Trudging further along the path of autistic self-discovery can lead one in so many different directions. Sure to be a stop along the tour, however, is a concept known as the Empathizing-Systemizing Theory, a hypothesis (and only a hypothesis), the brain-child of researcher Simon Baren-Cohen.
As far as researchers go, Simon Baren-Cohen is one of our most allied, one of the autism-friendlier. That’s not to say that he’s exactly autism-friendly, per se, especially in terms of females; that just goes to show how hostile the majority of the research world is to Aspergier’s/autism and the people on its spectrum. I’m not saying I’m a fan; it’s just that it’s all relative.
Nevertheless, he came up with this theory, which suggests that:
“people may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions: empathizing (E) and systemizing (S).”
That’s all well and good; I think it’s important to measure these attributes (on practically anyone, not just people known or suspected to be on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum).
However, I can certainly see some holes in the theory as it stands at present.
The first issue I see is that according to this theory, systemizing and empathizing are measured and plotted along the same line, with systemizing at one end and empathizing at the other. The more of one you are, the less of the other you are.
In reality, systemizing and empathizing aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Just because one systemizes well doesn’t mean they don’t also empathize well. Someone could have a high aptitude for systemization, empathy, both, or neither.
The Empathy Quotient test (EQ) is built on this faulty framework and is thus fraught with issues. Many of the questions posed don’t even have anything to do with empathy itself, but rather, systemizing ability. Of course, since the quiz is based on the assumption that empathizing and systemizing are mutually exclusive, as one answers in the affirmative to systemizing-related questions, this brings down their empathy score.
In other words, people taking the quiz are being “punished” for their ability to systemize, and one’s “score” for the capacity of one thing is being judged in large part based on the presence of a completely different concept.
Is one who possesses the ability to systemize well necessarily devoid of empathy? Just because I know (off the top of my head) the years in which my favorite albums were released, or because I’m a wiz-bang at music theory or I like to know about all of the flowers and insects in my geographical region, does that mean that I can’t put myself in someone else’s shoes? That’s like asking the following math meme:
Exactly. That’s kind of what I think about plotting Empathizing and Systemizing along the same line; they’re two independent, unrelated concepts whose combination makes no sense.
Of course, I scored high on the Systemizing Quotient test and low on the Empathizing Quotient test. And of course, that might lead others to conclude that I lack empathy. And it might cause some to link my EQ test result with those of psychopaths and sociopaths, who are also said to lack empathy.
Some might even conclude that this post is merely borne of a case of sour grapes, because I “proved” Simon Baren-Cohen “right”, and got the short end of the Psychology stick.
Au contraire. That argument might fly if the testing accurately identified me as a cold-hearted arsehole, but it doesn’t. The Systemizing Quotient test actually asked me questions about systemizing.
The EQ test?
More questions about systemizing–about half of them had absolutely nothing to do with empathy. And as I mentioned above, the EQ test is based on the idea that if you’re systemizing, you’re automatically short on empathy, and vice versa. So an answer in the affirmative for systemizing knocks a point off of the test-taker’s empathy. And therein lies the reason why the test–and theory–are deeply flawed, for a test based on a faulty theory will in itself be…faulty.
What’s worse is that a test in which only half the questions are actually based on any kind of empathy are used to pronounce a person “lacking in empathy”, which sends powerful and deprecating messages to the person. They might begin to think that they indeed lack empathy, coming instead to see themselves as cold, calculating, emotionless people, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Medical or psychological professionals who have a peek at the person’s EQ score might easily come to the same conclusions and begin to scrutinize the person for psychopathy. They might come to fear that that person is destined for a life of cold, violent crime. They might begin to believe the person has no soul.
That might be a worse-case scenario, but it’s a realistic one. And I would wager that it has happened, and probably does often.
I have yet to find out why these two particular traits, systemizing and empathizing, have been singled out as diametrically opposed. Why these two? What’s so special about them that they were chosen as opposites out of all of the other existing attributes?
And why does a screening tool, known as an Empathy Quotient Test, contain a significant number of questions that have absolutely nothing to do with empathy itself? And have any researchers, who ascribe to question everything, and with a lower incidence of bias, scrutinized this tool carefully enough to pick up on its flaws? And if not, why not?
Another issue I have with the theory and its test is tangential, but deserves its own piece of discussion, and that is that the entire test is not based on empathy. In fact, it doesn’t delve much into the idea of empathy at all. The questions about being upset about seeing someone cry or someone in pain is probably the closest, most accurate measure of empathy on the entire test.
As for the rest of the questions? I’ll just pull some random examples:
- “I enjoy having discussions about politics”
- “I don’t like to take risks”
- “Before making a decision, I always weigh up the pros and cons”
- “I am at my best first thing in the morning”
- “I dream most nights”
Come again? What do these statements even have to do with empathy? And most of these aren’t even connected to systemizing, either. One is more of a marker for adrenal gland dysfunction, and another simply rules out the need for a sleep study. (Although I don’t think that’s where Baren-Cohen was going with these questions.)
Another (again, tangential) issue I take with the E-S theory and accompanying test is the fact that many of the questions that do measure empathy itself more accurately are very neurotypically biased. Questions/statements about situations such as noticing when someone in a group feels uncomfortable, being able to anticipate what someone is going to say or feel, being able to pick up on double-speak (i.e. saying one thing but meaning something else), or telling white lies to preserve feelings (Question #28 on the quiz (!)), all feel like pointed slaps in the face of autistic people, written solely with the “Triad of ‘Impairments'” in mind.
And the last issue that I take with the test is that for all the time it wastes on unrelated, extraneous fluff, it doesn’t actually probe the real heart of empathy. It doesn’t ask what we would do or how we would feel if we found a stray animal. It doesn’t examine how we would react to another’s suffering. It doesn’t find out about our reaction to someone who is ill. It doesn’t check for unexplained emotions or even physical sensations experienced when around certain people. It doesn’t screen for a history of premature burnout in caretaking roles. Or unexplained thoughts discovered later to have been mirrored by someone else across distance.
Essentially, the EQ test doesn’t even measure the “right” kind of empathy. It mostly measures the superficial, neuro-privileged, non-autistic “empathy”, without taking into consideration the deeper kernels of the hyper-empathy described by so many autistic people. That deeper empathy goes unregistered and thus gets missed or overlooked by professionals and even, sometimes, ourselves.
In reality, the E-S theory is entirely flawed, and the EQ test is blunt and inaccurate. It asks the wrong questions, many of which are irrelevant to empathy itself. It almost smacks of bait and switch. The real shame here is that it’s so widely used and respected as a yardstick, its validity accepted as a given.
I know I’m not the only one pointing out these logical fallacies. I’m not even an expert in the research field! I don’t sit on the review board for any literature publication. I don’t design, approve, or oversee any research. (Truthfully, my reading comprehension sucks sometimes.) And yet, even I picked up on this! Which means, I imagine, that several other autistic laypeople have, too.
Shame on the research community for not picking up on this, and holding such a problematic, illogical theory in such high, authoritative regard. Shame on the medical/psychological professionals who draw inaccurate and harmful conclusions about a person, based on this flimsy test alone.
I do have some respect for Baren-Cohen, which might not earn me any popularity points, but I do see the merit in some of his work. This E-S theory has a few good nuggets (systemizing came out of this, after all, and it was an important building block). I think the next step, however, is to divorce the empathy from the systemization and come to regard them as the two independent cognitive styles that they are, and evaluate these two aspects individually.
Maybe then, more progress can be made.
And true progress, in the right direction (in support of neurodiversity and inclusion), is good. 🙂