Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, states, “vulnerability is the birthplace of empathy.” But does vulnerability have an evolutionary advantage?
Witnessing a person in a vulnerable state enacts what is known as a negative-state relief model of response—where our motives for helping them stem from the personal distress we feel when exposed to their plight.[i] The empathy that comes from identifying with another person and feeling and understanding what that person is experiencing leads to the innate tendency to help him or her.[ii], [iii]
And this decision to help, according to the empathy-altruism hypothesis by Daniel Batson, depends primarily on whether we feel empathy for the person. Batson goes on to argue that pure altruism is motivated by the empathy that we feel for the person in need; that is, when we are able to experience events and emotions the way that that person experiences them.[iv]
When we know someone is in a vulnerable state, we are much more likely to feel empathy and, ultimately, are more likely to help. One study found that those high in empathy were much more likely to help a fellow student who had ostensibly broken both legs in an accident and was behind in classes.[v]
A separate study showed similar results. Researchers divided participants into a high-empathy group and a low-empathy group. They both had to listen to another student, Janet, who reported feeling lonely. The study found that the high-empathy group (told to imagine vividly how Janet felt) volunteered to spend more time with Janet, whether or not their help was anonymous, which makes the social reward lower.[vi] This study points to the role of empathy in motivating helping behavior—regardless of the cost and reward.
And vulnerability may influence more than just the decision to help. Primates will come to the aid of another with increased frequency when witnessing that one is a vulnerable state. Further, the work of Robert Sapolsky suggests another evolutionary purpose for vulnerability. Measuring glucocorticoid levels, which are an indication of stress, in wild baboons living in a national park in Kenya, Sapolsky notes that when under stress, such as being a low-ranking member of a group or when the dominance hierarchy of that group is unstable, it’s the baboons who have higher levels of social support (in Sapolsky’s experiments, this equates to fellow group members coming to the aid of members in distress) that have lower levels of glucocorticoids.[vii] And these group members come to their aid because they are vulnerable.
The work of Sapolsky suggests that vulnerability and empathy both have important adaptive purposes. Vulnerability enhances connection because it creates a physiological response, a distress signal that we feel when witnessing the suffering of another. And when we feel what another feels, what we know as empathy, we are instinctively compelled to help. Yet the help that vulnerability elicits does much more than connect us. Receiving social supports helps us cope with stress.
While Sapolsky originally noticed this effect in wild baboons, he notes that “this can be demonstrated even in transient instances of support. In a number of subtle studies, subjects were exposed to a stressor such as having to give a public speech or perform a mental arithmetic task, or having two strangers argue with them, with or without a supportive friend present. In each case, social support — induced by vulnerability — translated into less of a cardiovascular stress-response.”[viii]
Whether in helping us recognize and respond to the needs of others, or in exposing — and having others attend to — our needs, vulnerability is more than just the birthplace of empathy. It is the birthplace of connection.
[i] J. Fultz, M. Schaller, and R. B. Cialdini, “Empathy, Sadness and Distress: Three Related but Distinct Vicarious Affective Responses to Another’s Suffering,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 14 (1988), 312–15.
[ii] J. Fultz et al., “Social Evaluation and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (1986).
[iii] T. Gilovich, D. Keltner, and R. E. Nisbett, Social Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).
[iv] C. D. Batson and L. L. Shaw, “Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives,” Psychological Inquiry 2 (1991), 107–22.
[vii] R. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress- Related Diseases, and Coping (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2004).
Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit www.leverageadversity.net