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I Got a Letter: Something You Might not Know about Empathy and Choice

Posted Nov 12 2012 3:42pm

I can’t remember the last time I received a paper letter in the mail but, sure enough, last week I had a small, two-page missive waiting for me at my office. Here is the text (it will make more sense to you if you’ve read my book but, if not, the character mentioned below is a woman who was raped and was discussed in a chapter on PTSD):

Dear Dr. Dobrenski,

I just finished reading your fascinating book, Crazy. With regard to your report about Deb, I agree with you. Just because a person dresses like a whore and acts like a whore does not give anyone the “right” to treat her like a whore (editor’s note: at no point do I refer to Deb as a whore). But, Deb describes in detail how she dressed specifically to be provocative, “in a way to make him want me,” and that “I should give him a taste of what he could have if he played his cards right.” “We flirted throughout the whole night. I knew where I was going, at least in terms of what he wanted.” Your response: “you made choices that were not sound. Those choices put you in a bad position.” Then Deb says, “He is solely responsible for the outcome that occurred.”

I beg to disagree. Your client was equally responsible and calling her behavior unsound choices in no way helps her to make better choices in the future. She “assigned the blame where it needed to be.” I doubt that because nowhere in that chapter was she made to understand the consequences of her behavior. In fact, in sounds like she just went along her merry way, perhaps having learned how to figure out which men were trustworthy.

Let’s look at this in another way. A person drives up to railroad tracks. Bells and whistles indicate that a train is approaching. However, he is certain that he can beat the train and attempts to drive across the tracks. He gets stuck on the tracks and is mowed down. So, who is responsible? According to what I gleaned from your book, the driver’s death was the fault of the conductor who was unable to stop on time. I don’t think so!


Let’s ignore the obvious errors in logic – for example, the idea that being raped and having PTSD aren’t consequences and that an accidental death on railroad tracks is the same as an active decision to stick your dick into a person who doesn’t want you to – and focus on a more important aspect of human nature. Namely, and this is clearly demonstrated in this woman’s letter, that when people know you’ve made choices, they become less empathic. This might be obvious to you. But you should also know that when people (and the research on this suggests this could be an American-specific phenomenon) even consider the notion of choice, their empathy decreases . If you don’t feel like reading the entire article, know that this lack of empathy extends beyond individuals to social programs. So if someone focuses on you making even the most benign choices, such as whether you pick up a fork or knife first, he/she is more likely to reject programs that create greater equality and benefits for society. He/she is also more likely to blame people for bringing bad things upon themselves, such as health problems or job loss.

Is it any wonder, then, that this woman was less than empathic to Deb? Of course not, she hyper-focused on the choices that Deb made, not the circumstances or the guy. The bizarre logical and analogies simply serve to support that position. The author of the study mentioned above, Krishna Savani, wonders if the extensive set of choices Americans have might have a cumulative negative impact by making people less sympathetic towards others and less concerned about the collective good. Not to end this point with a specific goal of making it political, but if you watched even a small fraction of this most recent election, I’m sure you’d agree that he’s right to consider that.

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