Blurred Lines: Social Bonds Blur Distinctions Between Self and Other

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Feeling what another feels; stepping into someone’s shoes; entering into another’s inner life; identifying with another; these and many other descriptions have been given to describe empathy. They all suggest some sort of identification with the state of another; an emotional “knowing” of another’s life. The truth might be even more interesting.

One of the views on empathy involves the idea perspective-taking diminishes the division between self and other. Werner (1980) proposed that empathic behavior is selfishly motivated because it involves an “extension of self,” lessening the dissimilarity between the self and other.

This study can be boiled down to 3 experiments; using the threat of electrical shock to see what parts of the brain activate when 1) the self is threatened 2) a friend is threatened, and 3) a stranger is threatened.

The research found the same patterns of activation for case 1) and 2) but not when a stranger was threatened. This – along with some other research – leads the authors to suggest the brain represents a threat to a friend as it were a threat to the self and that strong social bonds blur the self-other distinction.

While this study is not about dogs, it’s also not “not” about dogs and the brain regions involved – anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – are not uniquely human or have analogues.

Empathy is a strong motivating factor in prosocial behavior – like coming to the aid of another – and various studies suggest dogs may be capable of empathy. There are also countless of reported cases of dogs with no history of aggression leaping into aggressive defense when their owners were threatened.

Do dogs also experience this blurring in the self-other distinction? I have no idea nor will I speculate. I think it would make an interesting study.

REFERENCES

Beckes L, Coan JA, & Hasselmo K (2013). Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 8 (6), 670-7 PMID: 22563005

Werner DM (1980). The self in procosial action. In DM Werner & RR Vallacher (Eds); The self in social psychology (pp. 131-157) New York: Oxford University Press. http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Wegner 1989 Ch. 6 The self in prosocial action.pdf (direct to PDF)

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5 thoughts on “Blurred Lines: Social Bonds Blur Distinctions Between Self and Other

  1. The research found the same patterns of activation for case 1) and 2) but not when a stranger was threatened. This – along with some other research – leads the authors to suggest the brain represents a threat to a friend as it were a threat to the self and that strong social bonds blur the self-other distinction.

    So, the if the test person reacts to a threat to a friend the same way he reacts to a threat to himself, that means his friend’s self from his point of view = his self extended into his friend = himself being selfish? That sounds like a bit of a construct. The “find” is caused by the assumptions.

    One of the views on empathy involves the idea perspective-taking diminishes the division between self and other. Werner (1980) proposed that empathic behavior is selfishly motivated because it involves an “extension of self,” lessening the dissimilarity between the self and other.

    It sounds like one of those theories that cook any motivation down to “selfish” by defining “selfish” so widely that it includes any motivation that benefit oneself. Since behaviour that benefit others commonly benefits oneself as well – and even altruistic behaviour tend to make the do-gooder feel good about him/herself, which can be seen as selfish pleasure-seeking – there is no winning for non-selfish. Not because of the reality but because the “selfish” concept is defined in such a wide way that it automatically absorbs any possible motivation into itself. It is a naming-thing and ideology, not real research.

    • I would agree with you that expansive definitions tend to be useless. I just didn’t want to introduce the whole concept of self-other identification without noting that this is not new revelation and there was some historical support for this view. Werner’s views on ‘selfish’ action aren’t really part of the study – their focus on how the brain represents these situations. . I’m sorry if I my writing gave the wrong impression.

      • This bit about the actual study:

        This – along with some other research – leads the authors to suggest the brain represents a threat to a friend as it were a threat to the self and that strong social bonds blur the self-other distinction.

        sounded like the study was inspired by Werner’s approach … or a similar type of thinking. But now when you say it, I can see that it doesn’t need to be read that way.

        Thank you for your reply:-)

  2. Following the link that you supplied to the University of VA site, I found an article by Fariss Samarrai, Senior News Officer, U.Va. Media Relations summarizing a very creative and well-thought-out study conducted by U.Va. psychology professor James A. Coan. Mr. Samarrai begins his article with the so-o-o tired old saw: “Perhaps one of the most defining features of humanity is our . . . “(in this case: capacity for empathy — but in the past could have read . . . language capability or . . . tool use). I did not read this conclusion stated in Prof. Coan’s study. I know that science writers, like other writers, feel the need to use cliches at times. But this seems, in light of past discoveries, to be a most harmful and unscientific cliche. In my opinion it is attitudes such as this that have stood in the way of our enlightenment about the thinking ability of dogs and other non-human animals.

    As you wrote, Dr. Musculus, this study was not “not” about dogs and would be an interesting area of study as pertains to dogs. Hopefully, some open-minded researchers will take this up.

    Thank you for your refreshingly forward-thinking blog.

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