Capacity to understand others and social capital Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

Humans need much more than memory to manage our complex social world. We need the capacity to understand others’ beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives. This understanding is crucial for everyday human social interactions and is used when analysing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviours (Gweon and Saxe 2013). This ability is referred to as ‘theory of mind’ (ToM), mentalising or cognitive empathy and is the ability to attribute states of mind to others (Davis 1996; Whiten 1991). ToM allows us to explain, judge and predict people’s actions (Gweon and Saxe 2013). ToM is required to understand the social world and our place in it, to form relationships with others. Meaningful interaction with others is only possible when we can interpret each other’s points of view (Johnson, Cheek, and Smither 1983).

ToM is a competency that limits the formation and maintenance of social relationships. While ToM is an innate human potential, it requires social experience over time to develop and does not develop equally in everyone. Different people may have a more or less effective ToM, and some people have a significant deficit, for example, people with autism spectrum disorders (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith 1985). Although there is uncertainty about how ToM is developed, it appears that it can be improved with practice, and there may even be strategies and exercises that could help improve it. Individuals with a less effective ToM would likely have difficulty forming social relationships, which would logically impair their ability to develop a large social network. It would also impede the quality of their relationships.

Empathy is a component of ToM that involves the recognition and understanding of others’ beliefs, desires and particularly emotions. Empathy is an important component of emotional intelligence (EI) which is the ability to recognise and identify different emotions and their meaning and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them (Mayer, Caruso, and Salovey 1999). Emotional intelligence involves the ability to accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others, use emotions to facilitate thinking, understand emotional meanings, and manage emotions (Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso 2004).

It enables us to recognise our own emotions and those of others and to use this emotional information to guide our thoughts and actions. EI allows us to understand another person’s perspective, and this enables stronger and deeper connections embedded with trust, goodwill, and shared understandings. People with high EI require less cognitive effort to solve emotional problems (Mayer et al. 2004). They tend to be good at establishing positive social relationships with others and avoiding conflicts, fights, and other social altercations. They tend to be more open and agreeable than others and have more positive social interactions (Mayer et al. 2004). They are generally more satisfied with their social networks and appear to receive more social support. They tend to coach others around them, so they assist other individuals and groups of people to live together with greater harmony and satisfaction (Mayer 2004).

As with many other cognitive abilities, individuals can improve their EI, and it has been found that empathy training can be very effective (Teding van Berkhout and Malouff 2016). However, empathy is fragile since it is not universally applicable to everyone in every context. There are various factors or circumstances that prevent or impair empathy, such as when someone is perceived to be an outsider or in competition with personal interests (Hoffman 2008), when one feels anger or dislike towards the other person or that their situation is deserved (Hareli and Weiner 2002), or when affective empathy creates emotions so aversive that one disengages (Hoffman 2008). In this way, empathetic ability is not universally applied to everyone in every context.

Empathy also relies on the salience of cues. Although ToM is sometimes referred to as mind-reading, it is not a superpower. It relies on the observation and interpretation of cues, which may not be overtly expressed, or not expressed at all, or maybe misinterpreted. Although some cues are universally understood, others are culturally prescribed based on shared understandings. Even language cues must be interpreted within the context of background understandings to find meaning. For example, when someone says something, we must rely on shared understandings to fully understand the meaning and implications to provide a basis for empathy. Empathy is essential for reaching shared understandings, but empathy also requires shared understandings to be effective. Empathy creates shared understandings, and shared understandings facilitate empathy.

The tendency to care about and help one another forms the foundation of human society (Levenson and Ruef 1992). However, we do not tend to feel empathy universally. We are far more likely to feel empathy for an ingroup member than an outgroup member (Bruneau et al. 2011; Bruneau and Saxe 2011). People tend to empathise more with kin, friends, and their own ethnic group (Hoffman 2008). We feel empathy for people with whom we identify or feel belonging. We find it easier to feel empathy for someone whom we believe is similar and has similar life experiences since it is not difficult to imagine oneself in their place. It is much easier to create mental images that provide an understanding of their experience and emotions (Hoffman 2008). When we experience social exclusion from our ingroup, we temporarily have an impaired capacity for empathic understanding, and as a result, the inclination for cooperation is undermined (Twenge, Baumeister, and Ciarocco 2007). There tend to be powerful motivations not to care about or help outgroup members, and recent research has found that outgroup members’ suffering elicits dampened empathic responses as compared to ingroup members’ suffering (Bruneau and Saxe 2011). In fact, outgroup suffering can elicit pleasure where there is sufficient social separation or an “us and them” mentality or victim dehumanisation (Cehajic, Brown, and González 2009).

In this way, empathy is a cognitive ability grounded in shared understandings and highly subject to context. Since empathy is the capacity to ‘think in the mind of another’, it is a prerequisite for cooperation (Assmann and Detmers 2016) and is therefore vital to the development of social capital. It plays a key role in the development of trust and the assessment of trustworthiness and reciprocity through the ability to understand other people’s perspectives and the likelihood of reciprocity (Nooteboom 2006; Preece 2004).  The ability to understand mutual aims and goals allows humans to coordinate complex activities and cooperate in the pursuit of these goals. Empathy is a key requirement for moral consideration and prosocial behaviour (Hoffman 2001). Psychologists widely agree that empathy is a major determinant of prosocial and altruistic behaviour (Eisenberg and Miller 1987).

Since empathy is critical to prosocial behaviour and the development of shared understanding and quality relationships, a lack of empathy logically creates sub-optimal conditions for social capital. However, we do not know much about the optimal level of empathy. Measures of empathy have found a roughly normal distribution on a continuum (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004) which suggests that high empathy is relatively rare. However, no research has investigated the maximum possible level of empathy and what may limit this maximum. It is not clear whether high empathy is associated with any costs that may impair other factors that may negatively affect social capital (such as empathic distress see Hoffman 2008). Without this understanding, we can conclude that empathy is a vital cognitive ability and that, in general, more empathy is associated with improved conditions for social capital.

This discussion would suggest that the social capital of a group could be improved by improving the empathy of group members. The extent of improvement would depend on various factors, including the initial level of group empathy. Investment in empathy improvement would likely have diminishing returns, although little is known about the relationship between improved empathy and social capital. It must also be noted that empathy is activated in specific contexts, and therefore it is not universally applicable. An individual may possess empathetic abilities, but for this talent to be utilised, they must have sufficient interest, motivation, or inclination to empathise with a given person. As previously discussed, psychological experiments have found dampened empathic responses to outgroup members and even pleasure instead of empathic distress (Bruneau et al. 2011). Empathy is an innate human ability, but to understand the limits of social capital, it is important to understand how it is activated or not based on other factors.

The ability to empathise is an important factor that influences the extent of comprehension. One of the key aspects of social capital is the shared understandings that are essential for interaction and exchange. Because we each experience different aspects of reality and interpret them differently, we must bridge these separate and distinct realities to reach shared understandings. To create this overlap, we must be able to communicate, listen, and comprehend effectively. Comprehension requires establishing a coherent mental representation called the situation model and involves integrating the content with prior knowledge (Kintsch 1988). Empathy plays a key role in developing the intersubjective nature of situation models required for social capital. Meaning is a polymodal, context-sensitive, constructive, spatially distributed and temporally extended process (Kutas and Federmeier 2000). This discussion highlights the complexity and context-specific nature of social capital.

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