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So What Are 'Trait Systemization' and 'Trait Empathisation' and Why Does it Matter for the Institutional Dysfunction and Chaos We Are Living Through?
A brief primer on the constructs and Baron-Cohen's Extreme Male Brain Theory (EMBT) of Autism
“We are in a crisis defined by an asymmetry in our institutions between trait empathisation and trait systemization.” Readers who have followed me on Twitter for some time will undoubtedly recognize my repeated use of the concepts of ‘trait empathisation’ and ‘trait systemization’ in describing the cultural revolution we are living amidst. While I have occasionally explained these terms in various degrees of detail to those who directly asked, I have yet to proffer a complete piece of writing that fully unpacks the line of research that gave rise to these constructs, their ‘loose’ relations to the social-personality constructs of femininity and masculinity, and why I think these constructs are best able to facilitate an understanding of the cultural chaos we are living through. This post aims to fill that gap.
The concepts of ‘trait systemization’ and ‘trait empathisation’ and their measurement as formal psychometric constructs emerged out of the autism research literature. More specifically, they are foundational to the Extreme Male Brain Theory (EMBT) theory of autism developed by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (note: he is the brother to the comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen). In brief, the logic of the EMBT theory of autism is that the disorder is a reflection of an extreme expression of the normative sex differences in the dimensional traits of systemization and empathisation in which males typically show a profile of stronger trait systemization relative to trait empathisation, whereas females show the opposite profile favoring stronger trait empathisation. As Baron-Cohen describes in his seminal 2002 paper introducing the EMBT:
The male brain is a defined psychometrically as those individuals in whom systemising is significantly better than empathising, and the female brain is defined as the opposite cognitive profile. Using these definitions, autism can be considered as an extreme of the normal male profile. There is increasing psychological evidence for the extreme male brain theory of autism.
So how are ‘trait systemization’ and ‘trait empathisation’ empirically (i.e., psychometrically) defined? Let’s take a look. First: trait systemization. Before providing the formal definition, I encourage you to do a brief thought exercise: ask yourself what immediately comes to mind for you when you think of someone you know who you would describe as ‘systematic’ in their personality or mannerisms. Having done this, hold those thoughts in your mind as I formally describe the construct below and ask yourself how well the person’s characteristics you had in mind ‘map onto’ or are consistent with our formal definition of trait systemization as it operationalized in psychological research.
As described in the seminal 2003 paper introducing the ‘systemizing quotient’ measure
Systemizing is the drive to analyse systems or construct systems.
Here, from a 2010 Baron-Cohen paper, is a more detailed description of trait systemization and what it encompasses:
And here are some questionnaire items that tap the construct of trait systemization:
Next, we turn to trait empathisation. One does not need to overthink the intended target operationalization of this psychological construct and the types of self-report questionnaire items that are used to measure it. Below is the seminal paper introducing the “Empathy Quotient” to index trait empathisation.
Despite the obvious importance of empathy, it is a difficult concept to define. Researchers in this area have traditionally fallen into one of two camps: theorists who have viewed empathy in terms of affect, and those who have taken a more cognitive approach. We argue that both approaches are essential to defining empathy, and that in most instances, the cognitive and affective cannot be easily separated.
In the paper, the authors provide the relevant conceptual background into both affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Here, I highlight the core text for purposes of this post. First, the affective approach:
The affective approach defines empathy as an observer’s emotional response to the affective state of another. This view of empathy arose from writings on sympathy. Within the affective approach, different definitions of empathy vary in how broad or narrow the observer’s emotional response to another’s emotion has to be.
And next, the cognitive approach:
Cognitive theories emphasize that empathy involves understanding the other’s feelings (Kohler, 1929). These theories also refer to cognitive processes such as role-taking, switching attention to take another’s perspective (Mead, 1934), or “decentering”; that is, responding nonegocentrically (Piaget, 1932)…In recent terminology, the cognitive component is referred to as using a “theory of mind” (Astington, Harris, & Olson, 1988; Wellman, 1990) or “mindreading” (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Whiten, 1991).
And on the relation between affective empathy and sympathy:
In moral philosophy, Adam Smith described sympathy as the experience of “fellow-feeling” we have when we observe someone else’s powerful emotional state (Smith, 1759). Sympathy is therefore a clear instance of the affective component of empathy. Sympathy is said to occur when the observer’s emotional response to the distress of another leads the observer to feel a desire to take action to alleviate the other person’s suffering (Davis, 1994). The observer may not actually act on this desire, but at the very least the observer has the emotion of wanting to take appropriate action to reduce the other’s distress.
Finally, here are some of the items used to tap the trait empathisation construct:
Note that, for both trait measurement questionnaires, what is ‘measured’ is not a single answer any particular item per se, but rather the respondents average score across all of the relevant items that are intended to tap the target construct (i.e., systemization or empathisation).
To illustrate the practical cognitive and behavioral (i.e., leadership) consequences of these trait profiles, consider an extreme, yet not uncommon, example that characterizes the American political landscape; a maximal juxtaposition: Ron DeSantis (governor of Florida) and Kathy Hochul (governor of New York). Setting aside their political party affiliations (itself a topic of interest relevant to these traits), consider their public stances regarding their responses to the COVID pandemic. On the one hand, DeSantis demonstrates a clear command of the quantitative empirical literature indicating the inability of community masking to prevent COVID spread and an informed cost-benefit understanding of the COVID vaccines which also did not prevent spread of the disease, and which were clearly associated with some increased health risk in certain subpopulations (adolescent males). Hochul, on the other hand, has based her leadership on emotion and feelings, and quasi-religious sentiment, untethered to any robust command of the empirical research on the issue. We could extend this example to their public statements and governing decisions regarding crime and gender ideology, but I think the point is clear.
Indeed, DeSantis’ obvious elevation on trait systemization is what others have described as ‘being slightly on the [ASD] spectrum’ and a possible attack point in his presidential candidacy. In fact, this aspect of DeSantis is what undoubtedly has made him an exceptional governor from a functional standpoint and why he would be a president who would effect change and address national crises with insightful and calculated celerity (see as an example his rapid response to rebuild the collapsed Pine Island and the Sanibel Causeway bridges in the aftermath of hurricane Ian.
One of the most visually impactful human interactions I encountered that immediately struck me as illustrating with remarkable clarity the differences between trait systemization and trait empathisation, and their practical potential consequences, happened as I was watching CNN in 2017. In a segment discussing US military involvement in the middle East and the possible removal of Bashaar al-Assaad, Rula Jebreal was emotionally calling for U.S. military involvement given the potential of lives lost, particularly children. In stark contrast, Spider Marks takes a much more measured, systematic analysis of the potential drawbacks of U.S. military involvement, particularly given the possibility that such involvement could escalate tensions leading to national security concerns and presumably further military involvement that could potentially put many more lives at stake. It was a systems-level analysis. It is worth noting, as well, that Marks is not devoid of empathy, recognizing the emotional appeal of Jebreal’s position. Most striking for me in the context of my own research investigating emotional dysregulation in psychopathology were Marks’ comments towards the end of the segment: Marks: “…we [the U.S military and our allies] self-regulate [in determining how we engage in these domains of war]”. As you watch the clip, in particular from ~5:45 on (and the side-by-side footage), try to keep the constructs described above in mind and judge for yourself if you agree with my assertions.
It is also insightful to think about the construct of trait empathisation in the context of the Longhouse atmosphere and professional managerial class (PMC) culture that now pervades our academic, cultural, and corporate institutions; likewise, it is equally insightful to think of the construct of trait systemization as it applies to military training. Both DeSantis and Spider Marks, of course, have served in the military.
One may wonder why I prefer the constructs of trait systemization and empathisation to the social-personality psychology constructs of femininity and masculinity. The primary reason is that I feel the former trait constructs, anchored in research on autism and more specifically the EMBT theory of autism, offer a more precise way to understand the core cognitive-behavioral trait profiles that are currently completely distributed asymmetrically throughout all of our institutions and which, consequently, is a core reason for the chaos and dysfunction we are living through, from unbridled diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) in academia, the uncritical acceptance of general ideology and ‘gender-affirming’ care, the push to destigmatize mental health conditions wholesale, to the delusional ‘restorative justice’ mindset that is contributing to increased crime and violence in many of our major cities. In each of these instances, the motivation for these positions is ‘empathy’ without grounded systems-level thinking that accounts for regularities and empirical, lawful relations among behaviors and outcomes that define the human condition.
Elevated empathetic responding and frames of reference become the ‘intrusive, over-stimulating mother’, the “Devouring Mother,” with no structure. Chaos. One analogy I have found useful to think about it is the visual of an awning over a patio at an outdoor restaurant. Unmitigated trait empathisation is the awning cover material blowing aimlessly in the wind—a magic carpet—not anchored by the scaffolding of the awning frame that structures and grounds—the lawful relations that govern how systems in the world operate.
Simon Baron-Cohen’s book: The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention is a thought-provoking read that provides additional detail on all of the research discussed in this post.
For an additional perspective see Paul Bloom: Against Empathy
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There are different psychometric approaches to creating summary (e.g., mean, sum) scores on questionnaire measures such as the systemizing and empathasing quotients. Indeed, one can also create ‘latent’ or ‘unobserved’ factors that are ‘error-free’ statistical representations of the trait constructs using a methodological procedure known as factor analysis. I don’t go into depth on this here, nor every single subsequent methodological paper published concerning the reliability or validity of the SQ and EQ, but am happy to discuss this more with the interested reader.