Monthly Archives: February 2012

A psychology-heavy reflection on human connections


Making up for lost time by updating more than once in one day!

Consider the following situations:

  1. A young woman, a “friend” of mine (please note the oozing sarcasm), is terrified by the mouse she saw in her apartment.  Her under-dog landlord is swamped with petty-requests from tenants.  Young woman continues to tiptoe around her home near tears, landlord feels stressed by to-do list, mouse stays warm and probably well-fed.
  2. Students in my program are exceedingly anxious about our comprehensive examination. Professors dismiss concerns with “proper tactics” for dealing with the test. Students no less anxious because professors didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, professors annoyed that students’ anxiety still interfering with work.
  3. My boyfriend is newly recovered from a cold. I am going out of town for the weekend.  He doesn’t want to hang out. I am upset that he doesn’t want to see me before I leave, he is upset that I don’t remember that he’s sick.
  4. I am super giddy about the happy state of affairs with said boyfriend.  Single friend doesn’t like being reminded that she is not in a relationship. I talk about Y and am upset by lack of enthusiasm, friend is sad about her current status and frustrated with my lack of awareness.
  5. I’m visiting where I used to live for one night only.  Number of friends who want to see me > number of friends I have time to see.  People are upset that we did not hang out, I feel overwhelmed by demands.

Let’s do this Jeopardy-style: “All of these scenarios have this in common.”

What is empathy gaps?

One of my friends, N, studies empathy gaps.  In social psychology, empathy gaps are the biases by which we evaluate another person’s situation.  An empathy gap is a cognitive inability to understand the other person’s situation due to a difference in emotional states between the perceiver and the observed.   Typically we talk about empathy gaps in the context of medical decision-making.  When a doctor and a patient work together to come to some agreement about a patient’s care plan, each is affected by the process differently.  To the patient, his or her life may be on the line, he or she may be feeling physically ill and weak, and the whole process may be overwhelming.  The patient is in a “hot” emotional state, or in a state where his emotions are so visceral that they influence his decision making processes and other higher-order functions.  Conversely, the doctor is in a “cold” emotional state: this patient is just one on her to-do list for the day, she’s been through this protocol more times than she can count, and she’s thinking about how she will avoid traffic to make it on time to her daughter’s play that evening.  The doctor isn’t necessarily a cold person, she is just unlikely to be dramatically influenced by her context in the way that the patient is.  When these two individuals encounter one another, they have a hard time understanding one another, which makes for difficult and sometimes poor decision making.  Now that I’ve given you the elevator speech on empathy gaps (hope I did it justice, N!)…

My gosh, these are everywhere in real life, people!  I guess I should have expected that – the fundamental attribution error describes our human tendency to overestimate the effect of personality variables and underestimate the effect of the situation.  (That homeless guy on your street corner? He’s a loser, right? Or maybe he just has been struck with some really terrible luck and has no social support network to help him get back on his feet.)  We are awful at truly empathizing with people.  It doesn’t make sense to me – we are more like each other than we are alike to any other living thing on this planet.  If we can see appreciate the power of the situation on our disposition, why do we fail at perceiving it in others?

It turns out that when we think about the beliefs, values, and intentions of other people, a similar part of our brain is active as when we think about our own beliefs, values, and intentions.  The human mind is a black box, honestly a mystery to anyone who is not ourselves.  But it is essential for our function as social beings to at least somewhat understand what others around us are thinking, and how that is going to influence our behavior.  (The kid on the playground: “Is that bully going to punch me?” A young child: “Is Dad going to feed me now?”  Your boyfriend: “What did I do wrong?”)  So we try, and not entirely fruitlessly.  We think, whether consciously or not, “If I were this person/in this situation, what would I do?”  And we assume that they are like us, and form our perceptions/expectations about their behavior accordingly.  I guess what I don’t understand is, if this is the way our brain is neurally dealing with other people, then why do we not behaviorally deal with them in the same way, and avoid some of the items in my list (above)?

This is where I’ve come to rely on improv.  I don’t know why we haven’t learned to accommodate for our glaring errors in the case of empathy gaps, but I think I found a way that might attenuate them.  By truly respecting the other people in our lives, by acknowledging that this upcoming surgery is a big deal to the patient, even if it’s not to the doctor, by making the patient feel like a superstar before he goes in for surgery because his concerns were all well founded and he was right to express them – by doing all of these things, we can connect on a more intimate level, one which fosters understanding and cooperation.  In improv, when we make each other look and feel awesome, no one is a star and no one is a straggler, but the group as a unit is a success.  I’m holding tight to that philosophy each time I encounter an empathy gap in the future (and I’m getting better at picking up on them!)



List: A number of connected items written or printed consecutively, typically one below the other


Things I’m working on respecting more:

  • Other people’s time. (I need to stop being so freaking late.)
  • Improv as an art (I’m sorry, sometimes invocations and group mind exercises weird me out, but I’m trying to respect that the process will make me a better improviser.)
  • My future finances (I should start saving more, so my future self doesn’t have to freak out.)
  • Those whose choices led to more impoverished life conditions than my own
  • The power of the situation
  • My past and where I’ve come from
  • Myself

Things that I’ve realized I already proudly respect:

  • Individual differences/differences in opinion and lifestyle
  • Work of scientific merit (even if it has some empirical issues)
  • Hard workers
  • Polite/consider/compassionate people
  • Human life, or just life in general
  • The power of the situation
  • My past and where I’ve come from
  • Myself

“If they treated each other like geniuses… they could become that on stage.”


I want to talk about gossip and prejudice.

There’s no room for either of these things, in improv or in real life.

I vehemently hate gossip because I’ve seen it hurt people too many times.  Even “good” gossip is bad. (A friend was saying to me that gossip can be advantageous – for example, in the case of a new couple that doesn’t have to go around telling all of their friends that they are dating because the gossip will do the work for them.  Then again, this article argues a quite convincing case for “good” gossip.)  Gossip is talking about people behind their backs, and often saying things that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to their faces.

This past weekend, gossip flared its ugly teeth.  The context was such: I threw a party for my graduate program and our prospective future students.  A mass email went out to attendees expressing concern about the “safety” of my part of the neighborhood.  I was a little bit uncomfortable that this email had been sent to everyone, because, I mean, I live here. I may be on a student stipend, but I wouldn’t live somewhere where I didn’t feel safe, and I don’t want others to form a negative association about me/my home.  To be fair, I do live close to areas where there are high incidences of crime, but I live in a city.  I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to bed with their doors unlocked.  Still, it was clear that the email was sent in a rush (receipt was spelled “recipe”!) and I wasn’t going to take personal offense to it.  The message sender was entitled to her own opinion, and my friends are capable of assessing the situation and forming their own thoughts on the matter.

Shortly thereafter, a mass reply email went out from my friend, Z.  She meant well, calling everyone’s attention to the slip, citing statistics invalidating the comment, addressing possible implicit racism/classism which may have caused it, and cautioning us to be careful of the impressions about our neighborhood that we convey to others (particularly potential future students).  All in all, I appreciated that she had the guts to say something that, frankly, needed to be said.  However, she chose rather strong language for public discourse.  I know that she is impassioned by the issue, but sometimes context should preclude passion.

Needless to say, countless responses (some more tense, some more jokey) followed and that email thread was a buzz topic that evening.  The thing is that people were saying one thing to Z’s face, and different things to each other!  GOSSIP!  The worst thing is that I was guilty of it, too! When Z asked me what I thought of the email, I responded sincerely that I appreciated her sending what needed to be sent and that I know she’s passionate about the issue, but chose not to mention the inappropriateness of the strong wording.  I am such a people pleaser sometimes I disgust myself! EW! There was nothing wrong with expressing my honest opinion to her.  And yet, I didn’t (but I made sure to express it to everyone else who asked me).  Yuck. (Dear Z, if you read this, sincerest apologies for not being more upfront in the first place.)

What did I learn from this gross feeling of having facilitated gossip?  First, I’m a bit hypocritical (hating gossip, and then perpetuating it).  But also, respect is tantamount to conveying delicate and important information to an uninformed recipient.  If we had all been respecting one another’s legitimate passions and concerns, the prospective students would have seen a more cohesive program. (And in improv, don’t we want to present a cooperative group to the audience? Don’t we want them to sense that group mind, that we are all on the same page? That’s where the magic happens.)

But I learned more from this situation.  If we had all been respecting the different upbringings that our neighbors have had, or the different choices that we’ve all made, wouldn’t we see that even an area that is physically/visually distinct from the rest of the neighborhood is no less safe?  For that matter, wouldn’t we see that people are still people regardless of if they live in a “safe” or “unsafe” part of town?  The gang members that may live in surrounding neighborhoods still have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc.  I’m not saying that I’d want to hang out alone near those gangs at midnight (or put myself in obviously unsafe circumstances), but I am saying that if we respected the power of the situation, and the power of the human condition, wouldn’t we be less prejudiced, or at least more aware and more able to consciously check ourselves?  Wouldn’t we be more compassionate?

Perhaps I’m being idealistic.  Some social psychologists would argue that our prejudices rely on an evolutionarily adaptive aversion to outgroup members, or people unlike us, because they might pose a threat in prehistoric times to our tribe’s safety.  They even argue for the automaticity of these prejudiced cognitive processes.  But most research conducted on the issue today is inherently confounded by the cultural context in which it is conducted.

I guess my point is this:

“It was Del’s belief that performers needed to have the utmost respect for one another- that if they treated each other like geniuses, poets and artists, they could become that on stage.”  In improv, if we respect one another, we can trick audiences into thinking that the crazy flub mistake that just happened on stage had been planned all along, and that the whole group was in on it!  We can make people forget that there’s not a script.  By treating each other like we’re brilliant, we become brilliant in the audience’s eyes.  The audience takes their cues from us, and if we don’t treat any idea as a “bad” or “wrong” one, then bad and wrong ideas simply don’t exist.

It’s the same way in real life.  Most of our reality is what we’ve constructed for ourselves.  If we respect everyone and every situation as we construct that reality (if we respect Z’s right to know our opinion up-front), then maybe we can avoid “bad” or “wrong” misconceptions about our world.  And we can avoid that icky-post-gossip feeling.

I couldn’t have said it better


So I won’t try.

Instead, go read this blog about improv and respect.  It’s a nice application to real life.

“In improv, the good of the scene is placed above the experience of any individual player, and as a consequence, every player gains.” … “Taking personal responsibility for the status of others gets at the heart of what ‘respect’ in human society is all about.”



Respect. That’s the rule for February.

From my explanation of this project:

2) Respect – This sort of goes along with “Yes, And…” and agreement, but you really need to respect your scene partners. You are both the most important person on stage and the least important person on stage simultaneously. You need to respect what they say and make them look like the shit because if everyone is making everyone else look good, then everyone looks good. But if someone is focusing solely on themselves, then it is harder to connect with them and therefore harder to produce good improv.

Okay, so I’m very curious to see how this manifests itself.  I consider myself a pretty respectful person, but I also know that there are some people who have literally demonstrated that they are not respect-worthy.  I am excited to begin another month’s adventure.

Any thoughts you have on the topic are welcome!