He determines people’s sanity and evaluates psychopaths every day. Yet the Aurora Theater and Sandy Hook shootings hit forensic psychologist Max Wachtel especially hard, driving him to try to figure out what made these killers and other male criminals do what they do. In doing research, one common element arose—a lack of empathy—which led Wachtel to write The One Rule for Boys.
If Wachtel’s name and face seem familiar, it may be because he’s the official 9News Psychologist, providing expert analysis in legal cases (such as the Aurora Theater shooting) or new psychology research.
Wachtel says sympathy and empathy are very different concepts. “Sympathy is feeling sorry for somebody. Empathy is understanding where somebody is coming from on an intellectual level, why they are doing the things they are doing, why they are having the emotional reactions they are having.”
A lack of empathy can manifest itself in a variety of ways. “Almost always, it comes out as problems with anger because anger is a very easy emotion to access, but it’s a very surface emotion,” Wachtel explains. “Usually there’s something else going on like sadness, frustration, anxiety or a feeling of unfairness.”
If boys can be empathic, it helps in nearly every area of their lives, says Wachtel. He found research showing that empathic boys do better in school, have more high-quality friends, are seen as leaders and deal better with bullies. As they get older, he found empathic males tend to get better jobs and report higher satisfaction in romantic relationships and life in general. “I figured it was a good thing but it was surprising to see how much stuff it helped with.”
In his research, Wachtel discovered that there’s a pretty clear difference in the way we socialize boys and girls. “When they are born, boys and girls have an equal propensity to develop empathy and for aggression and anger.” Around ages 3–4, however, he says a split begins to happen in which girls naturally start to be socialized to be empathic and boys don’t. “Society encourages girls to push down the anger, that it’s a bad thing and to think more of others. And in general, society urges boys to be more aggressive, to get what they want and to use that anger to do that,” explains Wachtel. “There are individual differences in every boy and girl and every family but when you look at society as a whole, that tends to happen. Empathy works for girls; they naturally get some of that training without us doing a whole lot. And, there are kids (boys or girls) who are born with a higher potential to be empathic, just like there are kids who are really smart or more athletic.”
The One Rule for Boys walks parents through the process of teaching empathy skills to boys at various ages. But, Wachtel says, parents need to understand empathy themselves before trying to teach it to their children. “If we aren’t able to model [empathy], it perpetuates this pushing down of emotions and ignoring the feelings of others, and it just hurts our kids because that’s what they see us doing.” Kids watch parents like hawks, he says, and learn from that. “They also pick up on hypocrisy, so if we’re doing something wrong and we tell them to do it a different way, they aren’t going to do it a different way.”
Wachtel says teaching and modeling empathy can start early but cautions that before the age of 3, children are more selfish because, developmentally, they have a hard time seeing other people as separate from themselves. “Parents can get really frustrated because toddlers can come across as anti-social jerks, but that’s not their fault, that’s just the way it is,” he says. Around age 4, though, kids start to understand the concept that not everyone thinks the way they do. “It’s never too late to teach empathy, but the older a kid gets, the harder it can be; but these are skills that adults and kids and teenagers can learn,” he says.
Wachtel sometimes finds mom is on board to teach empathy but dad isn’t. “I can definitely empathize with those dads because we didn’t get that kind of training as kids. It doesn’t feel natural because we haven’t practiced it a lot,” Wachtel says. “The key is for both parents to figure out how to get on the same page.”
A common concern is that a child could become too empathic. “It’s good to be those things but you don’t want to have a bleeding heart because you end up taking on everybody’s stuff and people take advantage of you. But as far as really having a keen sense of how others are feeling, why they are feeling that way, and also understanding your own emotions, you really can’t have too much of that because it leads to more emotional regulation, more assertiveness, more life satisfaction,” he says.
Wachtel feels there is a growing movement in society for boys to be more empathic. “… it’s much more socially acceptable for men to show their feelings than there ever has been before and to take others’ feelings into account,” he says. “It’s more appropriate than ever before for women to be seen as assertive although there are still issues with that. It’s definitely moving in the right direction.”