The Empathy Academy by Dustin Grinnell <— BLURB JOLT!!! A TEST TO PREDICT UNETHICAL BEHAVIOR?? OH YOU GUYS!!! I LOVE THE SOUND OF THIS ONE (you know me and sci-fi social issues and genetic testing books! Techno-thrillers??? YES PLEASE!!. I devour those!!) And… the author is sponsoring today’s newsletter!!
To read The Empathy Academy, I think you’d have to be in whatever mood might draw someone to a TV show like Black Mirror, or books like Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, or Ted Chiang’s science fiction.
Sidenote from Maryse: I LOVVVVVED Dark Matter (and Black Mirror freaks me out but I sure do watch it!!)
My novel explores the science and perils of using genetic technology to predict and enhance complex human behavior. Questions posed in the novel include: Would society be possible without empathy? Is everyone born with it? And can empathy be taught to those who don’t have it?
In this book, biotech entrepreneur Sonja Woodward has created a genetic test that can identify a predisposition in teenagers for unethical behavior before they reach adulthood. Those who test positive are sent to Woodward Academy on Nantucket Island. Montgomery Hughes, a high school senior, is among the first students sent to the school. But Monty is there under false pretenses. He switched his test score with another student’s and is using an alias to hide his identity. Haunted by his disgraced father’s scandal, Monty is convinced he’s a bad seed.
At Woodward, Monty discovers a dark side to Sonja’s ethics-intervention school. Students who don’t respond are treated in a secret lab with a technology that alters genes associated with empathy: the equivalent of a high-tech lobotomy. When Monty’s identity is revealed, Sonja’s gene-editing “cure” offers her the perfect opportunity for punishment—and Monty is scheduled for treatment.
So what’s it about?
At an experimental school on Nantucket Island, Montgomery Hughes discovers a dark secret.
In 2032, biotech entrepreneur Sonja Woodward has created a genetic test that can identify a predisposition in teenagers for unethical behavior before they reach adulthood. Those who test positive are sent to Woodward Academy on Nantucket Island. Montgomery Hughes, a high school senior, is among the first students sent to the school.
But Monty is there under false pretenses. He switched his test score with another student’s and is using an alias to hide his identity. Haunted by his disgraced father’s scandal, Monty is convinced he’s a bad seed. At Woodward, Monty discovers a dark side to Sonja’s ethics-intervention school. Students who don’t respond are treated in a secret lab with a technology that alters genes associated with empathy: the equivalent of a high-tech lobotomy. When Monty’s identity is revealed, Sonja’s gene-editing “cure” offers her the perfect opportunity for punishment—and Monty is scheduled for treatment.
The Empathy Academy by Dustin Grinnell is a high-concept philosophical novel that explores the science and perils of using genetic technology to predict and enhance complex human behavior. Would society be possible without empathy? Is everyone born with it? And can empathy be taught to those who don’t have it?
Why Do Good, Well-Intentioned People Do Wrong?
In his new sci-fi novel, The Empathy Academy, author Dustin Grinnell explores why unethical behavior happens and imagines a way to stop it—before it starts.
I have a science background—a bachelor’s in psychobiology, a master’s in physiology—so it’s always felt natural for me to write fictional stories based in science and medicine. When I wrote my first science fiction novel, The Genius Dilemma, which explores human’s obsession with progress through cognitive enhancement, I took inspiration from writers I admired.
I grew up reading sci-fi thrillers by Michael Crichton, so I studied novels he wrote like Sphere and Jurassic Park and tried to emulate Crichton’s writing style. When I was young, I also liked to read dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, and loved the TV show The X-Files. So, when I started writing fiction I found myself wanting to explore the unintended consequences of new technologies.
This interest evolved even further when the TV show Black Mirror came out. The popular show is a collection of cautionary tales about technology that some have called the Twilight Zone of our time. The other thing I’ve always loved about science fiction is that it’s the genre of ideas. It’s a place where you can ask big questions and put philosophy into action. One of my favorite sci-fi authors Ted Chiang said, “Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know.”
As I came into adulthood in the 2000s, graduating college in 2006, I found myself deeply affected by the scandals of our time and turned my attention and imagination toward them. It started with Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal which shook my faith in a renowned professional athlete who I’d admired for years. Then there was the corporate misconduct during this time, from Enron to World Com, the unethical behavior of Wall Street that led to the 2008 financial crisis, and, of course, Bernie Madoff’s fraud. Most recently, I was shocked, and darkly fascinated by, the story of the now disgraced tech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes who’s fraudulent blood testing technology led to the collapse of her company, Theranos, and her fall from grace.
I didn’t understand the extent to which these frauds and cons were happening. There was scandal everywhere I looked, like the deceptive marketing practices that led to the opioid crisis, the college cheating scandal, and the numerous corporate fraud cases, especially in the financial sector. Then there were scandals that weren’t in some cases illegal, but still unethical, like wealthy individuals hiding money in offshore accounts to evade taxes, or social media companies putting profit above the interest of the public.
Why were these scandals happening? What forces lead people to cross ethical and moral lines? Through the lens of behavioral psychology, I wanted to try and understand the various psychological and organizational pressures that can drive otherwise good, well-intentioned people to cross moral lines and break rules, even laws. As I learned more about the biases we all have—risk aversion, groupthink, illusionary superiority, just to name a few—I started to wish we had a way of stopping these scandals before they happened. In the context of science fiction, I imagined whether there could be a way to identify future wrongdoers before they committed their crimes. Doing so might give us a chance to stop them before they caused damage.
The Empathy Academy was born of out of this speculation. The story imagines a world where it’s possible to determine who’s genetically prone to behaving unethically in adolescence. In the story, a group of teenagers who test positive to being vulnerable to unethical behavior are sent to a special school, Woodward Academy, on Nantucket Island, where they’re taught ethical and moral principles in hopes that this kind of specialized education may help them overcome their genetic predisposition.
To assess their vulnerability, I came up with a genetic prediction technology that measures one’s capacity for empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, see through their eyes, to feel their pain. Are you vulnerable to wrongdoing if you have less empathy? If Madoff put himself in the shoes of the people he was defrauding, would he have had not fudged that first number in his accounting? Woodward Academy teaches the students about the powerful forces acting on people that can sometimes cause people to lose their moral compass and violate their own consciences. When they leave the academy, the hope is that when they encounter a morally complex situation, they’ll think about the consequences of their actions or how they affect others.
The book follows the protagonist, Montgomery Hughes, who didn’t test positive on the genetic prediction test. And yet, he faked his way into the school, because his father has been arrested for scientific fraud. Monty believes he’s a bad seed and thinks that the school could help rid him of the genetic and emotional inheritance his father gave him. What he learns at Woodward is that the science of ethics and morality is complicated. He learns that the world is gray, and that people don’t always act in ways that are in their best interests or others. Sometimes, people can act in ways that are incomprehensible, or even flat out self-destructive. Throughout his journey, Monty learns to grown his moral imagination and use it in morally complex situations. He learns that when facing the decision of doing right or wrong, he can imagine all the possibilities and do the human thing. Ultimately, he learns that you can’t really know how you’ll react to a moral problem until you’re directly involved, and that it takes empathy to reason your way through the complexity, and courage to speak up and do what you sense is right.
The Empathy Academy is a fictional story. In real life, I don’t have any control over preventing fraud. I’m not a regulator, attorney, or member of law enforcement. But as a writer, I can imagine a world with new ideas for tackling difficult societal problems. Through story, I can bring attention to the moral complexities of life and present characters trying to do the right thing with courage and imagination. That’s the power of storytelling. The power of books. And I couldn’t imagine living in a world without either.
And now an Excerpt from Chapter 18:
For Monty, the summer days were all starting to blur together. The classes, homework, internship at the hospital, and jogs around the island with the crew team had taken over his life. His arms, legs, and back were firm from rowing and lifting weights, and he could run at least seven-minute miles.
Monty had been reading The Drama of the Gifted Child. As he read, he recorded his thoughts in a journal. Despite setting athletic records in school, achieving near-perfect grades, and being accepted into Ivy League universities, Monty had never felt like “enough,” especially for his father. Miller’s book argued that such feelings of emptiness and alienation were paradoxically common among high achievers like himself. They resulted from a child’s desperate search for a parent’s love and approval.
Palmer’s lessons on morality were starting to sink in with the students. For today’s class, he wrote moral muteness on the whiteboard, then turned to address the class. “Who knows what this means?”
Monty answered, having done the reading the night before. “When you see something wrong but look the other way.”
Palmer nodded. “Less than fifty percent of people who witness unethical behavior within an organization will report it. Why do you think that is?”
“Most people don’t want to stick their neck out,” Monty said.
“Because they’re afraid it’ll get cut off,” Edwin added.
Palmer smiled. “A fascinating study performed by a psychologist named Harold Takooshian demonstrated this point beautifully. Takooshian and his team put fur coats, cameras, and televisions into locked cars around New York City and then sent a team of volunteers to break into the cars and steal the merchandise. The volunteers were instructed to make their thefts as conspicuous as possible, so onlookers would notice. Of the about eight thousand people who witnessed a break-in, about seven thousand didn’t even notice. But how many people do you think tried to stop them?”
“Six hundred?” Cory guessed.
“Less than that,” Taylor shot back. “A couple hundred, I bet.”
“About a dozen people tried to stop the break-ins,” Palmer said.
Later that day, Palmer uand the students met at Moralis. Every time Monty entered Moralis and saw scientists working at lab benches, he was reminded of his science internship at Nautilus. In high school, Monty had thought lab work was dull. Other students seemed to relish the opportunity to carry out experiments with their hands, solving puzzles with their minds. He was less interested in the lab but more interested in the clinic. In fact, every encounter with the reality of basic research was just another reminder that he had the soul of a doctor, not a scientist
Edwin walked in step with Palmer. “What are we learning this hour, Teach?”
“The proper method for applying duct tape to your mouth?” Taylor guessed.
The other students laughed while Edwin unsuccessfully searched for a comeback.
Palmer used his badge to open a door. “Today, we’re going to watch a reenactment of the Stanley Milgram experiment from 1961. In the study, subjects were broken into two groups—students and teachers—and then separated into two rooms.”
Sonja appeared in the hallway with Mr. Aldrich by her side. “Dr. Reid, could I have a word, please?”
“Of course,” Palmer said.
Mr. Aldrich stayed behind, watching the students. Palmer and Sonja walked down the hallway and out of earshot. Palmer nodded his head while Sonja spoke quietly. The conversation ended, and Palmer and Sonja walked back
“Monty, I want you to go with Dr. Woodward,” Palmer said. “Edwin, please go with Mr. Aldrich.”
Monty and Edwin looked at each other, unsure of what was happening, but they complied. Sonja and Mr. Aldrich led the boys down the hallway and disappeared into rooms.
“Well, that was weird,” Jonathan said.
Palmer raised his hands to calm the students. “They’ll be fine, guys. Dr. Woodward thought it would be best to have students participate in this live experiment.”
“Are they going to have their kidneys when we see them again?” Kirsten asked.
“Only a matter of time before we became Woodward’s guinea pigs,” Taylor said.
Ignoring the comment, Palmer led the students into a small room. There was a table set against one wall. Above it was a window, perhaps ten feet wide and six feet in height, which looked out onto two other similarly sized rooms.
“A two-way mirror,” Cory said, pressing a hand against the glass.
Taylor stuck her tongue out at the glass. “We can see them, but they can’t see us.”
Palmer nodded. “They can’t hear us either.”
There was a table in the center of the room to the left. On the table was a microphone and a dial labeled from “75 volts” to “450 volts,” increasing by increments of twentyfive.
“In this experiment,” Palmer explained, “Monty will play the ‘teacher’ in the room on the left; he will ask Edwin, the ‘student,’ in the room on the right, questions through the microphone. If Edwin answers a question incorrectly, Monty will be instructed by a doctor to administer an electric shock. These shocks become increasingly stronger with each wrong answer from the student. Now, it’s important to note that Edwin, the student, is part of the study. The shocks aren’t real, and he has been instructed to fake reactions to the electricity.”
“This should be interesting,” Jonathan said, leaning close to the mirror.
The door to the room on the left opened and Jessica walked in. She was wearing an ivory-colored physician’s coat—clearly the experimenter—and directed Monty to take a seat at the table. He was the “teacher.” The door of the room on the right opened, and Edwin sat down. The “student.” A technician powered on his laptop and then began attaching wires to Edwin’s skin.
Palmer asked the students, “Have you ever wanted to please an authority figure so much that it clouded your judgment?”
“Before we came here, we had to submit proof of our vaccinations,” Cory said. “I’ve had them all—hepatitis B and others. My mom had all the documentation to prove it, except for tuberculosis.”
“You forged it?” Kirsten asked.
Cory shrugged. “My mom said no one would notice or care.”
“Obedience,” Palmer said. “A teacher, parent, boss, even a religious leader can cloud our ethical judgment, especially when we want them to like us.”
Palmer continued to narrate the experiment as the students huddled around the glass. “Again, Monty is the teacher; Dr. Woodward has told him that he’s participating in an experiment that’s testing learning and memory in adults.”
In the other room, Jessica was explaining the “experiment” to Monty, sitting at the table.
Palmer continued. “Jessica is playing the role of the experimenter. She’s explaining the study’s premise: a test of Edwin’s memory. Remember, Jessica and Edwin are in on the experiment. Edwin will be pretending. The only real subject is Monty.”
In the other room, Jessica lowered her clipboard and explained the experiment. “Many theories help explain how people learn. In this experiment, Monty, you are playing the role of the teacher. Edwin in the other room is playing the role of the student.” She pointed to the device on the table. “The red button on that device delivers an electric shock to Edwin.”
Monty examined the device cautiously.
“Through this microphone, you will be testing Edwin’s ability to recall accurately sets of word pairs,” Jessica continued.“For example, you may ask Edwin to remember the following pairs: microwave-telephone, mountainskyscraper, entrepreneurial-stream. If Edwin inaccurately recalls the word pair, you will deliver a shock.”
Monty’s eyebrows rose. “What kind of shock are we talking about here?”
“The shocks begin at seventy-five volts, about as painful as a mosquito bite. I will increase the voltage with each mistake.”
On the other side of the mirror, Palmer said, “Now, remember, Jessica and Edwin are pretending. Edwin will deliberately answer questions incorrectly. Jessica is there to urge Monty to continue the experiment, despite any resistance. The point of the experiment is to see how long Monty will continue to deliver shocks, even when he knows they’re causing pain to Edwin.”
“There’s no way Monty will go to the max voltage,” Kirsten said.
“Let’s begin,” Jessica told Monty.
Monty read the first set of word pairs. Right on cue, Edwin recited the word pairs back incorrectly. Monty glanced at Jessica, who nodded. Monty pressed the button and delivered a shock. Through the speakers, they could hear Edwin grunt in discomfort.
“Edwin’s faking, right?” Taylor asked.
The experiment continued through several more rounds. With each, the “shocks” became more powerful.
Looking uneasy, Monty asked Jessica, “Are you sure this isn’t hurting Edwin?”
Jessica was stone-faced. “Please continue the experiment.”
Monty continued. Again, Edwin failed. Again, another shock, this time 200 volts. Edwin shouted through the speakers.
Monty’s leg bounced nervously. He drummed his fingers on the table.
The shocks progressed to two hundred seventy-five. Then three hundred. Then three hundred twenty-five. Such shocks wouldn’t have been lethal, of course, but they would hurt like hell.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Monty said. “This doesn’t feel right.”
Jessica prodded him. “It’s important that you continue the experiment.” She gestured toward the microphone.
Monty ran a hand through his hair. “What if something happens to him?”
Jessica didn’t react. She only glanced at the microphone, urging Monty to continue.
Another wrong answer. Another shock.
Edwin began crying softly through the speakers. “I’m done with this,” he yelled. “Get me out of here! I have anxiety, you know. I think I’m having a panic attack!”
Monty looked horrified. “He wants to stop. He says he’s panicking.”
Jessica delivered the same unenthusiastic response: The experiment must continue. Monty stared at the table. He shook his head and turned the dial to the next shock. Four hundred fifty volts. A final incorrect response.
Edwin howled in agony.
Palmer turned to the students. “What can we learn from this experiment?”
“That people are monsters,” Cory responded.
“Sadists, more specifically,” Taylor added.
The door to the room opened, and Jessica led Monty and Edwin into the room.
Monty looked Edwin up and down, and said, “Are you okay, man? I feel horrible.”
“Monty, you were part of an experiment,” Palmer said. “Everyone was in on it, except for you.”
Monty glanced at Palmer and then back at Edwin.“You were faking it?”
Edwin made a fake gun with his hand. “Gotcha!”
Monty examined Palmer’s face. “You tricked me?”
“I’m sorry if you feel that you were deceived, Monty, but the experiment showed us that people can disregard their consciences in the presence of an authority figure.” Palmer pointed at Jessica’s white coat. “We are especially vulnerable when these authority figures are wearing special clothes or uniforms. Physicians, police officers, even a boss in a three-piece suit.”
“But most people wouldn’t get to the highest voltage, right?” Monty asked.
“Before Milgram started his experiment,” Palmer said, “he asked leading psychologists to predict what percentage of teachers might advance to four hundred and fifty volts. They concluded that only a sadistic person would get to four hundred fifty volts and cause that much pain in another person.”
“What percentage of the population are actually sadists?” Jonathan asked.
“About one percent,” Palmer said. “That’s why the psychologists predicted that only one percent of the teachers would reach the final voltage.”
“What did the results show?” Monty asked.
“Two-thirds of the teachers reached the highest voltage.”
“Like I said,” Jonathan spoke up. “We’re all monsters.”
“Or rather, given the right circumstances, we’re all capable of doing something monstrous,” Palmer corrected.
“If Monty went to the highest voltage,” Edwin said, “then all of us are screwed.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DUSTIN GRINNELL is the author of The Genius Dilemma, Without Limits, and The Empathy Academy. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Salon, VICE, and Writer’s Digest, among many other popular and literary publications. He earned his MFA in fiction from the Solstice MFA Program, and his MS in physiology from Penn State. He grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Read more of Dustin’s work at www.dustingrinnell.com