The Perils of ‘Metabolic Chauvinism’

A reporter's notes from a recent scientific conference

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Most conflicts — in relationships, politics, even science — involve a difference of perspective. They are rarely more intense than when the warring perspectives are personal. Consider the fierce debates over the merits of various weight-loss diets, the utility of antidepressant drugs, the safety of prescription pain medications, or the true definition of autism.

Recently, at the Science Online conference in Raleigh, N.C., I had the opportunity to help moderate a session on questions of bias and advocacy when journalists cover issues about which they have personal experience. For me, as a former addict who frequently covers drug-related stories, few days go by when I don’t have to confront these very questions. But a consideration of how personal experience may both unite and divide us can help illuminate many tricky issues in covering mental and physical health.

During the discussion, Dirk Hanson, who writes the excellent blog Addiction Inbox, introduced a phrase that I think captures the core reason these arguments arise: “metabolic chauvinism.”

Metabolic chauvinism is the idea that one’s own experience — of a drug, a condition, a cure or sensation — is the same as that of everyone else. It’s similar to the way male chauvinists assume that the male perspective is the only one that matters.

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For example, if Prozac restores my psychological health, I might be biased to consider antidepressant drugs as effective medication. If you find the drug to be mentally numbing and energy sapping, you may think of it as a placebo with deadening side effects, at best. If I try the Atkins diet and lose 20 lbs. easily, I might be inclined to view anyone who fails as weak-willed or undisciplined. You, who found Atkins impossible to tolerate, may consider it useless. If my experience of having Asperger syndrome leaves me blessed with intellectual passion and intensity, while yours results in sensory overload and loneliness, you and I will have very different opinions on whether a cure or genetic screen for the autistic condition is a blessing.

Metabolic chauvinism results from a fundamental feature of our ability to empathize: when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we can’t help but to think they have the same shoe size that we do. We may try to see the world through another’s eyes, but we still bring along our own experiences and biases as context.

Going back to the dieting example: if I have no trouble sticking with the Atkins plan because I am innately immune to the temptations of sugar, I may tend to view people who overeat as weak. Rather than considering the possibility that their hunger is simply be bigger than mine, I might assume that their self-control is smaller. Metabolic chauvinism is what leads me to assume that everyone shares the same drives and brain wiring I do — that our metabolic tendencies are exactly alike.

Of course, a few minutes of thought about the widely varying reactions people have to the same experience shows instantly that this idea about human nature is wrong. When the diversity of genetics, childhood experience, sexual orientation and all other types of human variety are considered, it’s obvious that there are huge individual differences that affect the way we each see and experience the world.

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Ironically, our inclusive assumption that humans are all basically the same can undermine our ability to understand some important differences. Instead of making us more magnanimous, this notion of similitude can sometimes disconnect us from those who are different, rather than increasing mutual understanding. For example, some heterosexuals may be unable to accept homosexuality because they believe that like themselves, everyone is “naturally” attracted to people of the opposite gender. They don’t recognize that gay people have an inherently different orientation.

The concept of metabolic chauvinism allows us to question these assumptions and to recognize both our differences and our similarities. When we take such biases into account, it becomes easier to understand why the exact same experience might be devastating to one person, and exhilarating to another.

Metabolic chauvinism also provides insight into what some autistic advocates call neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that our brain wiring isn’t all the same, that different wiring can produce not only defects and disabilities, but also (often in the same person) talent, skill and genius. Letting go of our metabolic chauvinism allows us both to celebrate neurodiversity and to have compassion for people whose brain wiring may, for example, make an otherwise ordinary social experience feel extremely painful or difficult.

It lets us recognize that the same drug treatment can be both a blessing and curse, depending on the person who takes it. And why the same environment may be heaven for you and hell for me.

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Curiously, taking psychoactive drugs is one way of identifying one’s affinity for this type of bias. When your usual world becomes warped by marijuana, LSD, mushrooms or even alcohol, it’s hard not to notice how your own mental state shapes your reality. Understanding that we ourselves can view the world through different filters — high or sober — vividly demonstrates that other people’s realities can be starkly different too.

Depression also can makes the bias of our lens clearer: its shadow falls over everything, making what was once pleasant feel dull or even terrifying.

If we can recognize our own metabolic chauvinism before we judge others, and truly hear their descriptions of their experience — even when they clash with ours — then we can begin to empathize genuinely and ultimately find real common ground.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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