Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thinstock, 2012

As mentioned by a fellow blogger on here, Stanford University ran a study that puts people into a virtual avatar of themselves in cow form. They are then put through different scenarios where they are grazing, drinking, and having the bajeezus zapped out of them by a cattle prod.

Understandably, this exercise led to increased empathy towards cows. This idea of the avatar being seen as an extension of the self, and so increasing empathy, was extended by him to such things as Grand Theft Auto, wherein a player can have the avatar of a coked up gang-banger who steals things and kills people. He questioned the ethical and moral implications of this.

I question whether or not the premise is correct at all. The Stanford experiment claims that their virtual reality cow avatars led to increased "empathy" but I'm going to call doo-doo on that one. Empathy is something that we think we understand, but we do not understand at all. We are not other people. We are ourselves. That means that we cannot possibly have "empathy." Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, is relating one's own experiences to the experiences they think another person is having internally, and then feeling that. They feel their own feelings, not the other person's, or in this case, the cows.

I consider now whether or not this can even be said to be true. Cows, according to Nietzsche, live unhistorically, meaning that they do not remember much beyond that which they experience right now. They live entirely in the present. Even if this i not entirely true, I am willing to venture that cows live more in the moment than humans do, as humans can only exist in the past and future. The present is gone and becomes the past the second it is gone. Hell, it passes more quickly that by the second. Moments are so small that we cannot measure them, and so we cannot even sense them passing as they really are. We are always thinking of things that we have done, or are going to do, and having a pure experience free of these things is nearly impossible.

So I wonder if the sympathy (I don't think it was empathy) that the Stanford participants felt was at all near what the cow was actually experiencing, or if they had had to draw from experiences of their own that were not even close. That being said, I very much doubt they had a ton of experience being zapped by a cattle prod, so how would they even begin to understand that kind of pain? How could they find a similar experience in their heads without it being off?

I have no clue....


  1. Your second to last paragraph is incredibly intelligent and is blowing my mind in this sleep deprived week. Your observations of how the students perceived this simulated reality brings into question how they were able to create such a viable testing method to determine whether or not the students could actually perceive as the researchers had predicted they would experience. Perhaps if they got branded instead of cattle-prodded results with more explicit details would emerge.

  2. Even then, there would only be a specific demographic of people who would understand that. To be burned so badly that one is branded by is a kind of pain that many people would go into shock from. If someone had burned their thumb on the stove, I do not know if that kind of intensity would really be transferable through sympathy or empathy. I agree that I would like to know about how they tested whether or not they felt empathy r sympathy. If they took the person's subjective point of view, they will likely have inaccurate answers. First we must find a way to measure sympathy, I suppose, and then see if empathy is ever truly possible. It's a neat idea, but I do not know how close they are to figuring that out.


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