-archive version:


  1. I have serious problems with your two initial premises: (1) ancestral human hunter gatherers are assumed to be relatively High Empathizers, lower in Systemizing: thus more interested in people than in things; and (2) the ancestral human state was one of weak differentiation between men and women in the capacity for empathy, i.e., women's higher capacity for empathy is a derived state. In my opinion, the ancestral situation was actually the reverse.

    It's important here to be precise in our terminology. When we talk about "empathy" we often talk about three different mental traits:

    pro-social behaviour - willingness to help others through low-cost assistance: advice, conversation, a helping hand, etc. The logic is simple: give some help now and perhaps you'll receive a lot later from the grateful beneficiary. By the same logic, you may stop helping someone who seldom reciprocates. Although pro-social behaviour superficially resembles empathy in many respects, it is actually a very different mental trait.

    cognitive empathy - the ability to understand the emotional state of another person, i.e., whether that person is distressed, happy, etc.

    affective empathy - the ability and willingness to transfer this simulated emotional state of another person to oneself, i.e., to feel that person's pain. The desire to offer help is much more involuntary and impulsive than in the case of pro-social behaviour. Of the three forms of empathy, affective empathy seems to display the highest heritability.

    Pro-social behaviour is a human universal. Cognitive empathy is much less universal (beyond the relations between a mother and her children), and affective empathy even less so. I have written about this point at:

    There seems to have been a trend towards increasing empathy as ancestral humans moved out of Africa and into non-tropical latitudes. First, the ethnographic literature suggests that tropical hunter-gatherers and simple farmers (who probably most resemble the ancestral human state) display little empathy beyond the relations between a mother and her child.

    Second, we may have a genetic marker for this evolutionary trend in a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images. The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. It may be significant that a high incidence was found among the Shors of Siberia, who were largely hunter-gatherers until recent times. This suggests that empathy reached high levels in Eurasia long before the advent of complex societies, or even farming.

    For more on this point:

    In sum, the data, though incomplete, point to the opposite of what you have proposed. It looks like empathy was largely confined in the ancestral state to the relations between a mother and her children. This mental trait has been extended, to varying degrees and in various human populations, to other human relations. This extension of empathy seems to have been highest in northwest Europeans, to the west and north of the Hajnal line and, as such, may be one of several adaptations to a social environment of weaker kinship ties, the other adaptations being a greater capacity for guilt proneness and a greater tendency to frame social rules in terms of moral universalism and moral absolutism.

  2. @Peter - It may be that we are talking about different things altogether - you are discussing the 'average level' of empathizing (using a *somewhat* different definition/ understanding than us) while we are discussing the average 'balance' between empathizing and systemizing.

    By analogy with general intelligence g - it is as if you are discussing the average g in populations throughout evolutionary history, while we are discussing sex differentials in g throughout history.

    This is perhaps why our paper focuses on systemizing trait, while you don't really mention it!

    Maybe there is a complementarity here? At least, both *could* be true.