So there’s been an empathy quotient test floating around and until today, I hadn’t seen a link to actually take it. This morning I did; my result was 35. I am average, my friends, according to Simon Baron-Cohen.
And that right there is where it all falls apart, because Simon Baron-Cohen is an ignorant gender essentialist douchenozzle who does not appear to have ever met a real person in his life. His work leans heavily on stereotypes both of men and women, and of autistic people.
In reality, this isn’t so much an empathy test as an “Are you autistic?” test (which is mind-boggling when you consider the book this comes from also has one of those). It intertwines autism and lack of empathy to such an extent that it uses questions about stereotypical autistic traits, things that have nothing to do with empathy, to judge your empathy levels. This test has already judged you. It’s overloaded with bias and preconceptions.
Hell, it’s even required that you state your gender (and no, you don’t get to choose from anything other than male or female). As a cis woman I’m probably not the one to explain the overall problematic nature of this; as an autistic cis woman, I fear that the test added points based on my gender, because Baron-Cohen buys so thoroughly into the bullshit that women are naturally more empathetic than men. So yes: The empathy test in question has already made value judgments about you based on both autistic and gender stereotypes. Very scientific, Mr. Baron-Cohen.
Furthermore, the questions that do potentially have an actual thing to do with empathy are often formulated vaguely and poorly. It’s no wonder science as a whole considers psychology to be useless hokum, if this is the kind of horseshit that comes out of the field. There is nothing of nuance to this test; your only answers are “definitely agree,” “slightly agree,” “slightly disagree,” or “definitely disagree.” Real world situations like “Well yesterday I would’ve disagreed, but not today” aren’t even considered.
It’s a whole lot of nonsense, and I’m going to go through the questions one by one to show you why. There are 60 questions total and they are often highly problematic, so I’ve broken this into two parts to keep it somewhat under control.
1. I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.
I must assume this is meant to connect to empathy by showing whether or not a person can understand what another person wants from the signals provided. But what if there are no signals? Not every person—even the allistic ones—is always clear on what they want. And what is the nature of this conversation? Is it taking place in a big group or in a noisy place where it might be hard to tell that someone is even trying to speak? Is this person looking at you or giving you any indication that they want to talk? Are they in fact trying to interrupt you in the middle of something? There’s no real context. Being empathetic is not the same thing as being psychic.
2. I prefer animals to humans.
What is this even supposed to mean? That if you prefer animals to humans, you’re lacking in empathy? Well, it requires empathy to be around and care for animals just as much as humans; in fact sometimes it requires more because animals can’t simply tell you what they need. Considering Baron-Cohen’s track record, I’d guess he considers human empathy to be far more important than any other. That’s a very allistic definition of empathy; ignore it.
3. I try to keep up with the current trends and fashions.
I’m sorry, what? What in the everloving fuck does this have to do with empathy? What if people don’t like current trends and fashions? What if fashion isn’t important to them? What if they have their own style? This question is so very leading in so many ways. It relies both on the stereotype that autistic people aren’t fashionable (bite me) and the stereotype that women love current trends and fashions (also, bite me). Thus, if someone doesn’t keep up with current trends and fashions they are…not empathetic? Why? I love fashion; does this mean I’m not autistic? At the same time, I wear what I want regardless of trends; does this mean I’m not empathetic? Not a woman? (That second one is news to me.)
Essentially what this question is actually stating is: Men and people without empathy (i.e. autistics) don’t care about fashion, and women and people with empathy (i.e. not autistics) do. It’s nothing more than gender essentialist horse pucky that has nothing to do with empathy and can be (and should be) safely ignored.
4. I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they don’t understand it first time.
Here’s what I mean by vague: What exactly does “things" even mean? What if something I understand easily is quantum physics? String theory? There are things that are difficult to explain no matter who you are or how much empathy you might have. If you teach physics for a living, you will encounter people every single day who don’t understand a damn word you’re saying the first time. And no, despite what Baron-Cohen seems to believe, scientist =/= autistic.
5. I dream most nights.
I must’ve missed something. What does this have to do with empathy? Do people with a lot of empathy dream more? Less? Why would dreams have anything to do with empathy? I dream every single night, constantly and vividly; what does that mean? Based on the ideas of the purpose of dreams, all people dream most if not all nights, though they may not remember it. So now we’re judging empathy based on something someone might not even remember happening? How useful.
6. I really enjoy caring for other people.
Again, vague. Which other people? Children? The elderly? Your family? An argument can at least be made that this has something to do with empathy, as caring for people generally does. But the word “enjoy” is what clues us in on the real nature of the question. It’s based on a societal idea that people, especially those who are empathetic (or in Baron-Cohen language, women), must enjoy caring for other people. Never mind all the myriad reasons someone might not like caring for others; if you don’t enjoy caring for other people, you’ve already been judged for it. And that judgement is “lower empathy.”
7. I try to solve my own problems rather than discussing them with others.
I think this is the part where me and a number of my fellow autistics add “…because we’ve learned that people hate/don’t care/find invalid our problems anyway.” Anyone can be like this for any number of reasons, including an overload of empathy: “They’re going through so much already, I don’t want to bother them with this.”
8. I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation.
Vague. Which social situation? There are many kinds, and all sorts of different reasons that all sorts of different people might not know what to do in a given social situation. Many of these have absolutely nothing to do with empathy. In order to truly make this relate to empathy, we first must assume the position that autism = lack of empathy and since autistic people often struggle in social situations, struggling in social situations indicates being the kind of person who lacks empathy.
9. I am at my best first thing in the morning.
So what you’re saying is, a huge chunk of the population of the world lacks empathy? Seriously, most people aren’t at their best first thing in the morning. What the fuck is this even doing here?
10. People often tell me that I went too far in driving my point home in a discussion.
11. It doesn’t bother me too much if I am late meeting a friend.
Another obviously leading question. What we’re supposed to take from this is that not being bothered by being late to meet a friend shows a lack of empathy because it demonstrates that you don’t care about their time or feelings. There’s no allowance for things like if your friend is always late too, if you agreed to meet during rush hour and knew you might be late, if you use public transportation and your friend knows that’s not always reliable. In other words, the answers you can choose have no relation to being a real person and having a real life.
12. Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them.
Define “difficult” please, Mr. Baron-Cohen. I could write an entire rant on this question alone. I don’t bother overmuch with friendships because 1) I’ve been badly abused by my friends in the past, 2) allistic people tend to have a very different definition of friendship than me; they tend to find me too intense and invested and 3) being around people exhausts me. Other people have other reasons. This doesn’t mean they lack empathy; it means they lack Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy.
13. I would never break a law, no matter how minor.
Because the reason people don’t break laws is that the empathize with others and understand why it’s wrong. Not because, you know, they might get fined or thrown in jail. I see where this is going, but it’s wrong. Laws in and of themselves don’t fit into defining empathy; maybe you wouldn’t murder someone because you have empathy, but it’s not like “Hey guys, I have no empathy so I’m gonna go jaywalk now, ‘kay?” Also, why can’t I shake a feeling of classism lurking on the horizon? Hmm.
14. I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite.
Cause autistic people often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite and autism = lack of empathy so…Mr. Baron-Cohen, let’s get something straight. I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite because non-verbal communication presents a challenge for me to read; this is because I lack certain instincts, not because I lack empathy. Stop making associations like these.
15. In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
Oh god, this one. These statement-questions like this, I’ve encountered them a lot and they’re meant to prove whether or not someone has enough empathy to consider what someone else is thinking. As if focusing on your own thoughts when talking, so you don’t come off sounding like a blathering idiot, is wrong. People with empathy can tell if someone is bored or upset or whatever, right? Because it’s not like the listener can open their mouth and say something or anything like that. If I don’t focus on what I’m talking about it usually ends up sounding something like “And that is why we apples because there is kitten and also I think starship pudding lasers so…”
16. I prefer practical jokes to verbal humour.
Practical jokes are often kind of assholish and mean and really don’t seem to take other peoples’ feelings into account, but verbal humor can be just as bad in that respect. Really, I can’t see how this can raise or lower your score in any way, unless we follow the usual line of thinking: “Autistic people struggle to understand verbal humor and autism = lack of empathy so…” (Hint: Actually we don’t necessarily struggle to understand verbal humor at all.)
17. I live life for today rather than the future.
Um. Well, that’s really impressive if you can do it—except when it’s short-sighted. But unless we’re getting into “it’s selfish and unempathetic to not consider how your actions will affect future generations” territory, I don’t see the point of this one.
18. When I was a child, I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen.
Boy does this question stand out or what? Classic “kid obviously is an emotionless sociopath because they pick on insects” stereotype (pretty sure a worm is not an insect but you know what I mean). Sure, I guess you might end up being downright sociopathic if you enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen as a child—or you could end up being an entomologist. My point is, the weird shit you did as a child is not necessarily indicative of the kind of person you’ll grow up to be.
19. I can pick up quickly if someone says one thing but means another.
Again, this is something that has nothing to do with empathy and everything to do with picking up social cues. Empathy is not what is required for that (although it can certainly be useful).
20. I tend to have very strong opinions about morality.
Like everyone else, then? People do generally have very strong opinions about morality, especially about what constitutes morality. I haven’t really met people who don’t.
21. It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.
Everybody—absolutely everybody—has this issue at times. Everybody. Without fail. And yeah, it can be indicative of one’s empathy levels, so it counts as a somewhat useful question. The ambiguous “some things” takes away from that usefulness, though. It’s so severely over-generalized that it can refer to absolutely anything, including things people maybe shouldn’t have empathy for.
22. I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.
This question makes me wonder if Simon Baron-Cohen genuinely believes no autistic people will ever read his book and take his test, or if he be trolling. Really, using this sort of colloquial turn of phrase for such a purpose is really bad practice anyway. It’s like it’s put here purposefully to trip up as literal autistic people or something. The actually meaning of the phrase is useful, but phrased as it is, less so. And to troll right back: Not really, since most people I meet have bigger feet than me. But I have no problem at all understanding how people feel in most of the situations they go through. Comes of having people treat you like an inhuman sociopath your whole life. Thanks for that, Simon.
23. I think that good manners are the most important thing a parent can teach their child.
I’m really not sure how precisely this relates to empathy. I think it has something to do with the idea that people without empathy don’t think manners are important. I’d argue though that a person’s weighing of the importance of manners is actually of limited use in understanding their true level of empathy. Too much of what we consider “manners” in society is a patriarchal, evil warping of attitudes, meant to keep oppressed people silent and shut away. Yes, I said it.
24. I like to do things on the spur of the moment.
And this is what I mean, again, by this being an “Are you autistic?” test. Because this has absolutely nothing, nada, zero zip zilch to do with empathy. Jack all. This is based on an autistic behavior—that we prefer routines, that we don’t like surprises or spontaneity—not an empathetic one. What would this even have to do with empathy? I mean, if you really stretched it, you could say it means you’re empathetic to a loved one liking spontaneity in their lives. But that’s more like being psychic. (And anyway, plenty of us like surprises, as long as they’re nice surprises.)
25. I am good at predicting how someone will feel.
Predicting? Really? Most people aren’t good at predicting how someone will feel. Even when a person has a good idea ahead of time how someone will feel, it’s not prediction, as such. It’s a combination of knowledge of that person plus intuition/instincts. “Predicting” makes it sound so full of woo. Plenty of people who have lots of empathy can’t do this and plenty of people can do it but have no empathy. We call them conmen. Or politicians.
26. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable.
There we go with the vagueness again. How big a group are we talking? Where is said uncomfortable person in relation to me? What if this person doesn’t emote their discomfort very visibly? The question leads, because many people, while taking this test, won’t consider those factors and thus their answer doesn’t reflect what they would actually do.
27. If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that that’s their problem, not mine.
Nice job, Simon. You just diagnosed half the population of tumblr with low empathy. I mean, technically this is the kind of question we should be asking, but it has its own problems. People with this attitude usually feel this way about things they have the privilege of not experiencing. In fact, privilege is a big issue when it comes to lack of empathy. Since Baron-Cohen’s hypotheses have to do with how men and women are “hard-wired,” I doubt he’s taken that into consideration.
28. If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn’t like it.
Oh, you mean kind of like autistic people often do, right? Leading, leading, leading. Incidentally, this has only so much to do with empathy; it has a lot more to do with tact. Both are things people need to learn. Autistics just have the extra hurdle of having to learn that people weren’t asking for an honest answer to begin with.
29. I can’t always see why someone should have felt offended by a remark.
Another thing I hate about these so-called tests: We’ve basically already answered this. It’s pretty much the same as 21 and 27, just worded a bit differently. I have no idea what purpose this serves, except perhaps to confuse people. And what kind of remarks are we even talking about? If I say “I hate Teletubbies” and I don’t know that the guy next to me adores them, I might indeed be confused why he’s so offended. This unspecific language is killing me here.
30. People often tell me that I am very unpredictable.
Because um…acting predictably shows uh…that you’re paying attention to the people around you and er…you empathize with—oh fuck it. I don’t know what that’s supposed to have to do with my empathy quotient. I just don’t. What is this question doing here again?