How to understand people better

I’ve been taking notes on how I empathize, considering I seem to be more successful at it than others. I broke down my thought-patterns, implied beliefs, and techniques, hoping to unveil the mechanism behind the magic. I shared my findings with a few friends and noticed something interesting: They were becoming noticeably better empathizers. 

I realized the route to improving one’s ability to understand what people feel and think is not a foreign one. Empathy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of practice, anyone can make drastic improvements. 

I want to impart the more fruitful methods/mind-sets and exercises I’ve collected over time. 

Working definitions:
Projection: The belief that others feel and think the same as you would under the same circumstances
Model: Belief or “map” that predicts and explains people’s behavior


Stop identifying as a non-empathizer

This is the first step towards empathizing better—or developing any skill for that matter. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and very avoidable. Brains are plastic; there’s no reason to believe an optimal path-to-improvement doesn’t exist for you. 

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

When we learn our housemate spent 9 hours cleaning the house, we should blame our flawed map for being confused by his or her behavior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cockroaches and found a few that morning, maybe they’re passive aggressively telling you to clean more, or maybe they just procrastinate by cleaning. Our model of the housemate has yet to account for these tendencies. 
People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones. Their model being flawed is much more probable than their housemate going insane.  

Similar to the fundamental attribution error, this type of mistake is committed more often with people we dislike. A good challenge is to try understanding confusing behavior from individuals or sub-cultures you dislike. You’ll find yourself disliking them a bit less if you’re doing it right. 

Another challenge is to try and find the appeal in popular attractions/entertainment you dislike. For instance, if you dislike music videos, try watching a few until you get the “Aha” moment. Yes, that’s what it should feel like when you get it right.
As you’re able to explain more behaviors, your model of people becomes more robust, making you an overall better empathizer. 

Projection works, but not for resolving confusion

People’s intuition for how someone’s feeling is normally accurate—with more ambiguous cases—intuition needs conscious support. Unfortunately, most rely too heavily on the “put yourself in their shoes” mantra. You are not always like most people and can react very differently in the same circumstances. There’s already an inclination to project and putting yourself in their shoes rarely overturns initial judgments. If you’re confused about someone’s behavior, it most likely means projection hasn’t worked so far.     
Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly. Hopefully this is starting to sound a lot like the scientific method.

Understand yourself better

As mentioned above, projection normally works well (which is probably why humans are so inclined to do it). Projection, however, isn’t useful if you can’t predict your own reactions in another’s situation.

Catch yourself next time you experience an emotional reaction and try figuring out what network of beliefs caused it. As a personal anecdote, I tried to uncover the beliefs causing me to procrastinate on my work. I narrowed down the portions of work I had an emotional reaction to and discovered I believed I either didn’t have the skill or knowledge to complete the task. Now, when I try to explain other’s procrastination, I ask what part of the work they are having willpower issues with and determine their self-efficacy for those tasks. I was surprised to learn that others had the same beliefs causing their procrastination. Understanding yourself well can lend more non-trivial competing hypotheses. 

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people. 

Put others in YOUR shoes, that’s how they’re empathizing with you

We often find our empathy skills lacking when trying to explain others’ reactions to our own behaviors. We normally consider how we’d perceive our own behaviors coming from another person before acting—making questions like “Why did he think I didn’t want to see him last night?” or “Why was she so offended by my jokes?” hard to figure out off projection alone. 
Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes. 

Imagine a man and woman on a date at a fancy restaurant and just about finished eating their meals. The waiter drops off the bill and the woman glances at the bill. She says enthusiastically, “Wow great food and for a great price too!” The man pays for the bill and moments later his mood shifts, becoming noticeably sadder and quieter.  The woman knew he’s more passive than her, but still confused by his behavior.

As it turns out, the man imagined himself describing food as having a “great price” and realized he’d say that about cheap food. The man brought her to the fancy restaurant hoping to impress her, but felt his attempt failed. The woman didn’t think the food was cheap, she thought it was reasonably priced given how good it tasted and the restaurant’s upscale reputation. If she thought the food was cheap, she’d explicitly say so. Since she knows he’s more passive, she could’ve inferred the man believes others are more or less as passive as he is. Thinking back to the incident, she should’ve considered how people would interpret her statement as if she had a reputation for being passive.

One lesson I’ve learned from this technique is that considerate people are more sensitive to inconsiderate behavior. Because they closely monitor their own behaviors, they tend to assume others are about as equally conscientious. When they determine someone’s behavior to be inconsiderate, they are more likely to interpret the behavior as a sign of dislike or apathy rather than obliviousness.  

Knowing others are projecting can help you learn more about yourself too. For instance, if you’re confused as to why your friends always ask “Is everything’s ok?” when you feel fine, consider that your friends may be observing certain behaviors they themselves would exhibit when uncomfortable. And maybe you are, in fact, uncomfortable, but aren’t consciously aware of it.   

The simplest explanation is usually correct

As you develop your mental model of people, you’ll notice models share a lot in common.  For instance, primitive motives like attraction, attention and status can explain the same behaviors exhibited in many people. These “universal” components to your models often yield more likely hypotheses. People are obviously more typical than they are not. 

Try to pick out which behaviors are consistently explained by the same mechanism in your models. For instance, it’s helpful to know that most submissive/dominant behavior is done out of status disparities, not some idiosyncratic personality trait. Your knowledge of how people interact with status disparities will offer a powerful starting hypothesis.

As you continue to merge your models together, you’ll be that much closer to a unifying theory of people! 

Build models of people, like a scientist

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do. Combining your models is a good approach.
Say you’re having trouble understanding why your brother does everything his new “friend” tells him to do. He’s never acted like that towards anyone before; your model of your brother is missing something. Fortunately, you’ve seen such behavior before, explained by a different model, the one of your co-worker. That model made you realize that, like your co-worker, your brother finds his new friend much higher status and feels lucky receiving his attention. Not only did you strengthen your brother model, you’ve also collected more evidence that such behavior is more likely status-related and less likely person-specific, making all your models more robust. 

Experience more

If I tried imagining what a professional soccer player feels like scoring a winning goal, I’d use my memory of the time I scored the winning goal at a pick-up soccer game and multiply my euphoria by some factor. Imagining what emotions someone would feel under circumstances you’ve never experienced isn’t easy. Your best approximation may depend on a similar circumstance you have experienced. Therefore, experiencing more means being a better empathizer. 

Empathy checklist

Here’s a short checklist of the different techniques to use whenever you’re confronted with confusing behavior. Run through the list until you feel confident about your conclusion. 
  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Think of times you’ve been in a similar situation and explain your reaction
  • Can the behavior be explained by a more “universal” model than a person-specific one?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given they are projecting?
  • How are they empathizing with you, given what you know about how they perceive others?
  • What successful model have you used to explain similar behavior for similar people?
  • Is your conclusion affected by your attitude towards the subject?

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Reminds me of my favorite response to a popular stopsign.


Alice: Mark, please tell Bob I'm not speaking to him.

Mark: Um...

Bob: I heard her.

Bob: I just don't understand women, Mark.

Mark: (twitch) Actually, that which you don't understand is Alice. But if you spent as much energy actually trying to understand Alice as you do blaming her gender for your lack of understanding, you'd understand her just fine and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

I think this is probably usually not a mysterious answer to a mysterious question, though it could be. Bob would probably at least concede that women understand each other, and so are not made of mysteriousness. It's still the mind projection fallacy because he thinks it's something about women that he does not understand.

If women understanding each other doesn't prove they aren't made of mysteriousness, Bob's explaining to a man that he does not "understand women" implies that even a man might not know that Bob doesn't "understand women", implying with some assumptions about Bob's evaluation of Mark's self-reflectiveness that other men do understand women.

I don't know, the whole "I'll never understand women!" excuse has always had a bit of a (Sacred?) Mystery smell to it, I thought.

"Why can't I understand Alice? Why did Alice behave this way?" "She's a woman!"

Calling it a Mysterious Answer seems apt to me.

One possibility is that Bob may observe that other men seem to understand the women they interact with, but to Bob it's magic. This looks like an example of the fundamental attribution error: Bob concludes that those other men have an intrinsic enduring "understands women" trait that he does not have.

I think there are two separate mistakes that Bob could be making, actually. 1. Bob thinks understanding Alice is beyond him because she's a woman. (Genuine confusion?) 2. Bob thinks women-in-general aren't understandable and therefore he shouldn't try to understand Alice. (Sexism?) The first seems like a simple case of lacking Narrowness. The second, I'm not sure.

or 3. Bob is too lazy to take the time and effort to understand Alice, and saying "I don't understand women" is a great excuse to never bother.

The third alternative is that Bob is looking for a semantic stopsign?

Reminds me of a guy who gives the same answer to all hypothetical questions: "There are always other options."

Usually, men in this situation repeatedly ask Alice what they did wrong, and Alice will adamantly refuse to say. Whatever they're doing wrong, it's not failing to take time and effort. How many times do you see something like this:

"What, what's wrong, Alice?"

Nothing.

"It ... doesn't sound like that. Really, what's wrong."

NOTHING. EVERYTHING'S FINE.

"Please, Alice. I want to know what I did. Just tell me."

...

Given as everyone seems to want to pile unjustified extra assumptions onto the scenario, here are several actual scenarios that I know have occured that took this form:

  1. Alice is angry/upset because of something Bob did. Bob is unaware of what he did, but has picked up on Alice's anger and wants to help her. a. Alice is trying to convince herself that it doesn't matter. -----b. Alice thinks Bob knowing what caused her anger will cause further problems.

  2. Alice wasn't actually angry/upset at all. Bob believed she was, but was incorrect. His repeated questioning has resulted in her getting angry; making him more confident that there is a problem.

  3. Alice is emotionally abusing Bob, manipulating him so that he will grovel for an explanation, such that when she tells him what she wants him to do, he'll be forced to do it.

  4. Alice is angry at Bob for something he did. Bob is aware what this is, but wants to pretend he isn't in order to be able to make Alice feel as though she's over-reacting

  5. Alice is angry/upset for reasons that have nothing to do with Bob. Bob is concerned for Alice's wellbeing, but Alice doesn't want to share.

  6. Alice is angry. Bob knows this, but Alice is actually, honestly, unaware of this fact.

You leave out the fact that there is a common belief in women that "I shouldn't have to explain. You should just know." -- thereby rendering the need for explanation a further injury to the initial insult.

I usually find that this is what needs to be bypassed early on if any real communicating progress is to be achieved. Generally speaking I resolve this by making it perfectly clear that if the injured party is unwilling to communicate the injury, they are not "allowed" to require redress in any form. Including being angry -- thereby making them the party that is acting in the wrong, and requiring them to make amends. (This usually makes me quite "unreasonable" and causes a bigger blow-up than was necessary, but it gives me a vehicle towards more successful resolution after that initial blow-up and furthermore prevents similar scenarios from arising again. Mainly because I will have firmly estabilshed that that belief is not valid with regards to me. Those whom are capable of learning instead of just adding to their cached beliefs will have better relations with me.)

Yep, seen that many times. Happens with men, too, just not as often. And I think that your approach is quite sensible, if you can see it through.

As rare as it seems others find this to be true, I've found that being an ass on a routine basis is actually quite useful. Makes people tolerant of the dickish things you do and far more greatful for the helpful things you do. Of course, as with everything, there's an art to pulling it off.

As a side note: in several of these scenarios I saw, Alice was male. In several, Bob was female.

Upvoted. The general phenomenon is interesting, the gendered aspect could also be interesting, but is also potentially a big distraction. In my relationship, I am definitely often Alex. Although my girlfriend is better at being Bob than most men are, including me (in terms of resolving the issue in a way that we're both happy with, not 'winning the conversation').

In my experience this sort of conversation tends to act very much like a cached behavior on the both sides of the conversation

It seems to me that even a completely unprejudiced person in Bob's shoes may very well rationally decide that it's not worth the trouble to try to understand Alice's problem. Indeed, I've yet to be convinced that empathy is worth the effort required to achieve it in more than a handful of cases.

When this sort of thing has happened to me, I've said more or less "I'll be here if you decide you want my help with whatever it is," and then turned my back. It seemed to me, then and now, that any other response would have been a complete waste of time and effort.

I guess that depends on how much Bob cares about Alice...?

  1. Alice is angry at Bob for something he did. Bob is not aware what this is. Alice thinks Bob is aware what this is, but wants to pretend he isn't in order to be able to make Alice feel as though she's over-reacting. Neither of them are capable of even imagining this might be the situation.

Some possibilities about what Alice is thinking:

One possibility is that being understood intuitively feels so good that actually explaining what one wants feels like settling for something grossly inferior. There are cultural ideas about what true love is like that can be really destructive, and aren't any living individual's fault. It would, of course, be nice if people had better sense than to fall for such stuff, but this may be expecting clear communication from the universe, and I don't think it's reliable about that. Sometimes the universe won't even show it's angry until it drops an anvil on your head.

Another is that women are sometimes trained to not be clear about what they want-- it isn't nice. I can't be sure how common this is, but I've got a streak of it myself, and I've heard other women complaining about it. Having the conditioning is extremely unpleasant (if you want to ask for something but have a high internal threshold to get past to try), and I think the conditioning can produce a background fund of anger which isn't about the current situation.

I don't know whether it was necessary to explain this in such detail, but sometimes I get the impression that a lot of the men here are aware of that sort of conditioning in themselves, but don't realize women might have a variation of it.

Copying my example from another reply:

Let me build on this hypothetical example to explain why she does that:

Bob has clearly done something wrong. Alice is currently in a highly emotional state and recognises that she is likely not able to talk reasonably about what has happened without either becoming very angry or extremely upset and crying.

Therefore she really doesn't want to talk about it right now.

Bobs insistence on demanding all the answers right now is not helping her highly emotional state and is, in fact, just adding to her feelings of anger and panic... given that clearly he did something wrong, she believes he has no right to currently dominate the timing of when she discusses this highly sensitive issue (whatever it is).

But right now, she is too emotionally fraught even to be able to say that without shouting... so she just blocks.

The best thing for Bob to do is to courteously withdraw for a little while until Alice calms down... then to return at a later date when she's clearly had some time to reflect... and ask then.

I've seen this scenario occur several times where Bob HASN'T done anything wrong. Alice is annoyed for some reason, and is passive aggressively taking it out on Bob, and Bob wants to solve the problem that's causing them both to suffer.

The assumption that it's Bobs fault is entirely unjustified from the scenario presented.

Yes, quite right - in which case it is a power-play, pure and simple.

I just wanted to present an alternative to show that it's not always so cut and dried.

What makes you so sure anyone's playing for power in my scenario?

Bob is attempting to solve a problem that's causing both Alice and Bob suffering.

Alice may be playing for power, or she may not want to burden Bob with her personal problems, and may be honestly unaware that she's causing Bob to suffer.

passive-aggressive behaviour is a power play.

If Alice is being passive-aggressive (as you stated) then she is trying to be manipulative... in this case(as you stated) by causing Bob to suffer when he has (as you stated) done nothing wrong.

She is punishing him for having done nothing. This is a power play, pure and simple.

A non-power play solution to the problem would be for Alice to sit Bob down and explain why she's so upset, or just to say that she doesn't want to burden him with her personal problems and can he please stop bothering her about it? or similar...

Therefore she really doesn't want to talk about it right now.

What if Alice does want to talk about it right now, and is using this to gauge the depth of Bob's remorse? "Hm, he only asked three times then gave up. I guess he doesn't really care."

Yes, that may also be an alternative reading.

I never said my own hypothetical was the only way to read it... just offering an alternative viewpoint of what could be happening, to make sure we have more than one hypothesis here.

One should not assume that there is a power play involved... one should not assume that there is not a powerplay involved. One should not assume that Alice wants Bob to stop pestering her... one should not assume that Alice wants Bob to pester her...

One should consider all of these as possibilities... and then figure out which one is actually reality.

I was just offering a possible "inside view" to show that "power play" was not the only feasible option available.

Note: generalisations from personal experience and anecdote follow:

men in my experience, are generally not as sensitive to emotional nuance as women, and only tend to ask "what's wrong" if the woman has made it very clear and obvious that the man has done something wrong through emotionally-laden body-language. From my experience, men don't realise that women actually have to wildly accentuate their body-language before their men "get it" - thus, byt he time the man actually does "get" that they did something wrong - the woman has already worked herself up into a state of anger and may no longer wish to actually talk about whatever it is anymore.

By contrast, women will often pick up on when they've upset another woman much quicker (through subtler body-language cues) and women (being used to having that noticed) find men unusually insensitive... and thus get more upset with them because they seem to not notice when they've "done something wrong" without being explicitly told.

It's part of "female culture" that you shouldn't need to tell another person when you're upset... the other person should "just know" by noticing these cues. Amongst women, that's usually the case. However - men are generally not as well "trained" on female body-language cues as other women are... and therefore don't pick them up, and therefore actually have to be told... in words.... that the woman was upset by some action. For a woman this is very frustrating.

Note: that I am referring to a perceived "average" here - some men are very capable of noticing these cues and some women are not very capable...

Also note: I am not actually agreeing that any of this is a "good idea" to do... just explaining what actually generally goes on in the female mind when the given hypothetical example is actually happening.

I defy your claim that women "usually" say "nothing's wrong". Can you substantiate the implicit claim that this is what the majority of actual women do (apart from your own anecdotes)?

This is certainly something that actual women do often enough for it to be a noticed part of the general culture. (Google "women nothing's wrong" and find hosts of examples.) Going from the majority of actual women to the usual woman whose man complains he can't understand women is a difficult transition to make- obviously those groups should have some systematic differences.

Indeed, it appears a common explanation for this is that the woman is testing the man: does he care enough to draw out why she's upset? If that's the case, advice given elsewhere in this tree to back off and give her time would backfire. (If that's the case with this particular scenario, though, then Alice would probably start talking about it during one of the questions. The sticky part is how far the man has to probe, and when the man should decide to leave it alone vs. be persistent.)

By comparison, I'll use my own experience with men to counter your claim that men "usually ask what's wrong".

That experience seems in line with the scenario SilasBarta posits. For the woman, it's frustrating that the man doesn't understand the message she's sending; for the man, it's frustrating that he doesn't understand the message she's sending. The communication breakdown is that neither of them seems willing or able to use the language the other is using; the woman is unwilling to explicitly articulate the problem and the man is unable to implicitly understand the problem.

(Typically, I see unwilling as easier to fix than unable, and I suspect that's true in this case. I'll talk more about that later.)

So, is the man "lazy"? Well, he's certainly putting in time and effort attempting to fix the problem- which to Silas is evidence that he's not lazy. One solution method is for him to create an effective model of Alice, which requires getting training in female culture, which requires a lot more time and effort than just asking her what's wrong now. But it seems to me that 'laziness' is not the reason why Bob doesn't choose that method- he probably doesn't know that's something he can do. (It may even be the case that he can't. Perhaps even after hundreds of hours of training Bob will be unable to correctly parse signals sent by Alice.)

Now, why is Alice unwilling to explicitly talk about why she's upset? Perhaps Bob is quick to dismiss reasons Alice thinks are significant. Perhaps Bob has different standards of proof than she does. Consider: "I don't think Carol likes me." "Did she say she didn't like you?" "No... but she crossed her arms at me." "But that could mean anything!" Alice crosses her arms at Bob.

If that's the case, then Bob might be able to make Alice more willing to talk by being more willing to listen, and slower to judge.

Alice's reasons for being upset could be embarrassing for a variety of reasons. Maybe Alice is mad at Bob because she had a dream that Bob did something mean to her. (Yes, this actually happens.) She can't just stop being mad at him, but she can't explain why she's mad because Bob will think it's crazy. In cases like this, Bob can't do as much.

This is certainly something that actual women do often enough for it to be a noticed part of the general culture.

Oh certainly - I never claimed that it was not present (or even common), I was reacting to Silas use of the word "usually" which implies that a majority of women do this, possibly a majority of the time.

I just find this attitude a little negative - as nasty as women suggesting that "all men are lazy" - which I do not agree with... though I have certainly seen many examples of it happening... and it's another meme that I'm sure you can google for to find plenty of examples ;)

Actually, you might notice that I edited my original comment to remove the wording you've replied to, as on further thought I decided it was just a bit too reactionary. I changed what I was saying purely to the anecdotal discussions about how women often perceive men... based on their own maps of how people "should behave" or "should notice" them emotionally.

Again - not agreeing with that - I believe such views are laden with map-territory issues.

It took me personally a long time to realise that "he isn't being insensitive... he just hasn't learned the same cues I'm used to and he probably has lots of cues that I persistently fail to notice"

In cases like this, Bob can't do as much.

Agreed - in some cases there's a kind of emotional mexican stand-off - where both partners are unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

I also agree that in this case, Bob is not being lazy, though perhaps he's not acting in an optimal fashion (or perhaps he is, but Alice is not). I offered my original "number 3" as just another possibility - not "what all men do", after all :)

"Noticed parts of general culture" are often wrong. They're called stereotypes or prejudices.

It's not clear to me that prejudices are worthless evidence. It seems to me reasonable to take stereotypes as your prior and update on evidence rather than taking maxent as your prior.

If there's evidence out there I should be updating on, I'd love to hear it.

Saying "I don't understand X" is not a mysterious answer per se, just reflecting lack of one's knowledge.

But there is a chance that Bob has a mental model containing a mysterious answer, which generated this specific response. The model could be like "it is not possible for a typical man to understand women". Such model would give a mysterious answer to Alice's behavior, and to prevent falsification it would provide a possible exception for Mark (or anyone else, if necessary).

So we need more information from Bob, what exactly is his model. Does he believe that his "not understanding women" is caused by not enough knowledge or experience yet, or that there is some fundamental problem that prevents him from ever making a better model?

By social convention, "I don't understand women" includes the implicit term "And learning more about women does not pay off at what I consider reasonable effort."

I agree that statement is implicit and not a necessary part of the spoken utterance, but it is almost always there. Consider the very similar statement (by a non-nerd) "I don't understand math." It's substantially the same issue.

This is utter gold. Thank you for posting this!

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

I agree soooooooo much on this point.

I teach math courses for college students who want to become elementary teachers. The course I'm currently teaching is arithmetic - not that they can't do arithmetic, but there are a lot of things that often confuse kids that teachers just don't understand are confusing unless they've been told about them. For instance, there's a difference between partitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to give them to each of his 5 friends; how can he do so most fairly?") and quotitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to make bags of 5 apples; how many such bags can he make?"). When division is explained as "equal sharing" and then the teacher teaches the quotitive long-division algorithm, it confuses kids. But most teachers seem to default to the theory that if they explain something they think they understand and their kids don't get it, then that's a display of the kids' stupidity.

The mantra I have to tell, pretty much every single day in these classes, is that everything anyone does is sensible to them at the time they're doing it. What practically defines empathy, in my mind, is the ability to perceive that sensibility and make sense of the person's behavior in light of that.

And yes, I completely agree, it's a skill that can be practiced and learned. A thousand times, yes!

Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly.

[...]

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do.

This.

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people.

This is one of the very few places where I'm not sure we agree. I agree, someone who is really different from others will have a harder time getting the empathy ball rolling. But I still think self-understanding is utterly critical. It's the only way you can control for projection.

For instance, when I was a kid my father tended to be very judgmental. He would point out what was wrong with the way others were doing something and get physically tense about the issue, sometimes even marching up and fixing it himself. For years I assumed this was because he couldn't stand the stupidity he saw in others. But as I came to understand myself better, I realized that that's why I would do something like that. My father knows that IQ 100 is actually pretty dumb, but it's actually the imperfection that bothers him, not the lack of intelligence. I had to realize that I was projecting my own motives onto him in order to stop doing so long enough to get where he was coming from.

There's also the fact that some people identify with being unusual or different, but such people usually exaggerate their differences more than is justified. However, that isn't something that introspection can detect. So I would still say that self-understanding is really critical for empathy, if for no other reason than to understand to what degree projection is reliable or unreliable for a person who self-labels as "different."

Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes.

This is clever. I often forget to do this. Thanks!

The simplest explanation is usually correct

I think I understand what you're getting at here, and I generally agree. I just want to emphasize that simplicity is relative. To me, the simplest explanation for why Lady Gaga so highly values "fighting for who you are" is that she's an Enneagram type Four. But describing what that means and why that constitutes an explanation actually requires a fair amount of time and verbiage. It's simple to me only because I'm familiar with what it means for someone to be a Four.

experiencing more means being a better empathizer.

Absolutely.

Thank you for posting this!

Glad you liked the post.

This is one of the very few places where I'm not sure we agree. I agree, someone who is really different from others will have a harder time getting the empathy ball rolling. But I still think self-understanding is utterly critical. It's the only way you can control for projection.

I agree, I should've emphasized that finding a proxy is supplementary to self-understanding, not an alternative.

There's also the fact that some people identify with being unusual or different, but such people usually exaggerate their differences more than is justified.

Very much agree. This issue is especially prominent in societies that idealize individualism. Looking back, I think I should've edited out the caveat, not because I disagree with my past self, but because it may inhibit some readers from questioning their self-proclaimed differences.

I'd really like to know some basic, repeatable exercises that build empathy and social skills. Changing your everyday behavior to incorporate little bits of training here and there is not very effective. It's like wanting to get fit and deciding to walk a little faster whenever you need to get somewhere, instead of joining the gym. Or wanting to be a musician and deciding to hum along to songs more often, instead of getting a tutor.

Great points in this article. I noticed in high school that I had difficulties in this area, but rather than approach it with this conceptual pwno has, I sought out training regimens more like what you describe.

I can't say that they've been super effective. I still come across as a bit "off" a lot of the time, but they've certainly helped. YMMV, of course.

  1. If you're single (or, at least, not locked down), join a dating website (or a few). Don't try to find the love of your life. Just try to go on as many first dates as you can. Try to learn as much as you can about the other person, and practice empathy techniques. This is good because people tend to have very little tolerance for odd behavior, and will be experiencing a lot of odd uncertainty, curiosity, excitement, etc., themselves. Make it your goal to learn about them, and build a model of this new person.

  2. Take a foreign language. This is good because it's regular, safe, and you'll have to interact and converse with a bunch of people. Since you're all struggling, people tend to let their guard down, and the conversation topics are usually pretty basic (what's your name, where do you live, how many pets do you have, blah blah blah) so it's not distracting. I'm studying ASL now. Sign language is particularly good because facial/body language is such a huge part of the language, so it can build a lot of control and awareness.

  3. Take a dance or martial arts class. Empathy is a very physical activity, and it can be incredibly instructive to learn how to trust your instincts and respond to another person's body in real time. While, of course, it happens in the brain, it's not the sort of problem that (in my experience) I can "think my way out of".

  4. Tell the people closest to you that you've come to realize that this is something you need to work on, and that they seem pretty good at it, and ask them to a) call you out on it when you seem to act oddly, and b) to be patient and helpful if you ever ask them how they're feeling at random times. Most people will be flattered and happy to help. Then actually use their help! Resist the urge to be defensive if they correct you on something, and repeatedly check your model of how you think they're feeling if you're unsure. (Make sure to tell them that it's ok to tell you to stop, if it bugs them. You don't want to push people away in your quest to be more empathic!)

  5. When you're speaking with people, try to figure out how they're feeling, and state it as a tentative sentence. Throw in "And you're happy about this" or "that makes you sad" or "you're mad at me about something" in conversation, if it seems like that's true. In therapy, this is called making "process comments" -- comments that just state what's happening, and don't try to add explanation or judgement. They'll correct you if you're wrong, and give you more information if you're right. It's an incredibly powerful technique, and much more difficult than it sounds.

  6. Keep a log. At the end of each day, write down how someone you know was feeling, and how it made you feel, and what physical sensations made you aware of these feelings. Especially: make a note of any time when someone's behavior surprised you, or someone you know who is consistently surprising. This means that you're not reading them properly.

  7. Remind yourself frequently that no one is the villain of their own story. So, while they may in fact be a villain any number of reasons, thinking of them as such will not help you understand them.

  8. A lot of overcoming a lack of empathy is simply a matter of overcoming a fear of interaction as such. If you wear a watch or carry a book with you everywhere you go, stop. Every time you're at a bus stop (train station, etc.), ask someone what time it is, and make put-up comment. If you make them smile, you get a point. If you don't, make a note of it in your journal and try to think of why that might have been. Did they seem annoyed? Startled? Tired? What messages were you sending that might have made them felt that way? How could you have misinterpreted their reaction?

I learned a lot from doing door-to-door sales once upon a time, but I would not recommend that. As helpful as it was for getting over my lack of empathy and social skills, it was a horrible experience overall.

Great suggestions. I like the suggestions of using dates and classes as behavior labs. I'd like to add one comment, though, on point number 5:

'When you're speaking with people, try to figure out how they're feeling, and state it as a tentative sentence. Throw in "And you're happy about this" or "that makes you sad" or "you're mad at me about something" in conversation, if it seems like that's true. In therapy, this is called making "process comments" -- comments that just state what's happening, and don't try to add explanation or judgement. They'll correct you if you're wrong, and give you more information if you're right. It's an incredibly powerful technique, and much more difficult than it sounds.'

Personally, I'd be very careful with making statements about another person's feelings in this format. If your read of their emotions is wrong, this can come across as forming snap judgements and being unwilling to listen to them about what they are actually feeling. Even more frightening, I've found that when other people state things about my own emotional state, I tend to become confused about what I actually am feeling, wondering if I actually did have an unconscious motive driven by the emotions they point to. I suspect this is more likely to be problematic when the person making the statement is perceived as higher status. On the other hand, if the status difference is reversed, the statement may sound presumptuous.

Instead, I'd suggest using language that shows ownership of your own perceptions "I get the sense that you're upset about something..." or "You seem happy to me." Or present the observation as a question "Are you angry about what happened?"

Your mileage may vary, of course.

I've had very mixed results with this technique. Some people respond to it very positively, others very negatively. The same is true of asking targeted questions (e.g., "Are you angry...?") or open-ended questions (e.g. "How do you feel about that?") or asserting my own observations (e.g., "You seem angry to me").

Face to face, I can usually figure out with some tentative probing which approach works best before I commit to one. But the safest tactic I've come across, and the one I generally use on the Internet (where I cannot tell who is listening to me or how they might respond), is sticking to related statements about my own experience (e.g. "That would anger me") and avoiding the second person pronoun altogether.

and the one I generally use on the Internet

I can barely read people's feelings at all on the Internet, or in any text-based medium really. So I tend to avoid discussing their feelings at all unless it's in response to them bringing up feelings and describing it themselves.

I'm pretty good at reading body language and facial expressions it in real life (well, I can place people quite easily on a spectrum of 'relaxed' to 'uncomfortable', and it's sometimes harder to tell what particular kind of uncomfortable they are feeling, i.e. sad vs frustrated vs angry). What I find works well is "summarizing" what they have said and then adding one comment at the end that is my interpretation or observation, if I have one. Most people I know respond well to this; I find that even if I've interpreted their feelings wrong, they are eager to go deeper into the conversation and correct me, rather than getting frustrated and walking off. Which is ultimately what I want: more conversation time, about more topics, so that I have more data for my 'model.'

Yes, that's why I mentioned that it's much more difficult than it seems. There are two negative reactions I've encountered: The first is a "yeah, no $#!+, what are you, autistic or something?" The second is, "No, why would you even think that? Are you autistic or something?"

So, yeah... use with caution. It's a technique that can be a little weird, but when you're finding yourself completely without any clue what's going on inside someone else, and you really need to know, just throwing out your best guess (or whatever you do know, even if it's not the full story) almost always gets some reaction that will give you more information. I've learned that process comments must be made tentatively; half-question, half-validation.

Another thing I forgot to mention: Non-Violent Communication. Get this book and read it. http://amzn.com/dp/1892005034 It's full of things that sound obvious. So read it again and again.

Most people, in most situations, have a strong desire to tell you how they feel, what they're interested in, etc. Learning how to let them do this is very powerful. A lot of what passes for empathy is just a matter of not inadvertently shutting people down before they get a chance to tell you what they're feeling.

I've realized over the years that I habitually made a ton of mistakes that NVC explicitly calls out. Noticing these mistakes is hard. Changing them is harder. It's a worthwhile enterprise.

EDIT: A slight correction: "you're angry" is not technically a "process comment" unless it's bloody well obvious that the person is angry. "You're speaking loudly" or "you just smashed the table" would be process comments (assuming that they are true.)

I learned a lot from doing door-to-door sales once upon a time, but I would not recommend that. As helpful as it was for getting over my lack of empathy and social skills, it was a horrible experience overall.

I'd second that in particular.

I don't have a handy exercise regimen, but I'll toss in my two cents.

An exercise I often do in this space involves explicitly looking for symmetry: if I am judging someone for doing X, I look for and articulate ways in which I also do X; if I am feeling aggrieved because Y has happened to me, I look for and articulate ways in which Y has also happened to other people. I doubt it helps build empathy directly, but it helps me curtail some reflexes that seem incompatible with empathy.

Another involves building models of worlds in addition to people: if someone is behaving in a way that seems inconsistent with how the world actually is, I try to work out in some detail how the world would have to be for their behavior to make sense... or, rather, what the minimal changes would have to be. It seems like something that ought not make a difference, and yet it does: the way I approach someone who I model as operating in a fictional world where everyone is a dangerous threat, for example, is different (and much more compassionate) than the way I approach someone who I model as being frightened of everyone.

Taking a step back... I find it's helpful to remember that every time someone seems to be doing or saying something unconscionably stupid, or thoughtless, or evil, or otherwise behaving in ways that I want to classify as other-than-me, that's an opportunity to instead practice empathy and compassion. (I don't mean to suggest here that one ought to practice empathy and compassion in such cases; I don't think that's a useful claim to make in this context.)

Taking a step back... I find it's helpful to remember that every time someone seems to be doing or saying something unconscionably stupid, or thoughtless, or evil, or otherwise behaving in ways that I want to classify as other-than-me, that's an opportunity to instead practice empathy and compassion.

I think this is an excellent point. From most people's own point of view, they never do anything stupid, thoughtless, or evil. Everything is justified as the best or only course of action that anyone they consider reasonable could take when put into the same circumstances. If you look at what they're doing and judge it to be stupid, thoughtless, or evil, and you don't understand how they could see it otherwise, then your model of them is incomplete. This method has almost always worked for me in terms of figuring out the missing bit of my model, and usually works for reducing frustration. (Sometimes my own emotional response is still "I know I'd do exactly the same thing in your place, but it's still freaking annoying!")

"I know I'd do exactly the same thing in your place, but it's still freaking annoying!"

That's okay, I'd be annoyed in your place too.

I agree with this point as well, and I think it bears emphasizing.

Awhile ago, I had a series of conversations with a friend who was having problems with people in her workplace. She would complain along the lines of, "I just can't believe that X would just shuffle a problem over to my desk. It was X's responsibility to solve the problem; X must be trying to get me in trouble with the boss."

Or similar formulations.

It gradually became clear that her go-to modality was to think that if other people aggravated her, it was because they were doing it on purpose.

I pointed out to her that practically nobody in the world enjoys maliciousness, meanness, etc. and that, given the choice of ascribing a person's actions to maliciousness, when it was just as plausible that the real motivation was thoughtlessness, misunderstanding, or ignorance, one should only opt for maliciousness if there's a number of REALLY GOOD REASONS to think the person would behave that way.

Ultimately, we all want to get along with those around us. Usually, when we don't, it's misunderstanding to blame.

Well, sometimes people really are out to get you. My brother's immediately senior co-worker at Goldman Sachs once admitted to deliberately trying to sabotage his work. The co-worker was indeed behaving quite game-theoretic-rationally, though; the way Goldman Sachs works, it was likely that exactly one of them would soon lose their job.

Yes.

I also find it can help with communication. That is, when I decide I want to talk to someone about the annoying behavior (which I don't always, of course) the opening tack of "I notice you doing X, which is something that I do more often than I'd like and really irritates me when I do it, so I'm kind of sensitized to it" is often both entirely true and a useful way of shortcircuiting the usual adversarial dance that starts that sort of conversation.

I like to watch movies and decide who is the smartest person, who is the most compassionate person, and who is the meanest person. And then ask myself: Why? Some mean behavior is actually an irrational self-protective response, for example.

The problem is the repeatability. Social skills, by their very nature, require interaction with people. And people are unpredictable; at least, until you have good enough social skills :p.

The closest I can come to an exercise regime suggestion* is to go into bars, coffee shops, or other gathering places; and look around for a person (or people) who seems bored, lonely, or otherwise in need of company.

Go up to said person(s) and greet them in a manner you deem appropriate. If it works; you just correctly judged someone's state, you approached them in an acceptable manner, and you now get to converse with them (giving you practise on other social skills). If not; consider why not? Did you misread their state? Did you approach them in an unacceptable manner? What should you try differently next time?

*(and something I actually did, that seemed to help me personally: in fact I met my girlfriend due to this practise)

How did you manage to do this without garnering a reputation as that weird person who always starts conversations with random strangers, who you shouldn't bother responding to because the only reason he's talking to you is because you happened to be there when he was?

I live in Manchester, England.

There are 2.6 million people in this city. I didn't need to actively avoid becoming known, it would have been extremely difficult to become known.

Also: had I gained a reputation for talking to random strangers, why would that have been a bad thing? The person I approach knows I approach random strangers; they are one.

Being known as a person who tries to chat up random people may be a problem*. Being known as a person who tries to chat to random people isn't. In fact, if anything, I've earned status for it.@

*You're seen as having low standards, and therefore the fact you're interested in someone no longer puts them in an exclusive group. Oh, and you may end up viewed as a slut.

@I have friends with low social skills, who find it too scary to approach people they don't know. The fact I do so gives me a certain amount of esteem in their eyes.

You're seen as having low standards, and therefore the fact you're interested in someone no longer puts them in an exclusive group.

Why would this apply to romantic forays but not other types of social overture? It seems like it(becoming known as a person who tries to chat up random people) would happen no matter what you actually talked about.

Why would this apply to romantic forays but not other types of social overture?

The fact that chatting to random people merely means you're willing to let anyone be one of your acquaintances

In general, being someone's acquaintance cannot be considered an exclusive group to begin with, so there was no exclusivity to be lost.

It seems like it(becoming known as a person who tries to chat up random people) would happen no matter what you actually talked about.

If you only rarely* make a sexual or romantic pass it is unlikely that people would view you in such a way. Especially if you approach people who are not of your preferred gender, etc..

*[when you find someone who is actually particularly attractive to you, after you've gotten to know them a bit]

There are "empathy challenges" all around you. Whenever you observe or interact with someone, really try to understand why they behaved the way they did - feel it on a gut level. Feeling confident about your conclusions is key. Keeping a checklist similar to the one in the post is helpful to keep in mind when confronted with these challenges.

However, without actually interacting with people, entering relationships or reading about social dynamics, your models of people won't be entangled with reality. My advice is more about how to be an active learner given you are doing these things.

There are "empathy challenges" all around you.

There are also physical challenges all around you, but going to the gym is still a better idea. I find it easier to get better at something if I can practice every little sub-skill repeatedly in a short period of time with immediate feedback. I realize your advice doesn't fit that mold, but I'd still like to find some advice that does :-)

May I suggest learning microexpressions? There's an app for the android I use and after a few dozen trials, I can noticeably read emotions better. By increasing the accuracy and timeliness of the emotional feedback you get, you can learn from real-life situations much better.

Running around the block is a good start :)

I might write a follow-up post with the kind of advice you're looking for.

Many parts of nursing school are a giant exercise in building empathy :) Also, volunteering at social events can be really good. I found volunteering at church events helpful, but you may not want to do that.

I suppose you could do the equivalent of "getting a tutor" if you have a friend who is much more empathetic than you are, and willing to teach you. Actually, it would be useful to have a structured system for that kind of thing...

I found it helpful to listen to speeches at retirement parties for what the person leaving was good at, and trying to emulate that virtue.

I'm wondering how much reading fiction can help with that. I never really thought about it before reading HP:MoR which uses the argument quite extensively, but I do feel that my ability to understand others was greatly improved by the fact that, since early childhood (I remember being like 8 or 9 and spending a whole afternoon just devouring a book) I read a lot of fiction (mostly sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and a bit of thrillers too).

Reading fiction, especially as a child, forces you to put yourself in the shoes of other people (usually the hero(es) of the book), which will vary greatly from book to book, and to make models of people (both the heroes and the secondary characters) to try to guess what will happen later in the book. It gives some kind of mental flexibility about understanding people, a bit like stretching gives flexibility to your muscles. And it does it much more efficiently than a movie to me, first because books can much more easily than movie speak about what's happening inside the head of the character (how he takes his decisions, what he feels, ...) and because a book gives you much more time to think about it than a movie.

Also, I think role-playing helps too. Even before playing "official" RPGs like D&D with dices and stats and everything, as a child, I was often "role-playing" in an intuitive way with my siblings, so putting myself in the shoes of someone else.

Those two may have a drawback : they may tend to lead me to have stereotyped views of others, to fall more easily to the halo effect, since often (but hopefully not always) the heroes have lot of qualities together, and the villains lots of flaws together.

Do any of you have a pointer to some deeper study about the link of reading fiction (especially as a child) with the ability to empathize with/understand others ?

I read a lot as a child too, but it was writing that I've found has motivated me to develop more complete models of people. Whether it was my mom's detailed criticism of early stories that I wrote (included the dreaded "that's awfully implausible, sweetie"), or the fact that writing gave me incentive to go out and talk to people or try new things in order to have something to write about, that's where a lot of my motivation came from to develop better empathy.

Aside: I think a surprising number of my life decisions boil down to wanting to understand people better (whether "just because" or in order to be better at other things.) Example case: choosing to study nursing instead of physics. Despite my mother's insistence that I would be "an incredible academic", there was a part of me that always chimed in: "You're already good at school/studying/learning/etc. You're terrible at people skills. People skills are more important than study skills for writing good stories. Can you imagine how awesome your people skills would be after 10 years of being a nurse? There you are!"

Example case: choosing to study nursing instead of physics

Whoa, that's a serious career decision based on that one consideration. Do you feel particularly deficient in this area or attribute greater importance to it than average? It's not like physicists don't talk to each other at all.

It was a decision based on multiple factors, including the likelihood that I would find a job after graduating, the likelihood that I would enjoy my day-to-day work (my father hated academia, and our personality is similar enough that I considered this evidence about me, too), and the likelihood that I could be good at my job. (I may not be intelligent enough to be a really good physicist. Then again, I may not be capable of learning enough people skills to be a really good nurse, either...)

Judging by my interaction with a number of physics profs of both genders I had to deal with as a grad student, quite a few of them could definitely use some extra empathy. Probably goes both ways and is not restricted to physics.

It sounds like you really want to be a writer...

What I say to most people is that I already am a writer. I've completed a number of novel-length stories. I'm just not a published writer yet.

On the topic of believability, perennial advice from the acting classes I have taken: "What does your character want?"

People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones.

Words cannot express my appreciation of less wrong for getting this clearly stated.

I am trying to be more empathetic with someone, and am having trouble understanding their behavior. They practice the "stubborn fundamental attribution error": someone who does not in fact behave as expected (as this individual imagines she would behave in their place) is harshly judged (neurotic, stupid, lazy, etc.). Any attempts to help her put herself in another's shoes are implacably resisted. Any explanations which might dispel harsh judgement are dismissed as "justifications". One example which I think is related is what I'll call "metaphor blindness". A metaphor that I expect would clarify the issue, the starkest example of which is a reductio ad absurdum, is rejected out of hand as being "not the same" or "not relevant". In abstract terms, my toolkit for achieving consensus or exploring issues rationally has been rendered useless.

Two questions: does my concept of "metaphor blindness" seem reasonable? And...how can I be more empathetic in this case? I'm being judgemental of her, by my own admission. What am I not seeing?

I will tentatively suggest panic-- she feels so much at risk from other people's negative opinions that she feels she can't afford to cut them any slack. This may help you feel more kindly toward her, but I don't know if it will help you deal with her. Does she have any good points that you can see?

If I udnerstand what you mean, I used to see 'metaphor blindness' in a lot of people. But I think it's more about how much people wall off the relevant bit of the metaphor/analogy from the general tone. I see this a lot in politics, on all sides, and I don't think the 'metaphor blind' people are just deliberately misunderstanding to score points. It may be not being able to separate the two, or it may be a feeling on their part that the metaphor is smuggling in unfair implications.

For instance, on same sex marriage (a good case for me to observe this because I'm instinctively pro- and the cases I'm looking at are metaphor-blindness by people who are also pro-), two arguments come to mind

1) Pro-SSM argument 'Marriage should be allowed as long as there is consent between the two people'. Counter-analogy 'But on those grounds, incestuous marriage or polygamy should also be allowed' 2) Pro-SSM argument 'If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married'. Counter-analogy: "Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that ‘no one will be forced to keep a slave. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?” (this one is a direct quote from a Cardinal)

In these cases, the general response from pro-SSM people has been 'I can't believe you're comparing gay marriage to incest/slavery'. Because the toxicity of the comparison point overwhelms the quite focused analogy in both cases. People often feel the same when you try to convince them of something by analogy, particularly if they feel like you are trying to show that they are wrong by intellectual force rather than just taking them along with you. It took me awhile to adjust to this one: I just felt everyone else was [i]wrong[/i], and at a gut level I still do, and prefer arguing with people who take analogies in a narrow sense. But eventually, in line with the post above, you can't repeatedly, reliably, have failed communications with the rest of society and consider everyone else to be the aberration.

On the other hand, using such "toxic" comparisons is valuable because due to their very toxicity, everyone believes the same thing about them. You can't argue "but on those grounds, slurping your soup would be permissible"--after all, some people do think that slurping your soup is permissible, so on those people, the analogy would fail, and some other people have no opinion on soup-slurping and will insist that you prove that it's not permissible before they'll accept it in an analogy. Godwin's Law, which is a variation on this, has a similar problem: often a Hitler comparison is the best kind of comparison to make because everyone agrees about Hitler.

Indeed. Which is why I like having discussions with people who follow the same ruleset as me and engages with metaphors in that pure, stripped-down way. It saves a hell of a lot of time. But there are lots of things that save time in communication that do not make for good communication in general.

My social circle long-ago arrived at this conclusion, and labeled those who invoke Godwin's law as conformist simpletons and sociopaths who like to obfuscate tyranny, probably in an attempt to preserve it. Such people (generally sociopath judges and prosecutors) actually are highly-likely to ultimately argue that Hitler wasn't a bad guy, or that "Nazi laws should have been followed," because they have goals similar to Hitler's goals: the control and looting of the simple-minded productive classes.

The Fallacy of Invoking Godwin's Law

The entire book "The Ominous Parallels" and most of Milgram's work is also rendered null by people who believe "Godwin's Law" is actually appropriate to use as an argument. Appropriate (in scope and scale) comparisons of abusive government force are always valid, distorted or exaggerated ones are not. It's never a "reductio ad Hitlerum" to point out how any level of abusive government force mirrors the past use of such force by totalitarian regimes.

After all, that's why we're talking about it: so we don't make the same mistakes, and allow sociopaths to control us in a similar way. It's one of the primary features of intelligence: the ability to avoid enslavement.

The Nazi example is, as you stated, simply an example of an agreed-upon unacceptable level of tyranny. Those arguing in favor of tyranny hate reference to agreed-upon standards, because they wish to get simple minds to accept the unacceptable.

I'm always amazed at how successful they've been. Most of the people here on Lesswrong have implicitly adopted sociopath standards, even if Eliezer Yudkowsky has not.

Two questions: does my concept of "metaphor blindness" seem reasonable?

Possibly. But since we're on the topic of empathy, I'd like to emphasize that definitely among the most treasured practices I've found is finding a way to understand why what the other person is doing is sensible to them. Even if I can't see the reason, it's there. So, it's really critical to remove every hint of a judgmental tone even from one's own mind when trying to understand another person. (You can turn it back on later, but while in the process of empathizing it seems to be critical not to evaluate.)

Assuming you're accurate