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Empathic responding has been associated with a number of positive outcomes including: more satisfaction in peer relationships, lowered aggression, fewer instances of rule-breaking and disregard for the rights of others (antisocial behavior), and greater general social competence (Eisenberg, 1997).  This greater social competence, especially the ability to “stand in another’s shoes” also has broader social and systemic consequences.

Although each person is bound by a particular body, skin color and hair texture, through empathy individuals can say if not “I can understand where you are coming from,” at least “I understand that your experience is different than my own and that it is different does not make it any less human than my own.”  From this understanding of experiential mirroring and validation, individuals, families, communities and nations can move toward a more peaceful coexistence.

The positive effects of empathy are not doubted either actually or academically.  However, noticing that positive behaviors are resultant from empathy, does not mean that the reverse is also true.  Prosocial behaviors do seem to have a cascading effect, in which they spread throughout existing social networks and onward into the wider world.  But, what happens though when an individual member of an existing social network is “immune” to “catching” prosocial behaviors?

As Eisenberg suggested, empathy development seems to be largely related to both temperament/heredity and learned behaviors, like emotional regulation/socialization.  If an individual is born with genetic material from two people with severe and untreated mental illness, lacks early attachment objects, does not experience any tangible benefits to using emotional regulation and engages in coercive processes with both family and peers, they may be more likely to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder (1997; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Granic, 2006).

Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder lack the ability to feel empathy.  For a variety of reasons, they lack the neurological connections required to engage sympathetically with others, and instead engage in highly manipulative ways.  When these individuals experience negative consequences as a result of negative behaviors, they may demonstrate negative affect, but under further investigation it becomes clear that the emotional upset has more to do with “getting caught” and having to deal with the consequences than remorse or shame (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Maddux, 2008).

In an interview with a young man diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and serving a life sentence for raping and murdering two prepubescent girls, Dr. Bruce Perry described the man’s version of the story as being one in which he fell victim to the girls’ unfulfilled insinuations of sexual activity, and that his actions were, in turn, understandable given their provocation.  During the interview, Perry noted the young man’s lack of affect while describing the crime in detail, but apparent affect while speaking about his current prison sentence.  The young man’s upset was due to the consequences he currently experienced, and was entirely divorced from the anguish he caused (2006).

Although the adjective “antisocial” is somewhat overused and sensationalized in popular media, Antisocial Personality Disorder is a distinct, pervasive mental illness characterized by a consistent disregard for the rights of others.  Although all brains demonstrate plasticity, these individuals’ brains seem to lack much of the required structural development needed for advanced planning and social interest.  Additionally, the axiom “use it or lose it” is quite descriptive when it comes to general brain function; if an individual has been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, the individual has been operating without empathy for many years and did not learn or practice the skill during developmentally critical periods (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Maddux, 2008; Perry, 2006).

Proposing to teach individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder empathy, as in true relational mirroring and validation, is by definition a lost cause.  Instead, if systems and practitioners want to increase prosocial behaviors in individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder, they should focus on behavioral reinforcements and the idea that looking out for oneself is not ultimately best served by hurting other people in the process.  Increasing inhibition and conscientiousness, if possible, would also be an effective step toward decreasing antisocial behaviors.  When teaching new skills, it is important that instructors scaffold learning from the same theoretical foundation as the person they are trying to teach.  Since individuals dealing with Antisocial Personality Disorder are not standing on a foundation of empathy, clinicians must stand with them on the foundation of self-interest.  Perhaps this unique population can not only decrease antisocial behaviors, but also increase prosocial behaviors.

American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (text revision). Washington, DC: Author.

Eisenberg, N. (1997) The development of empathy-related responding. Gender and Motivation, 45, 73-117.

Granic, I., Patterson, G.R. (2006) Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach. Psychological Review, 113(1), 101-131

Maddux, J.E. & Winstead B.A. (eds.) (2008)  Psychopathology: Foundations for a contemporary understanding. New York: Routledge.

Perry, B.D., Szalavitz, M. (2006) The boy who was raised as a dog: and other stories from a child psychatrist’s notebook. Basic Books: New York, NY

Infants require consistent and reliable care, reflection, touch and soothing to meet their attachment needs. Remember Harlow’s monkey craving the soothing of the cloth “mother” when it was scared? Infants and children are the same. The best intentioned caregiver can meet and exceed their child’s physical and safety needs, but if touch and visual and auditory reflection, like mimicking an infants frown and saying “oh you’re grumpy” when they cry, are missing from the earliest times in a child’s life they are put at a massive disadvantage when it comes to developing not only internal skills like object permanence and emotional regulation, but also external social skills, like empathy and basic morality (Perry, 2006; Santrock, 2007).

Harlow’s monkeys who were denied a cloth mother did not thrive. Nor did the children in orphanages or American hospitals during the 1940s and 50s with their focus on sterile environments and minimizing parental involvement. Not being touched as an infant is traumatic. Not being soothed or mimicked as an infant is traumatic. Obviously, physical and sexual violations as an infant are traumatic.

Harlow's Distressed Monkey

Poor little guy! He just wants to be cuddled!

Much of the research on moral development largely ignores the influence of trauma, neglect and abuse. Kohlberg and Selmen got it right with their ideas about the construction of morality and empathy as being more important than the actual choices people make (Damon, 2008) but in both of these constructions, the paramount role that early attachment processes, or lack thereof, plays in establishing the framework from which to build morality was ignored. Kids and adults who lack early attachment objects often grow up either unaware or unable to provide effective attachment objects to their children or others around them.

This would not really matter, were it not for attachment being the basis for development of empathy and regard for others.  In talk of oxytocin, the bonding chemical, coercive cycles, and the intellectual battle between nature and nurture as the clincher in developmental outcomes, we are missing the forest for the trees (Granic, 2006; Public Library of Science, 2007; Santrock, 2007).  Under girding all of these factors (bonding, reciprocal interactions, goodness of fit versus responsiveness of care), is attachment.  If a child is not adequately attached to a, or possibly a couple, primary caregivers, their likelihood of developing these skills and getting reinforcement out of using them is decreased dramatically.

In short, when securely attached caregivers’ hearts are warmed when their child smiles at them, even though they same smiley baby kept them up all night, on a neurological level, caregivers’ limbic systems release oxytocin and endorphins and on a whole person level, suddenly all of the hours awake seem worth it.  These caregivers are likely to continue to provide physically responsive care and cuddles largely because it feels good to do so.  Their children are more likely to grow up with secure attachments and secure internal objects from which to move out into the world.  They have the early frameworks necessary for the development of moral behaviors.  In fact, due in large part to the social feedback offered by primary attachment objects, being good feels good.  Being bad feels bad.   They are more likely to be good and avoid being bad because it literally feels concordant.   Conversely, children who do not receive the same sort of responsive, validating care from a caregiver infancy often lack the clearly defined and integrated internal object that is necessary to recognize that others also have feelings, that are sometimes conflicting, but equally valid (Engler, 2006).

Just as the informed caregiver would never really expect a preschooler to be able to engage in mutual perspective taking, an attachment informed caregiver would not expect an adolescent, who is at a preschool developmental level to hold the opinions of two different people at once. Effective practitioners address a primary underlying mechanism of morality through awareness of attachment needs and processes.

An early attachment disruption is incredibly damaging, but it is not a death sentence.  Children who demonstrate a lack of empathy, low behavioral functioning, and/or odd social behaviors resultant from an early history of neglect can developmentally “catch up” from experiencing the crucial aspects of their development that were missing: touch, rhythm, soothing, patting, and so forth.  They will then age developmentally, as opposed to chronologically, and develop moral skills at developmentally appropriate times as opposed to chronologically appropriate times (Perry, 2006; Santrock, 2007).  In helping insecurely attached kids develop morality, practitioners must address attachment.

Damon, W., Lerner, R.M. (ed.) (2008). Child and adolescent development: An advanced course. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.

Engler, B. (2006) Personality Theories. (7th ed.) Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA

Granic, I., Patterson, G.R. (2006) Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach. Psychological Review, 113(1), 101-131

Perry, B.D., Szalavitz, M. (2006) The boy who was raised as a dog: and other stories from a child psychatrist’s notebook. Basic Books: New York, NY

Public Library of Science (2007, November 8) Empathy and Oxytocin Lead to Greater Generosity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 6, 2010, from /releases/2007/11/071107074321.htm

Santrock, J. (2007) Adolescence. 12th ed.  McGraw-Hill: New York, NY

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