Sunday, December 07, 2014

Do Biological Explanations of Psychological Difficulties Reduce Empathy in Mental Health Professionals?

Interesting report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) about a series of clinical perception analog studies in which mental health practitioners were given written vignettes of clients/patients with common mental health difficulties (schizophrenia, depression, social phobia), and then randomly given either biological or psychosocial explanations for the person's problems. (I thought the explanations were quite well done and evidence-based.) After that, they were asked to rate their feelings toward the client on 6 relational emotions (including "warm, compassionate, sympathetic"), labelled by the researchers as "empathy". 

Results: The researchers said that they had expected that the biological explanations would make practitioners more sympathetic to the hypothetical clients.  Instead, they were surprised to find that the so-called empathy ratings were higher when practitioners were given psychosocial explanations (e.g., trauma, poor living conditions, family conflict) than biological explanations (e.g., family history of the problem, MRI results.) 

I think that humanistic psychologists will not be surprised by these results, since this is consistent with what we have been warning of for years. Still, it is a sobering finding for those of us who do like to dabble in neuroscience (e.g., brain correlates of empathy).  However, I think that what is really going on here is that the psychosocial explanations provided a more coherent narrative for the person's problems, locating them within the person's life history and context to a much greater extent that the biological explanations did.  Empathic, caring emotions are much easier to access within a narrative context. 

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