Extraordinary Empathy

with Abigail Marsh

Are some people more empathetic than others? By studying those on the opposite end of the compassion spectrum–those with psychopathy–researcher Dr. Abigail Marsh discovered something surprising.




Abigail Marsh

Abigail Marsh is a psychologist and neuroscientist who works as a professor  at Georgetown University. Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy. Her work on neural and cognitive correlates of extraordinary altruism was awarded the Cozzarelli Prize by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is the author of The Fear Factor and Good for Nothing.

Show Notes

Watch Abigail’s amazing TedTalk here. You can also follow Abigail on Twitter. And you can find Abigail’s book, Good For Nothing: Understanding Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everything in Between here and her book The Fear Factor, here.

Learn more about Abigail Marsh and her work on her website.

If you’re interested in learning more about the selfish gene, you can find Richard Dawkin’s book by the same name here.

The New York Times wrote this beautiful piece on Cory Booker and the fear he felt when saving his neighbor from a house fire and at other key moments in his life.

If you haven’t listened to my episode with Anthony Ray Hinton yet, take some time and listen to it next. You can find the episode here.

Watch the rubber hand illusion in action, here.

A long time ago, I talked with Andrew Solomon about the way that children’s behaviors cost their parents. If today’s conversation piqued an interest in this topic for you, you can listen to Andrew and my episode here.

Wajahat Ali’s story is the perfect example of the kind of altruism that Abigail describes. Listen to Wajahat’s episode of Everything Happens, here.

Learn more about Abigail’s new research lab The Laboratory on Social & Affective Neuroscience. https://abigailmarsh.com/lab/

Here is a recent podcast on psychopathy from Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert in the episode with Patric Gagne (on sociopathy).

Discussion Questions

1. Psychologist Abigail Marsh is both a recipient of and expert in extraordinary altruism. In other words, she’s well-versed in people who put their life on the line for others when it doesn’t serve them, genetically or socially. What’s the most extraordinary example of extraordinary altruism you’ve ever experienced?

2. Research suggests that we’re more likely to help those who we’re related to or in close proximity to. But the question of where our body ends and another’s begins—is not so clear. (Remember the rubber hand experiment.) Have you ever felt someone else to be an extension of your own “me-ness?” Was that someone else a loved one, a stranger, a community? What does this suggest about your capacity for empathy?

3. “Most people,” Dr. Marsh thinks, “have the capacity to develop these really strong, empathic feelings for people who are very different from themselves if they are in the right frame of mind.” What do you think she means by “the right frame of mind” and what practices help get you/us there?

4. Marsh has also studied the flip side of empathy: psychopathy. But instead of feeling depressed by the research, she says it’s been reassuring to realize that selfishness is not normal. There’s a range of compassion and most of us are very capable of caring for others. What reassures you about being on a spectrum of altruism?

5. One of the common misconceptions about psychopathy and other psychological disorders is that they’re a result of bad parenting (and, more specifically, Mom’s parenting). Why do you think this cause and effect has been so compelling to people for so long? Why do you think it’s more useful to think about these disorders through a disease model rather than a moral model?

6. Marsh found that the best predictor of empathy in the lab was how well someone could recognize fear in others. Does this finding surprise you? How could it reorient your relationship to fear in others—or in yourself? How could it reorient your relationship to courage in others—or in yourself?

7. “There’s this weird belief out there that to be virtuous, you have to not feel fear,” Dr. Marsh observes. But real virtue is knowing when fear is less important than serving a higher purpose. (Thanks, Aristotle.) Who do you know that lives with this kind of both/and fear and love?

8. A lot of the extraordinary organ donors Dr. Marsh has interviewed insist “I’m not that special”—even though there’s some research on their amygdalae that would suggest otherwise. They seemed to believe that belonging to each other beyond biology or proximity was just something intrinsic to all of humanity. Does their perspective inspire you to live larger? In what way? Be specific, if you can.

9. The thing that gives Dr. Marsh the most optimism about her work is the notion that “helping each other is a self-reinforcing process.” This isn’t exactly selfish. It’s just how altruism works. Bringing other people joy is more satisfying than drawing resources to yourself. What does knowing this give you permission to pursue, “selfishly and beautifully”?

10. “We can all develop a bit more compassion for people who are dissimilar from us, to see people expressing fear or distress and move toward them,” Kate reflects. So, who will you move toward today?

Bonus: After listening to this week’s podcast, what part of Kate & Dr. Marsh’s conversation resonated with you most? What insight will you carry with you?

Discussion Questions written by author, editor, and facilitator Erin S. Lane.


Kate Bowler: Would you give an internal organ to a total stranger? How about run into a burning building to save someone you don’t even know? If you saw someone on the side of the road and they looked like they really needed help? Would you stop? This is Everything Happens: The Summer Edition. And I’m your host, Kate Bowler. Some people go to incredible lengths to help strangers. Today’s guest learned this firsthand when she was in a car accident during college. A man she didn’t know came to her rescue, putting himself at risk to make sure that she was moved to safety. And she never even got his name. Never had a chance to thank him. This isn’t just empathy. That is extraordinary altruism. So what makes a person risk their own well-being for someone else? My guest today has been asking that question for a long time. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Abigail Marsh. She is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Georgetown University. She received her PhD from Harvard and did post-doc research at the National Institutes of Health. Which is to say, she’s amazing and I’m so grateful to be speaking to a fellow nerd today, and she has a spectacular TEDx talk that you just have to watch. We will put a link to it in today’s show notes at KateBowler.com. She is the author of the book The Fear Factor, where she studies people who show intense altruism and the people who have no empathy whatsoever. And today we’ll be talking about both. So this episode originally aired a few years ago, so you’ll hear a reference to people working on the frontlines of Covid. But I promise it is one of my absolute favorites and well worth listening to now. And, you’ll get a chance to hear an update from Abby at the end and what she’s working on. Trust me, it is so cool and has amazing implications for parents and all those trying to be around and support people with limited empathy. So be sure to listen all the way through to get those fun updates at the end. Thank you so much for being here, Abby.

Abigail Marsh: Thank you for a very nice introduction.

Kate: Well, I believe all of it. I was so struck by your intense and beautiful curiosity about what makes people incredibly altruistic. As you describe, it’s not uncommon to want to help people you’re close to, or when there’s an assumption that you’re going to take care of each other like neighbors. You’ve got great language for how we think about what we expect from people. Could you walk me through that a little bit?

Abigail: Yeah, sure. The question of why people would ever help other people has been niggling at scientists for a long time, and philosophers and all sorts of people, because it seems to fly in the face of the things we, quote, “know” about human nature, that it’s inherently selfish, you know, the good old selfish gene, which gets misread so terribly. And, you know, the idea of nature read in tooth and claw and, nature as being this inherently sort of selfishness, rewarding mechanism. And so there have been efforts over the years to kind of carve away at the different kinds of reasons that we might help other people or other organisms. That are scientifically explicable, and some of the best known reasons are, one of them is what’s called kin selection. And this is what the selfish gene was really getting at, is that we, you know, it’s to our benefit to help those who are genetically related to us. Not our personal benefit, but the benefit of our genes. And the idea is that evolution acts on the level of the gene, it makes sense that we would have been selected to invest in those who share our genes to maximize the odds that our genes will make it into future generations. And then another really well-known mechanism that operates all throughout the animal kingdom, including in every human culture in the world is, reciprocal altruism, which just means helping people who’ve helped you in the past and who you anticipate may help you in the future. Just cooperation that’s happening over time. And we know, you know, this sort of thing happens all the time, that people sacrifice their own short term resources to help others. And then those other people are indebted to you or obligated to you, or just grateful to you and are more likely to help you the next time around. And this is I mean, that sort of stuff makes the world go round. I suppose it is selfish and one way of looking at it, but it is also pro-social, right? It’s a very positive social behavior.

Kate: Going back to the, the, the likeness piece, the idea that we’re more likely to be kind to those who look the same, we have proximity to it seems like there’s real data to suggest that we’re even more likely to help people when we can physically see them, as opposed to like behind a wall. We have this amazing guest on the podcast, Anthony Ray Hinton, who was unjustly convicted and on death row. And he has this amazing story where he developed incredible compassion for a prisoner he couldn’t physically see through a prisoner wall and who was in fact a Klan member. So I kept thinking of him. In reading your work, why is someone like that so extraordinary?

Abigail: Well I just got goosebumps from that story, that’s a great one. Yeah. So this gets to a puzzle that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately, which is how is it that our brain knows where our body ends and the rest of the world began? Our brains don’t assume that we end at the at the barrier of our skin, you know? And there’s all sorts of interesting ways we know this. We know, for example, that when people, use a tool, for example, if you’re, you know, if you’re using a long pole to, to do some sort of a task, your brain understands that tool as sort of your collaborator, and it starts remodeling your brain to incorporate that tool as though it’s an extension of your own body.

Kate: Oh my gosh.

Abigail: Your motor cortex starts to change so that it understands you as ending at the end of that tool instead of, and your brain does this really quickly. And we know it doe this with people, too. So there’s a famous thing called rubber hand illusion where you show somebody and you position this rubber hand. It doesn’t even look that realistic. And then they put their own hand under the table, and then some poor research assistant has to stroke the rubber hand and the person’s own hand with a little bit of a paintbrush in perfect synchrony so that you’re feeling the sensation on your own hand and seeing it on the rubber hand. And in most people you get a very quick, illusion that happens where the rubber hand, you start to feel like it’s your own. And you know, weird things happen to the biology of your own arm, like your body starts like, like rejecting it, but your it will drop in your own arm, like you’re. weird immune changes happen. And your body’s like, well, guess this is my new arm. And you’ll, you know, you’ll you’ll have really strong emotional reactions if somebody moves to, like, hit the rubber arm with a hammer.

Kate: Oh no. I love this. I love this study so much already.

Abigail: I love it so much. I just I find it such an interesting study. And so your body is constantly trying to figure out like who’s me and who’s not me. And I think something that’s really interesting about humans and it’s it’s really intrinsic to our being so social is, our our brains are kind of like, come one, come all!  like, I am perfectly willing to think about having a wider identity than just the boundaries of my own skin. And that is what it means. To have a close bond with another person is like, they are really a part of you.

Kate: Yeah.

Abigail: And you know, your brain has, has, has broadened the boundaries of you to incorporate that person into your identity. And so it makes perfect sense that we can do that more easily for people who we know very well. You know, we know them so well that I mean, you know, I feel this way about my husband. Like she just feels like a part of myself now, you know? Like twins, of course, feel this way. But even people who were just sort of similar to us, we get them. We can predict what they’re going to do. We understand them, we can sort of imagine the experiences they’re having, all that if it goes to your brain is like, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, this is like me, this is a little bit of me-ness. And all sorts of interesting social, phenomena are designed to promote that feeling. So, for example, when people are dancing together, when they’re singing together, when you’re behaving in unison with other people, it sort of promotes that feeling of we’re all part of one entity.

Kate: Yes, yes, yes, that makes sense. I love, too the Valentine’s Day cards that could be an extension of this, like you are my rubber hand. Or, when I see you I see a very close approximation of myself. But out in the world. That is amazing because I, you know, we talk a lot here about interdependence and what makes this beautiful, porousness between us and and like, the work of empathy, right, that like that that seems to fill up the space and what you’re describing, too just neurologically, it’s kind of wonderful that our selves are not maybe as contained as we imagine.

Abigail: Exactly. And it’s, you know, it’s a nice it kind of makes you feel a little less lonely. But what’s neat is that even though, yes, it is easier for us to have these strong sort of empathic, experiences with people who are more familiar or more similar to ourselves, it’s not limited to that. And many people, I would say most people certainly have the capacity to develop these really strong empathic feelings for people who are very different from themselves if they are in the right sort of frame of mind. Like, you know, the, these two prisoners, you talk about who, you know, very different people, obviously, but something about maybe sharing that situation that they were in and that long period of familiarity, it, you know, it might forge a willingness to, to see, you know, where there might be a common core of humanity that we share.

Kate: Yeah. One of the things he described was a desire, like a deep desire for freedom. And that because he was, of course, on death row in tiny, squalid quarters, that by the work of of accepting other people’s burdens as his own, he felt…he felt freer. And it just I, I imagine that there’s something very powerful that happens when we, when we stop, I don’t know, when we just find different ways around our, our rabid individualism. Which I am for.

Abigail: Certainly true that most people report, you know, a stronger sense of well-being when they feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves, when they feel a sense of purpose attached to something beyond their own immediate self-interest.

Kate: We’re going to take a quick break to tell you about all the sponsors of Everything Happens. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back.

Kate: So you became so curious about the kind of empathy that may have stumped Charles Darwin, like things that seem to go against the laws of nature, that people are primarily self-interested. What makes that kind of altruism so extraordinary?

Abigail: The kind of altruism I am most interested in is when people take extreme measures to help strangers in particular. And that’s interesting because you can’t explain it according to either kin selection or reciprocal altruism. It doesn’t fit into either one of those models. And it happens, like, we know what happens. It happened to me, it happens to lots of people. So it needs an explanation. And I just found myself unsatisfied with some of the other going explanations out there, like people who help strangers are, you know, without fear. They just they just don’t recognize risk because that’s not what you hear. And the narratives told by many heroic rescuers. I love the story of Cory Booker, for example. He’s one of my favorite real-life heroic rescuers. He was terrified the entire time. He was running through a burning house to save his neighbor from dying in a fire.

Kate: Oh my gosh.

Abigail: He came up with, like, nine different ways in interviews to talk about how terrified he was, but he did it anyway. That’s, to me, the most amazing thing about real heroes is that they are scared and they are brave at the same time, and that that’s real virtue. And to me, trying to understand where that comes from is the really interesting mystery.

Kate: Yeah. You’re describing such ancient questions, which I love, right? This very age old debate about how good or how evil we truly are. I’m a professor of Christian history, and so we have these ongoing debates about what we call, this will all sound familiar to you, but high or low anthropology. Right? Like inn a high anthropology, and this is also the anthropology of self-help, too, which is that you can teach people to do almost anything that they can put their minds to. Being better is about education and progress. And then in low anthropology, they teach that people are basically terrible and that we all need saving. What kind of anthropology does your work suggest?

Abigail: I really feel like an important component of my work is that I don’t ignore either end of the spectrum. I, you know, the research I do on altruism, a really important part of my sort of understanding of altruism derives from the fact that I that in my postdoctoral work, I studied people who are the opposite of altruistic, who are psychopathic, who do not care about other people, and they really don’t. I think there’s a sort of a common myth of about psychopathy, that people who are psychopathic are sort of really hurting inside and have a lot of, you know, really a lot of self-loathing, maybe due to prior trauma abuse, and if you just work through that, there would be a kind, compassionate person underneath. Now that is something that can happen. There are, you know, many people for whom that’s exactly what their deal is. They are hurting and there’s a lot of self-loathing due to abuse or trauma. And if you work through that, a kind person is there underneath. I’ve met many people like that. That’s not psychopathy. Psychopathy does not result from abuse or trauma. That’s that’s other problems result from abuse and trauma. It’s a, you know, it’s a personality disorder that’s associated with really not caring about other people. Like you care about yourself in this present moment. And that’s it. Yeah. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are there are differences in how much people care about others. And there are some people in the world who really don’t care about other people. And that exists. And I and I think it doesn’t do any good to pretend that it doesn’t. But the flip side of it, because people say, oh isn’t so depressing to research psychopathy and like it’s the opposite, because what it has convinced me of is how not normal selfishness is. If everybody was selfish, like some economists still insist is true, then there would be no such thing as somebody who is psychopathic. That would just be a normal person. But the fact that people are psychopathic are so different. I mean, and I should also mention that the average person who psychopathic is not like a Ted Bundy murderer and that, you know, many people are psychopathic, aren’t even violent. They’re just terribly callous and manipulative and narcissistic and deceitful. And that’s not normal. And how like, what a beautiful thing that is, that actually the average person is, is very capable of caring about others and that there’s a spectrum so that, you know, we’ve got on the very low end, we have people who are psychopathic, who are pretty rare. We’ve got most of us who are in the middle, who are pretty compassionate and could always become more so. But then at the high end, we have some people who are really unusually caring and compassionate, who really are sort of, you know, moral exemplars that we can all look to for inspiration.

Kate: We’re going to take a quick break to tell you about all the sponsors of Everything Happens. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back.

Kate: I was so struck by this research that you’re describing the your work interviewing kids who displayed this psychopathic behavior. One of the things we’ve talked about with with guests like Andrew Solomon is, is the cost to parents who are who are not sure how to how to manage the narrative that we have that, that, that kids with behavioral issues inherently must have abusive parents, or that… And so the social cost of of managing these kids and their very troubling lack of like social connect with others.

Abigail: It’s so hard. The people that actually do make me feel the most sort of suffering when I work with kids, with psychopathy is their parents. Because, you know, once upon a time, I don’t know how familiar with us most people are, you know, some of the earliest psychological disorders to really be, formally identified were disorders like schizophrenia and which emerge in adolescence usually. I mean, signs of it tend to appear in the teenage years. And then it, you know, comes into sort of full expression in the late teens, early 20s. And, you know, low and behold, psychology was very Freudian at the time. Like, what did people attributes, schizophrenia to at the time? Moms. You know, there was a, there’s a word called the schizophrenogenic mother, the mom who made her kids schizophrenic. Well, you know, like, a little time goes by, we do a little more research on schizophrenia. It’s like, well, that’s not at all what causes schizophrenia. Certainly there are better and worse parents and parenting styles that can result in better outcomes for people with schizophrenia, but parenting does not cause schizophrenia. And I think everybody agrees for that now. Yeah, not too long after that, autism becomes identified and people, you know, formalize the definition of autism. And, you know, we’re interested in what causes it. And as you probably know, well, we blamed the refrigerator mother. Moms again. Well, maybe they’re not schizophrenia, but they do have that. Of course they don’t. Right. And as time goes on and more science has been done, like, okay, you know what autism is? It is in our logical is. Right. Well, it’s psychological disorder. But there’s not an appreciable difference between the two. And we know what causes it. And it’s not bad parenting. Again, there are very effective parenting techniques that can help kids with autism have better outcomes, but it’s not caused by parenting. And substance abuse has followed a sort of similar trajectory more recently, where I think people are understanding a little more as it is that at least it’s more useful to think about it through a disease model than through a sort of bad moral sort of a brain model. And I hope that with psychopathy, people will get to the place that they understand that the same thing is true, that parents do not cause psychopathy in their kids. They don’t. And there are, you know, there are better and worse parents in the world. And, you know, the parents can do to lead to better outcomes with their kids who have psychopathy, but they do not make their kids psychopathic. And many really wonderful parents end up with psychopathic kids. Anyway, I feel so much compassion for the parents I’ve worked for. Who who’s they feel so much shame and so much trauma on top of how difficult their kids are, because people blame them for the way their kids turn out. It’s just not right.

Kate: Yes. That’s right. That connection that you describe between fear and empathy, I think, would be so helpful for people in this very self-help culture. People are always trying to make fear the enemy, like, you just have to overcome your feelings. You’re supposed to manage your responses all the time with Zen-like clarity. But your research found a very positive result of fear when it comes to empathy. What was it?

Abigail: There’s this really interesting relationship between fear and empathy, and this is something that I first started picking up on when I was a graduate student and found a little bit serendipitously, in some of my early studies that when I was looking for, predictors of individual variation in empathy, so, how caring people were in response to other people suffering. The best predictor I was able to find in the lab was how well people could recognize when other people were afraid. Fear is not that easy an expression for people to recognize in general, it gets confused a lot with surprise and sometimes anger, if I show them a bunch of facial expressions and ask them just to come up with the best label for each one. And the people who were the most altruistic, according to lots of different ways of measuring altruism, giving money or voluntary time to help somebody or, you know, even just being nice, when given the opportunity, when they especially looked at the fearful facial expressions, they were much more likely to be accurate and recognize that. And that was such a weird finding. But then I found this whole body research that was done by the person who would become my postdoctoral advisor, that people who were psychopathic are really bad at recognizing fear. Like, really bad at recognizing fear. And it’s like, oh, this is so making sense, you know, and it’s it’s all fitting together. And we think that a major reason that the, the, the two things go together is partly because the ability to recognize the way somebody else is feeling is a fundamentally empathic process. And people who are psychopathic are notoriously fearless. They often I mean, I’ve worked with kids who were psychopathic who say they’ve never felt afraid of anything. And you don’t. Kids don’t say that normally. And then if you if you really don’t know what it means to feel afraid, like, for example, I really famous psychopathy researcher, Bob Hare, was once interviewing a psychopathic sex offender in Canada, as it turned out.

Kate: Thank you for that shout out to my home and native land. You’re, like, “In Canada, actually. If you might know him.”

Abigail: And, he was asked whether he empathized with his victims. Right? Because you would think, why wouldn’t their their suffering and distress stop you? And he said, well you know you know they’re frightened, right, you see, but I don’t really understand what the big deal is. I’ve been afraid myself and it wasn’t unpleasant. You’re sort of missing the point of fear, that’s exactly what fear is, it’s unpleasant. And if you if you really don’t understand that feeling afraid is a very distressing and pleasant way to feel, why would you be motivated not to make somebody feel that way? And so as a result, people who are psychopathic, really struggle to even recognize when somebody else is afraid because it’s just, it doesn’t even click. It’s almost like they’re colorblind. I mean, I have one more story where I have a colleague who is testing, psychopathic offenders in a prison in England, and we’re showing them all the same faces that I would show my subjects and the U.S. and, the people who were psychopathic did really bad recognizing the fear. One of the offenders missed every single fearful expression, which is, that’s pretty bad, even for somebody psycopathic. He knew he was doing badly because he got to the very last fearful expression in the set, he said, oh, I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know that’s what people look like right before you stab them.

Kate: Okay.

Abigail: Right? I mean, that’s intene. So he’s like, oh yeah, I’ve seen that face before. And I even then I’ve seen it when people believe that they were about to be severely hurt or killed. I mean, imagine the mind that couldn’t come up with the feeling that accompanies it, right? I mean, that’s a real, I mean, that’s a disability. It really is.

Kate: Yeah. That’s right.

Abigail: And so it appears to be the case that being able to empathize with other people’s fear, in particular, is just a really powerful marker for your likelihood of experiencing compassion when other people are experiencing fear or other kinds of distress that are related to fear, like sadness or pain or suffering.

Kate: That has got to be very comforting for all the people out there right now who are on the frontlines of COVID doing difficult, emotionally, physically costly jobs to say, man, I am allowed to be afraid. I just happened to be moving toward the fear.

Abigail: Right? Well, there’s this weird belief out there that that to be virtuous, you have to not feel fear. And it’s like, no, no, no, like you should fear. Fear is an important messenger. You shouldn’t assume it’s the truth, right? Because we you know, everybody knows people and most of us have fears of things that are not really rational, but it’s a really important messenger and what it means to be courageous. And we’ve known this since Aristotle, is knowing when the fear is less important than something that is a higher purpose.

Kate: I love when you describe, the extremely altruistic. You describe them as a super recognizers. Why did you pick that term? It’s perfect.

Abigail: Well, you know, the people I’ve studied who, are the some of the most altruistic people that I, or I think most people can think of are people who donate kidneys to strangers. I thought for a while about who, you know, what’s the sort of most extraordinary form of altruism that I could think of that was it being a good candidate for being on the opposite end of this caring continuum from people who were psychopathic and altruistic kidney donors, to me, seemed like a perfect candidate. They have decided to give up a vital organ to save a stranger.

Kate: So a friend of mine, was Wajahat Ali.

Abigail: Oh, yeah.

Kate: Yeah, so his daughter Nusayba, she needed a living liver donor, and and this complete stranger stepped up, and he said that when this adorable stranger woke up from the surgery, he turned to his nurse, and he said, I just want to know, like it was not, “When will I be able to get back to work? Or when can I do whatever?” He was like, “When will I be able to give blood again?”

Abigail: Oh, beautiful.

Kate: So, what? Why? Explain this man, you’re Researcher Gan.

Abigail: Yeah, I actually have, I’ve corresponded with that donor, and he’s a lovely person.

Kate: Oh, wow.

Abigail: I always try to emphasize how much I respect and value the opinion of people who are altruistic organ donors, liver or kidney, who very much believe that they are normal people, there’s nothing special about them. And yet the research that we’ve done suggests that that’s not true, that there there is something. You know, the easiest way to understand the mind-brain relationship is that the mind is what the brain does. And so any difference in a mind reflects some difference in the brain, whether or not we can actually measure it. And so people who make a decision that’s very unusual, that’s very atypical for the average person, there probably is something different about their brain. And what we have found in the brain imaging research that I’ve done with altruistic kidney donors is that their brains basically look the opposite of psychopathic brains, in addition to their behavior looking the opposite of people who are psychopathic. They’re better at recognizing other people’s fear than the average person. And not better recognizing everything. So this is a really important thing to know about empathy, is that empathy for different states relies on different mechanisms. And so people who are very altruistic, are actually less good at recognizing other’s anger. It’s pretty good to be a little insensitive to others’ anger. People who were too sensitive to others’ anger—

Kate: I don’t know what you’re talking about, stop talking about me, please turn away, direct your inquiry elsewhere.

Abigail: Yeah. No, it’s like it’s a little bit of a, of, you know, rose colored glasses sort of situation. But it’s good to be very sensitive to people’s happiness. And it turns out it’s good to be very sensitive to other people’s fear as well. Simply recognizing that somebody else is afraid at all is, again, the most fundamental form of empathy. And so if you are able to detect that somebody is in distress, you’re much more likely to go to their assistance. And it seems to be the case that people who are very altruistic, are, more sensitive to others distress, in part because, they have a larger amygdala, which is a structure in the brain that’s responsible for both experience, the experience of fear and the ability to detect it in other people. Not in isolation, it’s part of a much bigger network, but without it, people usually don’t experience fear and don’t recognize it either.

Kate: So they can recognize other people’s fear. They have larger amygdalas, I love that. I know that now. And was there one more thing too?

Abigail: Yeah. And their amygdala is more responsive to other people’s fear as well. And that’s probably what we’re picking up on is some very rough approximations of some much more sophisticated stuff happening in the brain that we’re not able to detect yet. But, you know, the amygdala is also an incredibly important part, for example, of a parenting network, the parental care network that mammals all have, that motivates mammals to care for their offspring. And we know there’s a hormone called oxytocin that when it’s released in the amygdala, seems to promote parental care in every mammalian species that there is. And so probably there’s something going on involving oxytocin, in the amygdala of altruists. We just don’t know that yet for sure.

Kate: I’ll be sure to yell that at bedtime. Be like, I’m looking for some oxytocin right now! When I’m at the very, very end of my rope. I really wanted to ask you about what you said about when you ask kidney donors about what they thought was interesting about themselves, like, why you why would you do that? And they said nothing, really. I’m not that special. And, that they just didn’t have hero complexes. And they seemed to believe something that we maybe all should that that we do, we do belong to one another in some kind of bigger way.

Abigail: One of the really consistent things I hear with the altruistic kidney donors that I work with is how they they just believe in other people, not naively like they’re not dupes, but they just assume that most other people have some sort of common humanity that makes them worth helping. You know, if I ask the ordinary person, like, why wouldn’t you donate a kidney to a stranger? They tend to say things like, well, one of the lines is, well, what if that person didn’t deserve it, somehow?

Kate: I see.

Abigail: And that just doesn’t come up for the donors. They just don’t believe that there’s a person out there who doesn’t deserve to live. The idea is that if you really if you believe that you’re more special and better than other people, then why would you give your kidneys to other people? Because those kidneys should be promoting the specialist person there is’s health. And if that’s you, why would you give them away? Right? If you believe that other people are just as intrinsically, you know, important and valuable as yourself, then of course it makes sense that if something you have but could do without is going to help another person survive, and of course you would want to give it away.

Kate: Yes, there’s a wonderful duality to that thought. The everyone is special and no one is special. At the same time.

Abigail: Everybody’s valuable, but nobody’s more valuable, intrinsically, nobody’s worth is intrinsically greater than anybody else’s. Yeah.

Kate: That reminds me of first year philosophy class.  Well, reading your work and getting to know you, I think it’s it’s such a beautiful example of where, I mean, where great research can help us answer some of the questions of the the reaches that people go, what physical difference, accounts for that like that, that sort of extra lilypad beyond what most of us would jump. But I think it makes a really beautiful space for us in the middle to know that we really can we really can grow toward a deeper sense of interdependence. But we do have to pay attention to our wiring.

Abigail: We do, we do. And I think the thing that gives me the most sort of optimism from having worked with the people I do is that they, in general, report a life that’s been spent sort of helping other people in various ways that ultimately leads to them donating a kidney. You know, nobody starts there. But but helping other people is an incredibly self-reinforcing process, right? Bringing other people joy, we know, brings more well-being than investing more resources in yourself. There’s such great research to back that up. Isn’t that a lovely thing? That it’s self-reinforcing. And so I get the sense that if you just start helping other people and become just aware of how much joy that it can bring, that doesn’t make it selfish. You know, that’s the. No. I mean, to me, that’s intrinsic in the fact that we are altruistic. Is it helping other people brings us joy. Like that’s what it means to be altruistic.

Kate: No, Abby, I like that.

Abigail: I think, you know, what’s funny is I’ve worked with kidney donors who were like, I’m the most selfish person you’re ever going to meet because I got so much joy that I still feel every day from having given this person a kidney and knowing that I, you know, somebody is alive who wouldn’t be without me.

Kate: Well then, may we all have lives full of selfish people. Because that sounds really beautiful. Look, the world needs more nerd-dom, and Dr. Marsh. I’m very impressed by yours. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

Abigail: It’s been a pleasure.

Kate: Hello. Hello. I’m back with Abby Marsh. Abby and I talked, like, four years ago in the middle of a strange pandemic, bleak, emotional winter. But the conversation we had, I can say, truly, that I think about it all the time. About the power of empathy and then the ability of some people to move toward fear and danger, almost, you know, intrinsically. And then and I really had not thought about this, is the reverse. People who are incapable of experiencing empathy toward another. And so I wanted to talk again to The Marvelous Abby because she’s always working on something. So, my dear, first of all, hey, it’s so good to see your face.

Abigail: So lovely to see you.

Kate: What are you working on, my dear?

Abigail: So, the next thing we’re working on is actually trying to identify the kind of deepest roots, at least in the brain, of the decision to help. Because there have been some incredibly tantalizing studies on  other species recently that suggest that there are cell pathways, neuron pathways in our brain that have the explicit job of encoding how our choices will affect someone else. Right. So even monkeys and rats seem to have those cells like, you know, they literally, that is their purpose. Which there’s nothing that I think supports the idea that we are fundamentally social, we are fundamentally interconnected, as that we have cells in our brain that that’s their only job, right? And so we’re trying, we don’t have the same tools that animal researchers do, thank goodness, because if you’ve ever seen those setups, we would never do that to people. And reasonable people could, obviously argue about whether we should be doing them to animals either. However, we do have some technology to try to identify those same pathways in people. Right? Do we have pathways in our brain, to the best we can tell, using our tools that that’s what they’re doing is trying to calculate how our choices will affect others? And are those pathways working differently in people who are, unusually altruistic, right, who make choices to help others. Typical. And then this is the first time in the upcoming study we’re doing where will be directly comparing very altruistic people with psychopathic people to see if in a single study, do they respond the opposite way to, in terms of their brain activity, to the choice to help other people? That it’s a risk worth some sacrifice to themselves.

Kate: Every time I listen to you, I realize that I have not closed my mouth because I’m so genuinely surprised by the connections that you can make, because, I mean, so much of our popular understanding of psychopathy is I mean, it’s it’s quite there’s such a morbid curiosity, but it doesn’t sound like it’s terribly helpful. What are some of the sort of popular conceptions, do you think, because it seems mostly like it’s murder podcasts.

Abigail: Yes, we love a murder podcast. People really have, I think, misplaced faith in their understanding of psychopathy and their ability to detect whether somebody they’re interacting with a psychopathic. And it’s because, people, I think, confuse being nice with being kind, or being friendly with being kind, maybe because we confuse the way that somebody makes us feel with the way that they really are. And yeah.

Kate: What’s that one? I think it might be from Oprah, but it’s like people don’t remember like what you said. They remember how you make them feel. It seems like the bonus addition to that is, and therefore you will leave with no accurate perception about who they really are.

Abigail: Yeah, and the problem is—and this is, I always hesitate to talk about this a little bit because it, I think risks making people cynical, which is…I don’t think cynicism is a good choice. There’s actually a lot of data now that people who are cynical, it’s a defensive crutch, cynicism. Right? It’s fear of being a dupe or fear of being hurt that makes people cynical and assume the worst about other people. And in fact, assuming the worst about other people is the beginning of a downward spiral, right? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So cynicism is bad. But it can make you feel cynical if you, realize that if you are a person who wants to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do, the best way to do that is to be really nice to them. Right? To see him like a really good friend, to be willing to do whatever they want to do, to be very flattering, maybe. The all, the best way to understand psychopathy is as, being completely instrumental. So everything people, who are psychopathic do is aimed at achieving a goal, right, “This it just what I want.” And anything that will help them achieve that goal and that can probably evade detection, is fair game. Lying is the most obvious way. But lying can often be really nice. And so this, you can see why I worried that talking about this will make people cynical, as the reality is most people who act nice are nice. But the downside is that if you want to manipulate people, being really nice is a good way to do it. And so there’s a good and a bad side to that, right? Because of what it means s that society is set up such that pro-social behavior is rewarded. So even if you’re not a by nature nice person, you’ll get what you want if you’re generally nice to other people, that’s not a bad thing. The only time it’s a bad thing is when it tricks us into thinking that somebody who’s acting really nice is actually trustworthy, and that’s when that’s when the bad outcomes of psychopathy sometimes crop up. So don’t expect psychopathy to look like the movies, right? It doesn’t announce itself at all with, you know, the deranged look in your eye or the flat stare or, you know, there are all sort of ridiculous myths about psychopathy. It doesn’t look like a man, necessarily. It can look like a really, you know, a cute as a button female college student, you know, it can look like somebody who seems to lack self-confidence and is like a little bit nebbish-y. And the thing that you really are looking for is, is there any evidence that this person does things for other people that can’t possibly benefit themselves. And if you do, that’s a genuinely caring person, at least some of the time. People who are psychopathic, they just never everything is ultimately in the service of their own self-interest.

Kate: I have an overwhelming desire to always say we should care about everybody. But there’s something about the fear that other people don’t care about us that immediately then creates a limit to empathy. Well, like, it feels like you’re describing a category of person that we’re just supposed to not care about them. So how can why should we extend our empathy and what kind of resources do these people need?

Abigail: So this is an incredibly important question because, people who are psychopathic do tend themselves to be cynical. And the reason is that their cognitive and emotional risk factors, the things that make them antisocial, which seem to emerge very early in childhood, right, so they don’t choose to be this way necessarily, but they’re born with traits like a fearless disposition and sort of having trouble feeling a sense of connectedness to other people. If you have those two traits, it turns out it starts this developmental cascade that causes you to have a lot of interpersonal conflict. Right? You’re not avoiding behaviors that cause you to get hurt or cause you to get punished. And that causes a lot of conflict with your parents. You don’t feel close connections to other people easily, and so you do things that make them mad. That causes you to have a lot of negative interactions with people, a lot of conflict. And that causes you to think, well, other people are terrible, right? Why would anybody think that other people are worth helping, are worth treating kindly? Because look how nasty they are. But they’re not. Seeing is their own role in eliciting that behavior from other people. And there are incredible stories out there of even people who are pretty malign or callous, having these unexpected encounters with people who treat them with kindness and force them, that’s what’s called a like a prediction error in psychology, right, I was predicting something would happen that people are bad, people are bad, people are bad. And here’s somebody who had every right to treat me badly and they were kind anyways. And prediction errors are the root of all learning, right? That causes you to rethink your frameworks, that cause you to have realized that your understanding of the world is incomplete. There are instances where people who were even pretty malign were treated kindly by somebody in a way that was so surprising to them that it did change the trajectory of their behavior toward other people, because it forced them to reconsider their assumptions about other human beings. I believe it’s good to be compassionate towards other people, because, of course, it’s the right thing to do a human being as a human being, even if they have personality traits we don’t like. But in addition, there there always is the chance that your kindness will change the trajectory of even the life of a person who, by all accounts, is a pretty malign, person beyond help.

Kate: If, say, you’re a parent or you’re somebody, you’re in a caregiving role in any way, and you notice behavior that may be psychopathic or have some iteration of like, oppositional defiance disorder or any kind of these I guess like anti social is that which we would describe it as? I’m like, learning all the words as I’m staring at your face. Have you… How do you direct people who are kind of in that, discernment process of like, what’s going on and, and what they, as a caregiver might need.

Abigail: Absolutely. So these disorders, you can sort of loosely bend them as disruptive behavior disorders and children conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or even even broader umbrella as disorders of aggression like psychopathy is included in that. They’re common. Right. So 1 to 5% of the population may have one of these disorders or be eligible for one of them. That’s a lot of people.

Kate: Wow, that’s a very high number.

Abigail: Yeah. Everybody knows at least one person with psychopathy probably more than one. And in kids these conduct disorders and oppositional defiance disorder are even more common, maybe 1 in 10 kids has one or both. And so first, parents should know they’re not alone, right? This is not this, you know, absurdly rare phenomena that affects only them and that there’s, you know, don’t assume that there’s not a community of parents out there who are experiencing the same things you are. It’s just they’re often quite silent about their experiences because they feel ashamed. And that’s because there is this very popular belief that parents cause these kinds of behavioral outcomes in children through their bad parenting. This was an, once upon a time, also a common belief, about children with autism and children who develop schizophrenia. And luckily, as research has progressed, we’ve understood that that’s not correct. Right? That’s not these are not disorders caused by bad parenting. And so parents of children with these traits need to understand that the same thing is true. That said, the good news is there are things parents can do to help their kids. And the by far most successful  treatment therapies are parent administered treatments. So a therapist basically teaches you the kinds of practices to use with your kids that can help to redirect their behavior. And in a lot of cases, can again change the trajectory along which that child is developing so that they can flourish so that they can live a good life. And the essence of these, all of these therapies is the same, although there’s lots of different kinds, and that’s that you have to start with a foundation of care and love as a parent with your child, obviously, right. Any, any sort of, productive and fulfilling relationship has to have a strong foundation of care and love. Your kid needs to know you love them, right? You need to make it clear with your words, with your touch, right, with the activities that you do together. You have to have that. That said, despite a lot of memes out there that love is all children need, that is not all they need. They definitely do need it. It isn’t necessary, but it doesn’t end. That’s exactly the good start, but it is not a good end. And so the next thing that children need is to learn the rules by which people can form productive social relationships, that they can’t do anything they want and have good relationships with other people. Right. Most children pick this up on their own, right? They don’t need a lot of special training because they have the neural architecture to just simply learn, “Oh, if I do that, that upsets that person.” I won’t do that anymore. Kids who are at risk for developing psychopathy or other disorders of aggression, they they don’t have that, they don’t learn that easily and implicitly. And so you as a parent have to create sort of a learning environment that helps support basically a child with a learning disability, you could say, and make sure that they only get the rewards they’re looking for when they engage in pro-social good behavior. Right? You don’t want to rely on punishment because they don’t really respond to punishment, but they are getting rewarded by their naughty behaviors. They do find that intrinsically rewarding. You have to find what those rewards are that they’re getting, whether that’s getting a rise out of somebody, getting status from their peers by acting out, that sort of thing, getting attention. And you have to make sure that they’re they’re getting the rewards they’re seeking when they do the good things and not the bad things. And that takes discipline on a parents part. That’s hard. It is, it’s difficult for parents, but the reward is you end up with a child who is somebody who has productive, positive relationships with you and with other people.

Kate: Abby, I think you might be the smartest person I know, and I’d like to use that information to notify other people.

Abigail: That’s not, it’s definitely, definitely not true. I mean, the beauty about being in academia is that you’re humbled all the time by how much everybody around you knows that you that you don’t know.

Kate: This was a total gift. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Abigail: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

Kate: The ability to really connect with another person feels like magic. Where do I end? And you begin? Could it be that these extraordinary altruists know something that we should all remember? That we belong to one another in a way that spurs them to extraordinary acts of compassion and generosity? Like people who opt into getting their organs cut out of them for complete strangers, or nurses who stay way after their shift ends to check in on a patient. Or all those people who visit a family member long after dementia means they don’t know who you are anymore. Ordinary angels among us. The ones who recognize fear in themselves and others and move toward it with compassion. Maybe we won’t be able to fully answer the question of high or low anthropology, how good or bad we are intrinsically. But research like Abby’s comes pretty close to understanding this much: people are capable of so much evil,  and so much good. Sometimes it’s the way we’re wired, how big our amygdala are, or how much suffering we’ve encountered that has cracked us open to a hurting world. And most of us are somewhere in the middle. And we could all use a little more. More empathy toward the exhausted parents with kids who have a difficult diagnosis. Toward the teachers stretched beyond their technical skills. The chaplains who stand bedside by too many patients. The pastors trying to figure out how to minister in a time like this. The frontline workers paid so little to sacrifice so much. We can all develop a bit more compassion for people who are dissimilar from us. To see people expressing fear or distress and move toward them. Because that is the kind of love that makes the world go round. This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team: Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman, and J.J. Dickinson. So, fun fact about the podcast world. Your reviews matter. Would you mind taking a minute to write a review on Apple Podcasts? It would mean so much. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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