SCIENCE COLUMN | Levine: What does it take to feel someone else’s pain?

Last month, Jewish writer and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel was quoted in The New York Times as wishing a particular punishment on Bernie Madoff, the mastermind behind the Ponzi scheme that essentially destroyed Wiesel’s charity.

“I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, ‘Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,’ nothing else.”

In suggesting this, Wiesel has made an acute psychological observation and an interesting psychological assumption. The acute observation is this: for neurotypical people, seeing others suffer hurts.

The interesting assumption: Bernie Madoff is neurotypical.

So, why is the observation so acute, and why is the assumption so interesting? Tania Singer and her colleagues at the University College of London published a finding in Science in 2004 showing that the regions of the brain that support the affective processing associated with being in pain are also activated when subjects know someone else is experiencing pain. And while this reaction can be modulated to some degree (based on context, relationship of the empathizer to the target, and so forth), by and large, this response is automatic and immediate.

What Singer’s results show — and what Wiesel intuited — is that when we see another in pain, we may not be experiencing the sensation of pain — but we do experience at least some of the wrenching emotional response that comes with it, which is pretty terrible in itself. Terrible enough, in fact, that seeing others in pain for five years straight would be a fairly horrific punishment. (For most people.)

Individuals with the psychiatric disorder of psychopathy, by contrast, would find Wiesel’s proposed punishment quite puzzling. Far from being tormented, at worst, they’d be bored. Psychopaths have an empathy deficit; they lack the typical autonomic response that most people experience when they see others in distress. Not bound by the sentiment of pity, psychopaths are typically experts at manipulating others to get what they want.

But Wiesel wants to assume that Madoff is not a psychopath. That, after all, might excuse his behavior. Wiesel wants to assume that Madoff has a perfectly typical response to the pain of others, but decided to hurt them anyway. But if Madoff is just as pained by the suffering of others as everyone else, how did he manage to decide to hurt millions of people without immediately experiencing horrendous amounts of emotional pain?

The answer is that he used the wrong moral thought experiment. One way that we make moral decisions is by imagining ourselves committing both Act X and Act Y. We go with whichever choice feels more right.

A problem with this method, however, is that our reactions to the imagined scenarios differ substantially depending on the concrete or abstract nature of the representation. It’s easy to feel strongly about things that we imagine concretely; it’s not so easy with things that we need to imagine abstractly. What it’s like to be really rich — that can be imagined concretely. But the pain and suffering of millions of people needs to be imagined abstractly.

Madoff’s moral mistake, then, was in comparing an abstract outcome to a concrete outcome, finding the concrete outcome more compelling, and acting on that conclusion. Weisel’s proposed punishment, then, helps him correct the thought experiment by making the abstract suffering of his victims resoundingly concrete.


  • DBF

    I wonder if Mr. Madoff's feelings about his actions will change as the criminal justice system subjects him to his own personal losses: freedom, reputation, financial stability, hope for the future. I do not think he has the capability to empathize with his victims at all. Mr. Wiesel's punishment would not be effective in this case, I'm afraid. Mr. Madoff will only feel sorry for Mr. Madoff, another manifestation of his social psychopathic personality. Perhaps subjecting him to videos of his family members describing the effects of his actions on their lives might work. But I'm not hopeful.