The problem with the Empathizing-Systemizing theory

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:

how-see-math-word-problems-if-you-have-4-pencils-3753639.png

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.  🙂

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39 Comments

  1. By putting them on opposite ends of a line in sounds more like a test to see if someone relies more on logic or emotion in their thinking. If that’s the case, calling emotional thinking “empathy” is way off!
    Also, just because I’m an Empath doesn’t mean that I can’t think systemically or logically.
    Sounds like a pointless test. Using a flawed tool will get you nothing but flawed results.
    💌💌💌😘😘💖💛💚💙💜❣

    Liked by 6 people

  2. i got 9 in that stupid neurotypical quotient test. in fairness, i don’t really get the visual cues of nonverbals anyway, but that test is just stupid. how well can you mindread people when they fail to actually communicate what they really want to say? like the famous example of a woman saying “fine” when bugged how she is feeling. ffs, if neurotypicals learned to say what they mean we’d have 80% less problems

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Not only that, the smarter one is, the more alternate information available to his or her brain to make the answer to the questions murkier. (why a lot of really smart people do poorly on true/false tests — and not a great deal better on “pick a winner”).
        xx,
        mgh

        Like

  3. You are brining attention and wisdom to a very important point. Most people are not capable of embracing the deeper paradox that A does not necessarily negate B just because A and B seem to be opposites. This is a compassionate plea for narrow thinkers to become more expansive in their view and capable of embracing and both/and rather than an either/or dichotomy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I took those tests ages ago, but I remember that I scored high on the systemising one and low on the empathising one. I’m definitely a systemiser, there’s no doubt about it. When it comes to empathy, I think I’ve got a ‘spiky profile’ – in some situations I’ve got a lot of empathy, in others not so much. But I agree that the whole setup is a false dichotomy. I have to say, I have been steadily losing my respect for Baron-Cohen over the past few months. He’s probably onto something with the systemising, but the rest is problematic. It’s not helped by the fact that it all flows from that ‘extreme male brain’ theory of his. If you want to know what nonsense this male-female brain thing is (independent of autism), read Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender’.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great review of the two and agree with you on the issue of “the more of one you are, the less of the other you are”. One can be both! Another example of pigeon holing people by measuring them using a faulty measuring stick. The worse part is these test haunt people for life.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting! Never taken this test, but thanks for enlightening me so I don’t bother and find myself annoyed. Sounds rather pointless. These are not traits that are mutually exclusive. I have my areas I systemize quite well, usually related to my special interests, but it does not stop me from a deep and sometimes rather painful level of empathy. I don’t know that I can say I can read a lot of nonverbal cues, but I can seem to almost literally take on the feeling from people I’m talking to, whether or not they have expressly stated how they are feeling ( though, if they do, that DOES aid quite a lot!😋). It’s like it comes off in waves with some folks and changes the energy in the room, sapping MY energy. And, almost always, this is with negative emotions. Happiness, while I can appreciate someone feeling it, seems tougher for me to take on as wholeheartedly, unless I understand the source. Maybe it has to do with all that childhood/early adulthood pain. Happiness has so often been a foreign, almost scary thing for me. But, get along little rabbit trail. lol…Anyway, what I struggle with most, rather than empathy itself, is explaining this inner dragging down, especially if I feel the need to excuse myself to go cry or process what I’m feeling( as I often do, since I literally cannot handle the emotional overload). And almost always is that nagging sensation I SHOULD be doing something to help the person in question, as if it is expected, but nearly always a helplessness as to what. So, I wind up fumbling for a comforting phrase or staying quiet most times. Thus, giving off the appearance of either ineptness or aloofness. 😔I think most tests on the subject don’t delve enough into the inner life. It is all based on someone ( most likely NT) who can translate empathy into an obvious outward response. I have yet to see a test that truly covers the deeper issues. 🙄

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hear, hear! Preach it, luv! 😘😘 So much wisdom and so many wonderful points made in your comment! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. And you’re not alone in the apprehension toward happiness; I describe the feeling as almost like waiting for the other shoe to drop 💚💙💜

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “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”….

    I think that excerpt sums it up (at least I found it very relevant and helped me understand the whole article)… These seem to be variables which are not related, as empathy seem to be more a state or feeling so to speak and the systemizing theory clearly points to a logical or rational faculty… I am with you in that sense. Furthermore, I think we need to be very cautious when we label someone, even more if the variables (such as here) seem to point out in different, and yet not excluding directions.
    Great post!. Sendin love & best wishes 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! 😊😊. Sorry for the very scenic route; I was coming out of antihistamine fog and trying to find different ways to express myself lol 😉💚. So glad you saw the nugget! 😁💙. Your warm words are *so* appreciated 👍🏼👍🏼❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a conjecture on why anyone would think empathizing and systemizing are opposites: People foolishly believing that logic = masculine and emotion = feminine, so “of course” they’re opposites.

    “Normal” people like to do that a lot, though: put things on a straight line where more of one thing must mean less of the other. ‘If you’re good with words, you CANNOT be good with numbers. If you’re artistic, you CANNOT understand science. If somehow you CAN do both things on the line, and do them very well, you don’t count; you’re an aberration, a statistical anomaly, no matter how many people like you there are.’

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Seems to me virtually all the positive qualities and things I take pride in about myself in do far as being a positive human are chauvinistically labeled “female”… that’s such rampant unchecked painful abuse to boys and men. These things are all human things.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. OMG, Laina, you know what happened yesterday? I spoke to CA legislators asking the to continue to support the minority mental health month, in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell. I spoke to them about the needs of our underserved and unrecognized community — and highlighted how difficult, above and beyond the already incredibly difficult, challenges Autistics are faced with when needing to access mental illness crisis support and the utter devastation our kids in early adulthood are experiencing with no resources to support Autistics in communities, careers, education, and the lack of cultural and community understanding. I did this and my minority . . . Autistic. My people, Autistic. My community, Autistic. My family, Autistic. We are a people. We have worth. We are going to create positive change this generation to help the ones coming up next. May they have brighter lights to connect with.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You are one incredible, amazing person!! You’re so right, too! I totally love the direction you’re going 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼❤️❤️. (And yep, I would still love love love to be part of what you do and work alongside you! The office has me pretty tied up right now but I haven’t forgotten you or abandoned you 😘💞💞)

          Liked by 1 person

  9. As an empath with great proficiency for systemizing I can’t appreciate what you have so eloquently elucidated more. There needn’t be an imaginary limiting mutual exclusivity there . This philosophy is bunk and offensive and its cultural acceptance and dissemination as solid science PAINS me to no end. It seems to me the populace is deliberately plied with misinformation and those behind it possess an arrogance or agenda that makes them miss the full picture. We are kindred spirits in a neverending overwhelming battle against pseudoscience!!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I find out something new every time I come here, Laina! This “test” is new to me.. but it sounds like it’s been around a while, with flaws and all. Mutually exclusive traits? Nah, not that I’ve seen in people around me. Sounds like the test needs a tweak or three! Well written, my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Greetings. Unfortunately, I find this to be extremely true in relation to others’ evaluation of me after I “come out” as autistic. If they first take note of “I’m very analytical”, the response is invariably, “So, you can’t communicate well, you’ll be cold and aloof, and you love doing mind-numbing tasks all day.” If they first take note of “I’m an empath”, then the response is “Oh, so you’re challenged on complex tasks and can’t handle changes.” I think you can hear the same juxtaposition there that you describe. It’s quite frustrating.

    While I am a systemizer, I don’t think in words, and I do have OCD (detail orientation) traits, I am also a quite strong empath, I crave variety, I crave creative work (not just details), and I communicate well enough that almost no one detects I’m autistic any more. I only tell them to avoid a bad day on my part when my masks slip. I find if I don’t warn them it *could* happen, then they feel lied to and/or betrayed and/or hurt that I didn’t trust them enough or something once they do notice my differences. However, when I do warn them, they tend to fall off a cliff of stereotypes, and I’m forevermore on the defensive, trying to untangle false perceptions.

    I also identify with several other posters. I experience others’ emotions through my hearing. Since all my senses seem to be hard wired to my amygdala and hippocampus, I “hear” their emotional tone in their voice, that pipes right into my emotional system, and I’m suddenly experiencing emotions that aren’t mine. Imagine what THAT is like in a room full of people socially talking.
    😀 Thankfully, my grandmother helped me figure this all out, and we honed the hearing through practice and I also figured out how to “trace back” that the “not-mine” emotion came from someone’s voice (I trace all emotional output, really, to hone out the “noise”, but details, I’m babbling, don’t get the opportunity to talk about these topics very much…). This hearing skill also let’s me memorize their facial expression features at the time, so that I can also verify on their face later that it is indeed they who are experiencing that emotion.

    Specifically on the empath part of things, it is my belief that if every neurotypical had half the empathy I experience from most autistics, that the world would be a sublimely different living experience for everyone. It is superlatively frustrating that I can’t seem to be allowed to just be me, instead of having to spend so much energy on the masks. All that energy, just to “survive” by “passing as normal” to try to avoid the negative judgments.

    All that said, try explaining any of this to a neurotypical, and brace yourself for your impending migraines. *one of my jokes that’s probably just for me* 🙂

    Thank you for the post. Finding neurosiblings on the internet lately, I no longer feel so much of an “outlier”. I appreciate that from you and others.

    Liked by 2 people

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