Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Labor

by G Gordon Worley III6 min read26th Sep 2017No comments



The concept of emotional labor has been popularized in the last couple years as a way of talking about the work people do to manage other people’s emotions. Most of that discussion has been around how women are often expected to perform emotional labor without compensation both professionally and personally. Women report being asked to perform social glue functions in the workplace without it being part of their job, part of how they are evaluated, or part of how they are paid, and they are culturally expected to perform most of the emotional labor in personal relationships. And perhaps most frustratingly, while men are lauded when they perform emotional labor and mostly given a pass when they don’t, the situation is reversed for women who mostly only see punishment for not doing enough.

But ultimately emotional labor is for everyone, and although there is a sex differential in its performance, there is little new I can say on that aspect of the topic. What I can say is something about how emotional labor is related to developmental psychology and cognitive empathy. Specifically, how skill at emotional labor depends on the development of cognitive empathy and lack of cognitive empathy is a limiting factor in being able to perform emotional labor.

I described emotional labor as “managing other people’s emotions”, but to be more precise emotional labor is acting to influence the emotions of others. To do this one must have some knowledge of the emotions of others and how they can be affected. This knowledge typically comes from either affective empathy or cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is feeling another person’s feelings, like being sad because your friend is sad or being scared because a character in a horror movie is scared. Affective empathy’s source is probably mirror neurons, and a lack of affective empathy is associated with sociopathy. For this reason affective empathy is sometimes also called “primitive” empathy because it seems to naturally develop on its own and is rarely missing in a person.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is the skill of thinking about others ontologically and is anything but “primitive”. In order to be able to think of ways to make your friends happy or worry about what others will think of you, you must model other people and predict their responses. Those models can be simple, like how children employ thing and thing-relationship levels of phenomenological ontological complexity, but such simple models often fail if not backed up by affective empathy. As people age they build up enough cognitive empathy to effectively participate in society without necessarily feeling everyone’s feelings, and they develop system level and higher ontological complexity that enables cognitive empathy techniques like seeing other people as made up of parts, distinguishing others’ revealed and stated identities, and understanding others’ needs and wants. And if a person continues down this path they may develop a generalized sense of cognitive empathy that can tackle broad axiological questions about how to treat themselves and others.

Yet affective empathy and cognitive empathy rarely exist in isolation. In the context of emotional labor, people often first feel — use affective empathy to notice — that an opportunity exists to affect someone else’s emotions, and then use cognitive empathy to figure out what to do. And when cognitive empathy fails us we may fall back on affectively informed actions. This will work most of the time, but pesky philosopher that I am, I want to know what happens in the edge cases, like when you can do something to hurt someone else’s feelings without them finding out.

Consider the case of the broken vase. I’m having a fancy dinner party and you lend me your vase to use as a centerpiece. On the way home I stumble and drop the vase, shattering it into a million pieces. Luckily this happens right in front of a store where I can purchase an exact replica, so I immediately replace it. The dinner party goes well, and I “return” the vase with you unable to tell I’ve replaced it. I have two options:

  1. Say nothing about the break.
  2. Tell you that I broke the vase and replaced it.

If I have no affective or cognitive empathy it seems likely I will do (1) since it is naively the option that produces the better payout: you’ll be mildly happy in (1), whereas there’s some chance you’ll be angry in (2). If I have no cognitive empathy but plenty of affective empathy, it seems likely I will do (2) because I will feel the bad feelings you would feel if you knew I broke your vase and won’t think about the fact that you don’t know that I broke it. If I have no affective empathy but plenty of cognitive empathy, though, it now becomes a bit more complex to figure out how I will act. Maybe I will want to spare your feelings and do (1), but maybe I will reason that you would want (2) because it conveys information about me you want to know, and I do it out of a reasoned expectation that acting in this way will more create the world I want to live in. And the situation remains substantially the same if I have plenty of affective empathy to go along with my cognitive empathy, however my feelings will likely affect my axiological calculations in deciding which action to prefer.

In this scenario cognitive empathy enabled emotional labor. Without it I was left either playing a simple game or acting on my feelings with no consideration for you, and so my emotional “labor” was reduced to calculating a payout matrix or dealing with my own conflicting emotions. Cognitive empathy made possible real emotional labor, though, because it provided an ontology to reckon with. True, you might object, it still produced one of the outcomes that could be achieved without cognitive empathy, but emotional labor matters at the margins when we consider many cases where acting without cognitive empathy would produce inconsistent answers.

This is important because without doing enough emotional labor to come to a wise course of action, a desire to help someone borne out of earnest empathy for them may end up unintentionally hurting them. If I failed to understand you sufficiently well in the vase case when I was using cognitive empathy to perform emotional labor, I might have chosen to do (1) when actually (2) is what you would have preferred or vice versa. When we help we risk hurting if we do so unwisely, so helping depends on having the skill to accurately predict how our actions will affect others. This is why people say emotional labor is draining: not only is it mentally challenging but the stress of failure can weight so heavy on us that we find it hard to act.

So what can you do if you want to perform the emotional labor that will allow you to help others as they want to be helped? My own solution is to target virtue when my calculations are insufficiently calibrated, but otherwise you might take the same advice I’ll always give: do the emotional labor you fear doing and give up on hoping for the emotional labor you want done for you, because even if you hurt people in the short run this will enable the necessary personal growth towards increased complexity that will let you help them in the future.


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