Introducing The Dark Side — What Happens with a Lack of Empathy?


Friend Doug Bostrom, on the newly formed Cramer Rapids, Salmon River, Idaho

“You underestimate the power of the Dark Side”  Darth Vader

If you’ve been working for a while, in a modestly less ideal environment that I’ve described in the previous post, I’m sure a lot of this regarding empathy and empathetic development seems pie-in-the-sky.  There are whole classes of businesses that exist where empathy hardly matters.  The majority of academics, for example, aren’t even aware of the role of empathy — and are likely to criticize, or just flat-out ignore its importance.  Even the best of them — folks actually doing empathy research — don’t really have a good grasp on how connection evolves.  Franz de Waal’s book on The Age of Empathy, has the bottom three levels of the empathy pyramid I’ve discussed (that I didn’t pick up on the first reading!) but there’s not a whole lot out there besides that.

But there are worse things than academic hierarchies and a lack of evolutionary understanding.  And these also can manifest themselves on high performance teams.  That is the world of the empathy-disordered — a relatively unexplored space.

There has been a fair amount of diagnostic work on personality, or empathy disorders, with psychologists mostly characterizing surface-level traits of pathological individuals.  For those interested, the digested results are listed in the DSM V, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders.  For those not in the know, the DSM is the manual psychologists use to bill insurance companies — and that’s important to remember.  The names may be familiar to some of this blog’s readers — Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, and a bunch more.  The reality is that there are no clear cut lines between many of these, and psychologists, arranged in their professional Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies, tend to be categorizers who argue all the time about which is what, and so on.  Synergies be damned!

The key here, which should not be surprising to anyone who reads this blog regularly, is that there is even less research on how such people interact in networks.  And managing their effects in networks is really the crux of it, as aside from a couple of potentials, there are really no good set of  treatments for the individuals.  They wreak havoc in relational systems, and many a successful organization has been upended by these personalities.  Or taken over by them.  It’s hard to argue that many of the leading bankers in the world are NOT empathy-disordered.  Yet they are hugely successful, at least financially — at least in the short term.

To understand exactly how they work, though, it is useful to consider a very organic model of empathy — a more functional concept.  I particularly like the metaphor of empathy as an active radar system.

Here’s the basics.  In order to create empathy and connection, every person’s brain is equipped with an Empathy Detector, and an Empathy Processor.  What these are, biologically, still remain poorly mapped.  In the context of the v-Meme medical researchers have, (fragmented, disconnected analysis arising from the hierarchical social structure!) neuroscientists have used fMRI research to pinpoint the exact spot on the brain they think empathy is centered — the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex.  And while this area may be critical, it’s by no means the only spot the brain uses to process empathy.

The Empathy Detector reads whatever the cues are that are being given off in an exchange with another sentient actor.  After these cues are received, they are then processed by the Empathy Processing centers in that person’s brain.  What a person will do, given a set of information, is highly variable.  It certainly is going to depend on dominant v-Meme level of the individual, Principle of Reinforcement and cultural sidebars, as well as the core biological response of the person.

Biologically queued empathy, likely best represented by mirroring behavior, has been around for a long time, and serves as the core of coordinating physical interaction.  It probably dates back to the Silurian, when ancient fish used to school for protection for the first time.  Below is a picture of Velociraptors, using mirroring behavior to corner a Diabloceratops.


Istockphoto — Velociraptors and Diabloceratops

Humans, as coordinating mesoscale hunters, also have hard-wired neural systems for coordinated empathetic response.  The vagus nerve, for example, connects the stomach to the lower jaw.  You can, if you can see someone’s face, get in essence a whole-body health reading on them at that moment.  Pretty handy if you’re trying to manage a group hunting a wooly mammoth.  You can tell pretty quickly who ought to be throwing the spear, and who’s just having a bad day.

Though everyone obviously has a range of both empathetic detection, and empathetic processing, two groups stand out as having more profound issues — people who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and those that have personality, or empathy disorders.

In the case of ASD, it’s bad detector.  There’s nothing wrong with the processor, once the empathetic information gets through — and one of the things that I’ve noticed, teaching and interacting with engineering students, is that in a population where ASD is likely more well-represented, once social behaviors are learned, they are acted on.  Empathy, not surprisingly, re-routes itself out of the more instantaneous centers that may not work so well, to other, more promising brain real estate.  The bottom line is that while certain people with ASD may be not so quick on the uptake, once they figure it out, they do fine.  The short version is that they are capable of appropriate empathetic response.

The other side of this is the Dark Side.  These are people that have empathy problems, but their problem is not so much in the detector.  Their detector is just fine — in fact, I will argue a little later that their detector is far above average, for many of the most effective ones.  Their disorder is in the processor — how they respond when given a situation that one might expect kindness or compassion.  Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, that’s Sasha Baron-Cohen’s, the famous actor’s, brother) as head of neuroscience at Cambridge, and a specialist in Autism, separates these two things slightly differently, but with the same effect.  He calls the two sides of this problem 0+ (ASD) and 0- (empathy disorder or deficit).  The video below is well worth the watch.

How to understand this from the Empathy Pyramid?  Let’s pull up a picture again.

Empathy Slide

Essentially, for reasons we’ll discuss, the personality disordered crowd mostly live in the hard-wired world of mirroring behaviors.  When it comes to displaying emotional empathy, or higher forms, there is a level of volition in response that most of us don’t have.  They can, as they see fit, turn that part on or off.  Maybe.  It’s not clear.  It’s so converse to the way humans in systems work, it’s really hard to understand how much independent agency they actually have.

Jumping to the punchline, what I’ve seen among the personality-disordered, or really what Bill Eddy calls High Conflict Personalities, is that they exist in a world of what I call Collapsed Egocentricism — the only v-Meme they really know is a virulent form of Authoritarianism.  This is usually coupled, among the high-functioning ones we have to deal with at work (the low-functioning ones often end up in jail, where most of the studies have been done — not very useful!) with a kind of Super Radar that enables them to detect others’ moods and predilections.  They then engage in what I call v-Meme Borrowing — borrowing from others’ dominant influential patterns — to make their points, which inevitably they distort to establish control and personal benefit for themselves.

How do they act in a network?  The best way to understand them is akin to a splinter in the palm of someone’s hand.  When the splinter is in the palm, the hand swells — it appears that the whole system has problems.  But when the splinter is withdrawn, the hand very quickly returns to normal.

We’ll unpack how these individuals work in the next couple of posts.  There’s really no way to avoid talking about them — no matter how unpleasant.  Bill Eddy has made the point that the NIH has said approximately 14-17% of the population has some characteristics of High Conflict Personalities.  You can’t get away from them.  So you have to learn their effects, and how to deal with them.

Takeaways:  Personality, or empathy-disordered individuals are not well understood as individuals, regarding their various personal motivators.  But they are even less understood in how they act in relational networks.  And that is the main concern we will attempt to address.  We’ll leave the more complex individual analysis to the psychologists.

Further reading/watching:  There is no better expose’ of the various relational manipulations than Christopher Nolan’s movie, The Dark Knight, and the portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger.  Highly recommended for a pre-watch — we’ll be revisiting the Joker’s character for understanding in depth the modalities present in High Conflict individuals.

3 thoughts on “Introducing The Dark Side — What Happens with a Lack of Empathy?

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