Archive for February, 2010

How strong is your capability to share another being’s emotions or feelings?  My thesis is that people who are viewed as having a lot of empathy have two characteristics in common:  (1) their emotional reaction to situations tends to be similar to that of the majority and (2) when they make errors it tends to be in the direction of overestimating the person’s emotion-level.

Conditional versus Marginal

I’ll start with point 1.  It’s easy to have empathy for people who are like you.   If you would get upset if X happened to you, then you’ll have empathy for someone else who is upset about X happening to them.  But, if X wouldn’t upset you, then it would be hard for you to understand how someone else feels who is upset by X.  You could do it, perhaps, but it’s more challenging.

Denote by Α the subgroup of people who have similar emotional reactions as you do.

Let Y=1 if you sufficiently understand another person’s feelings.

Your empathy score for people in group A is P(Y=1|A).  That is, the probability that you’ll have empathy for a randomly selected person in group A.  I’d argue that, for most people, they have a high conditional empathy score for people that are like them.

Your empathy score for people who are not like you, P(Y=1|~A), is probably much lower.

Now, integrate across groups to get the marginal (population level) empathy score P(Y=1).  That is, P(Y=1)= P(Y=1|A)P(A)+P(Y=1|~A)P(~A).  If P(A) is high, you probably have a high level of empathy, even if your conditional levels are normal (simply because a lot of people are like you).


If empathy is understanding how someone else feels, then you can make errors in two directions.  You might think the person is more upset (or happy or excited) than they really are, or you might think they are less upset than they really are.  I think that if your error distribution is on the side of overestimating how emotional someone is, you’ll be seen as having more empathy than someone who tends to underestimate emotion levels.

Suppose I am not upset at all about event X, but you think I am and therefore offer words of comfort, etc.  You failed at understanding my emotional state.  Yet, people would not say that you lacked empathy.

If, instead, I was upset about event X, but you didn’t realize that and therefore didn’t offer support, you’d be correctly viewed as not having empathy.


Another interesting aspect of this is how, even if we recognize how someone is feeling, our response depends on whether we deem their emotions as appropriate.  For example, a big football fan might have empathy for another fan who is very angry about his/her favorite team losing, but someone who doesn’t like sports might think getting emotional about a football game is stupid.

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Air marshals

After 9/11, President Bush ordered the expansion of the Federal Air Marshal Service.  I assumed that this was a fake program — that the gov’t was just saying there would be air marshals on flights to deter terrorists and mitigate public fears.  It appears that I was wrong.  I read that the budget is about $800 million per year (link and link).

Here are the obvious reasons why this program will have no impact on terrorism:

  • there are about 28,000 domestic flights per day.  Since 2001, there have been two serious attempts at terrorism on domestic flights (underwear bomber and shoe bomber).  So let’s say there is about 1 attack attempt every 4 years.  That’s 1 attempt in every 40,908,000 flights.
  • Most terrorist attack attempts would not be prevented by an air marshal.  Both the shoe and underwear bombers would have succeeded were it not for equipment failures.  Remember, an air marshal would be sitting somewhere on the plane.  The seats are tall.  You can’t see what most people on a plane are doing.
  • An air marshal might be successful in stopping a hijacking attempt by a group of people with box cutters.  But passengers would likely be successful at that as well.  Passengers will be more aggressive than they were in 2001, and the door to the cockpit now locks.
  • The easiest way to hijack a plane is probably to become an air marshal (as you are allowed to take a gun on a plane).
  • It’s well known that most flights do not have an air marshal on board (see here for example).   Thus, it’s unlikely to be much of a deterrent.  But even if there was an air marshal on all flights, it wouldn’t deter someone from trying to ignite an explosive device.

So why are we spending $800 million per year on a program that is so obviously useless?  Well, I suppose come election time incumbents can say they did something.

Don’t even get me started on body scanners.

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I’ve often wondered if a major reason that men tend to make more money than women has more to do with personality traits that are more common in men, and less to do with direct discrimination.   Here is a good example of it:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is fairly gender-balanced, and I’ve taught about as many women as men over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given him the pseudonym Moustache McMasculine for all the mystery there was. And I’ve grown increasingly worried that most of the women in the department, past or present, simply couldn’t write a letter like that.

Suppose Person A and Person B are identical in terms of ability, work ethic, etc — both equally valuable to their company.  Person A  is self-aggrandizing, narcissistic and aggressive.  Person B is quietly confident and passive.   From what I’ve observed, Person A will tend to make more money.  Employers will pay you as little as they can get away with.  Person A wouldn’t be shy about asking people for letters of recommendation (and writing a first draft for them), applying for awards, and then making the case to their boss (with the evidence they have collected) that they deserve a pay raise.   Person B assumes that their employer will be fair to them and give them a pay raise when they deserve it.

The personality traits of Person A are more common in men than in women, I think.  I suspect that at least some of the differences in pay between men and women are for that reason.  It’s not exactly sex-based discrimination, but it still has that effect.  Basically we are rewarding behavior that we generally do not find desirable.  Alpha-males will tend to win out over other males.  Men will tend to win out over women.  How to remedy this?  Will Wilkinson suggests that we should discourage the type of aggressive behavior displayed by Person A:

There are certain habits of behavior characteristic of some men clearly rooted in a desire to intimidate and assert social dominance. If the ability to intimidate and dominate — to act like an “alpha” — doesn’t have anything to do with performance at a job, then “alpha” behavior should be recognized as the unproductive social aggression that it is and accordingly discouraged through disapproval, mockery, and social and professional sanction. Decent men and women with natural talents for dominance and status competition can channel their aggressive dispositions productively by bringing them to bear on those who flout fair and productive egalitarian social norms.

I have an additional suggestion.  I think it would help if the salaries of all employees were available for anyone in the company to view.  A lot of times people don’t even know they’re making substantially less than their peers.  Again, companies will pay you as little as they can get away with.  If Person B saw that Person A was making 30% more than them, that might motivate them to discuss salary at their annual review.  More importantly, I think employers would be less likely to reward aggressive behavior.  They’d know that if they gave Person A a big raise, then Person A’s peers would take notice.  So, they’d tend to only give big raises to people based on merit.  I’m not too concerned about the privacy issue.  We already know roughly what others make (I’d say to plus/minus 20% in most cases).

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