Are people who get visceral reactions to tragedy more empathetic?

Oct 23, 2013

Discussion by: InYourFaceNewYorker

When I hear about a tragedy on television– rape, murder, terrorist attack, etc.– I think, "Jeez, that's horrible!" But I do not get the kind of visceral reaction that some people do. My mother nearly cried when she found out about the 8-year-old "bride" in Yemen who was recently raped to death. My best friend sometimes cries about inexplicable acts of violence and literally loses sleep when these things happen. Both of these people have to turn away during certain disgusting or violent scenes in movies. 

Why is it that some people get visceral reactions to these things and others (like me) get largely intellectual reactions? Are the "visceral reaction people" necessarily any more empathetic than "intellectual reaction people"?

Let's discuss.


15 comments on “Are people who get visceral reactions to tragedy more empathetic?

  • 1
    Kim Probable says:

    I’ve kind of wondered about this too. When I was younger, I thought it odd that my mom would cry at movies all the time, while I was in the “it’s not real” camp and didn’t feel much of anything. My favorite movie was “Free Willy”, which would turn on the waterworks for my mom every time, though it didn’t do much for me. Now all I need is a sequence of killer whales doing anything set to music and the tears start (they’re my favorite animal, and I miss them, and so it triggers an emotional response).

    I do wonder if certain life experiences change a person, though. I couldn’t imagine what certain things felt like until I had to go through them myself. Now I know what real loss feels like, and I can imagine how I would feel in a certain situation, which evokes a much stronger emotional response. It may just be a matter of experience more than anything, at least for me. It was something I had to learn.

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  • We know that people react much more to the suffering of an individual than a group. Sam Harris elaborated on this in The Moral Landscape. I think part of it is you can deal with the suffering of one, but are overwhelmed by the suffering of a group. As a consultant to charities, I recommended they ask large donors for a sum to buy a particular thing, rather than just to donate to the generate pot. We raised at least double that way.

    I think I tend to empathise more than average and react with more emotion. Back in 1985 I sold everything I owned including my fully paid for 4-bedroom house to help with the Ethiopian famine. To me it was as if someone had left some Ethiopian babies on by doorstep. I had to stop everything until I got this handled. I felt a very strong sense of connection with suffering people in a documentary. They seemed to be calling out to me — “Help. Nobody else is going to help. It is up to you.”

    On the other hand, when I perceive people complaining out of an exaggerated sense of entitlement, or who have gone out of their way to feel insulted, I feel quite annoyed and wish I could kick them in the bum.

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  • 3
    steve_hopker says:

    You’re making a good point, Julie. I wonder if this because we get inured to bad news as we can be bombarded with it 24/7. Another reason may be psychological survival – to respond to each and every story admitting its full tragedy would be overwhelming – all those tragedies or injustices etc etc. I must admit to sometimes finding that films or live performance, novels or poems (ie fictions) can be more moving than real news items. However, I can get very angry over news stories – terrorism, rights abuses etc, to the extent of having trouble getting to sleep. (Actually, some of the things I read here can be very difficult not to get worked up over). While on the other maybe (good) artistic presentations hit home because they bring some originality ie tell what is usually an old story in a new and so unsettling way.

    Maybe people do vary in their reactions. I couldn’t with authority speculate as to why. But I think it might matter in that how such proneness or immunity to or fleeing from upset might affect what we do about the many problems around us. Yet, while deep indifference cannot lead to action, I’m not sure strong outward reactions are necessarily ‘good’ – eg maybe I flee rather than act. It might be those who are less visibly upset who actually get things done.

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  • I have a friend, a Phd, no less, in political economy, who is often reduced to a heaving, shivering, tear-jerking mess when watching a movie. In real life, though, she comes across as aloof and even uncaring at times. The make-belief world of movies seem to affect her more than the real world. Then again, she has worked in international aid agencies so maybe she has become blunted by reality.

    I remember crying at the end of Schindler’s List, when the Schindler character is going on about how many more he could have saved by selling his watch etc. Up until that point, I’d held my own pretty well. With age, I seem to be getting more emotional, even when I read a book of fiction; I allow myself to “feel the moment”, as it were. Paradoxically, like my friend above, I’m less emotional about things that happen in real life.

    I wonder whether people who work in high-trauma professions (soldiers, doctors and nurses, firemen, aid workers, psychiatrists etc) or have endured trauma themselves (rape or something like that), are less or more emotionally affected both in fictive situations (movies, books etc) and in real life.

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  • I suspect it’s related to the connectivity between the mirror neuron system and the rest of the brain, or possibly the mirror neuron count.

    I think visceral reactions can also be related to low openness. They are in response to the discomfort of unfamiliarity and alienness as well as being objection to unjust circumstances.

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  • I’m reading this book at the moment:

    ‘Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind’ by Ajit Varki , Danny Brower.

    The idea is that humans have evolved mental capabilities to decouple emotional responses to thoughts that otherwise might generate counter-productive consequences. A consequence of human-like intelligence is an overt awareness of death, particularly one’s own. Something that can interfere with routine life if it is too closely attached to automatic emotional responses.

    There may be a range of mental and cultural mechanisms for avoiding awareness of the reality of death or physical threats. Religion and its core idea of not dying being the main cultural mechanism.

    Empathy is a key mental aspect of self-awareness and theory of mind. But the more extensive this capability the more crucial it may be to avoid the emotional baggage that comes with the awareness of other’s and therefore one’s own mortality.

    Visceral people are therefore effectively more out of touch with reality because they are in too close emotional contact with reality. I.e. they have a defect in their ability to dissociate their awareness of pain and mortality in others and the implications for themselves. While more intellectually responsive people are more in touch with reality because they are better insulated from reality’s raw emotional impact.

    The authors propose a ‘denial’ mechanism as a possible reason why, so far, only modern humans appear to have evolved the kind of intelligence that we regard as human like. The idea being that if being very intelligent was a such a good thing in providing competitive selective advantage then why isn’t there more of it in appearing in other animals. The problem may be that self-awareness and theory of mind also implies a strong awareness of mortality. This acute awareness might otherwise be crippling as there are crucial trade-offs between risk and reward that living organisms must make. An organism that is too emotionally linked to avoiding mortal risks would end up gaining nothing in return for nothing being ventured. In particular such a highly intelligent organism might tend to be less successful in gaining viable descendents. So intelligent organisms without such emotional disengagement mechanisms would not tend to thrive.

    Humans being different to other animals not so much in pure mind-power or outright brain size but in having evolved the peculiar denial mechanisms that enable much greater social cooperation and communication that release the power of trade, comparative advantage, empathy, future planning etc. but without becoming suicidally depressed.

    There’s probably an entire hierarchy of layers of mirror neurons monitoring mirror neurons etc. that manages some of these processes.

    The core speculative idea is fairly simple but the book ranges very much further than just that concept – also covering various aspects of evolution of human traits etc.

    An aspect of this idea is that the difference between a good salesperson and a bad salesperson is that the good salesperson has probably been told to piss off more times than a bad salesperson, yet they keep doing it. Same for many people who are happily married with large families. What you don’t see are all the previous prospective partners who’ve dumped them because they didn’t measure up in some unmeasurable way. Fear of rejection or social ridicule is a major barrier to getting anything done. Things that get done tend to be produced by people who are better than average in setting aside their fearful emotions.

    Regarding emotional responses to movies there was an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine didn’t like the movie The English Patient. I can’t remember the details, but it might be worth revisiting. Plus there was a Larson cartoon about the ‘Didn’t Like Dances With Wolves Society’ aka DLDWWS.

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  • 7
    jagdpanther says:

    well, my mother lived just a few clicks away from the Norwegian government during the terror attack by ABB, and although i reacted with shock when my mother took a few seconds to pick up the phone, i took a purely intellectual approach to the terror attack afterwards. i am quite solidly anti-christian in my unbelieving, and my father and step-mother, who married in a christian fashion lately, take a far more… impressionistic approach to it. they have a strict moral code that says, free speech is good, freedom is good, honour is bad, forget all those times we have argued, there is nothing to learn from a discussion unless we are telling you something.

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  • 8
    jagdpanther says:

    In reply to #7 by jagdpanther:

    well, my mother lived just a few clicks away from the Norwegian government during the terror attack by ABB, and although i reacted with shock when my mother took a few seconds to pick up the phone, i took a purely intellectual approach to the terror attack afterwards. i am quite solidly anti-christi…
    i have sometimes reacted far more to movies than real life. i also cried at that part where schindler goes on and on about how many more he could have saved. i don’t think he mentioned his watch, though. if i remember correctly, he pointed at his badge, saying he could have saved two more for it.

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  • In reply to #6 by Pete H:

    “defect” seems like an unjustified value-judgement. Aren’t these better seen as alternatives strategies which will succeed and fail under differing circumstances?

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  • Another way of looking at it might be that more emotionally responsive people lack the required defect that otherwise impedes the potentially depressing emotional response resulting from possessing very efficient mirror neurons and the ability to strongly empathise with other animals. Perhaps it’s a loss of the efficiency of mirror neurons in particular situations, or something that triggers a failure of empathy to produce a similar outcome. Other options are that there is some kind of imaginative mental function that produces fantasies which displace and suppress or somehow over-ride the full awareness of the reality of an otherwise depressing situation.

    I don’t know if anyone has done any serious work on this. Perhaps the idea is too new, or perhaps it isn’t taken very seriously seeing as the authors are not directly involved in the relevant scientific fields.

    The ‘defect’ being some kind of genetic mutation or gene suppression that impacts on the organism’s structure or function. Most random mutations would likely be detrimental or neutral defects, resulting in a failure rather than the emergence of a superior capability. Sometimes a failure in one aspect of a complex system could lead to enhancing overall system performance as a consequence. E.g. Lactose tolerance in adults is a retained defect in the process that would otherwise ‘normally’ lead to suppression of the gene expression that results in lactase production. Humans acquiring lactose tolerance have actually failed to retain their normal lactose intolerance. Something which has only been relevant as a potential benefit in relatively recent human evolutionary history, where there is potential for selection pressure in animal farming communities.

    In reply to #9 by PERSON:

    In reply to #6 by Pete H:

    “defect” seems like an unjustified value-judgement. Aren’t these better seen as alternatives strategies which will succeed and fail under differing circumstances?

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  • 11
    crookedshoes says:

    This is a very personal discussion, as I think we all (humans in general) have our own “take” on it. I find, for me, that if the tragedy is in a familiar place or involves people that are like me in some way ( I mean like teachers or parents, not caucasian or Irish), I get closer to “tears” than if it is someone, some place, or even some time that I am not familiar with. I wouldn’t get emotional about something that occurred 50 years ago. I am more likely to identify with a current issue and in a familiar setting.

    My “choked up” switch is most likely thrown by a story that touches some nerve in me. I don’t know if this is typical or even shared by others, but in a very real and vulnerable way, this is what I find occurring when I watch the news and the days tragedies are paraded by me. I can find empathy with any race or gender or sexual orientation, but I choke up if the person involved has something in common with my everyday life. School shootings and their aftermath really hit me hard. Tragically, they seem to be escalating in their occurrence.

    Julie, this is an excellent topic and I look forward to reading others stories.

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  • 12
    thebluepill says:

    We empathise with others of the human race and sometimes of the animal kingdom in general. I cry sometimes when I see animals have suffered but I find it hard to empathise with people who are caught up in war. I feel nothing absolutely nothing when I hear about soldiers getting killed because thats their job, to fight and kill or fight and die. However if I read about a child who died after suffering some illness that also makes me very sad indeed. It’s just the context that tragedy is put in. I have no doubt that some people cry when they hear of people 6000 miles away being blown to bits in a war but I find that difficult to empathise with mainly because war is something I cant imagine being involved in and also for me I think my political views dont enable empathy or sympathy for those who stand in the way of the western forces. However when those soldiers died from dehydration while on training in the welsh mountains I did feel anger and did feel a great deal for their plight. Its all about context. I dare say that you are probably someone who doesnt care a great deal for people unless you have met them

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  • 15
    helicopterejectionseat says:

    I don’t think so. I used to have physical sensations of slight pain in my hands, feet, and groin when I would observe an open wound or see a painful accident. I think that pruning just hadn’t happened between my senses taking in data and the hypothalamus (or claudate nucleus-?) flooding my extremities with Substance P.

    It may be the same for people who have emotional or visceral reactions to learning of traumas. The only time I have ever cried at a real life situation was witnessing a ten year old boy on video executed by sniper fire while playing basketball with his friend in Bosnia. Simply because he was Muslim, or Christian. I couldn’t tell from his person.

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