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I am in the early stages of developing an alien species and one of their defining traits is that they are empathic upon physical touch. They can only sense feelings/emotions/intent, not read minds, and do not have this ability unless they are in physical contact with the other person (the sole exception to this is "married" couples, who have a permanent emphatic bond regardless of physical contact as long as they are in "range" of one another).

This empathic talent is passive, not actively controllable, so they cannot "attack" or deliberately influence anyone via this sense or anything like that. Physical contact, even slight, is therefore understandably viewed as more intimate in their cultures than it is in many human cultures.

What kind of government would be well suited to a species with this kind of trait, or might they prefer? To simplify things for those answering, assume that the empathy is the only distinction between them and humans.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. This is an excellent question. $\endgroup$ – Trevor D Mar 4 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ I posted an answer but I might edit it later. I am going to discuss this question with some friends. It's an interesting thing to ponder. $\endgroup$ – Trevor D Mar 4 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ Is this enough that lying under oath would be impossible? $\endgroup$ – Andrey Mar 4 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ I too have an empathic alien species! I just set them up as a monarchy but it will definitely be interesting to see how other people think a government would form. $\endgroup$ – SlothsAndMe Mar 4 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ Andrey- yes, they can usually tell when someone lies while touching them. I'm not sure if it would be IMPOSSIBLE, but definitely not easy! You'd have to have some wicked control over your feelings to pull it off, and I don't know how it could be done. So at the very least next to impossible? $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 5 at 0:59
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I don't see how anything would change. Humans already have the ability to detect another persons emotions by the expressions on their face and their posture.

There might be new weaponized scare tactics where a politician imagines a horrifying scenario, then passes it down through the people until everyone agrees with them. But even this isn't really all that different then what the media does now. (In some countries this is quite literally true).

If anything I would suggest there would be a slight trend towards a family oriented system. Villages all being one family and governing themselves because they can all empathically trust each other. A centralized government would be a rule by strangers. Empathic people might be more concerned about the trustworthiness of strangers.

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  • $\begingroup$ the weaponization idea is a fun thought, but individuals cannot read "images" or "thoughts" from one another, just feelings/emotions and intent, so it probably wouldn't be feasible? Your comment on emphasizing trustworthy small groups is interesting, worth giving further thought, I think. :) $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 5 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MarielS You don't necessarily need a visual to horrify. Only a good description, not unlike a tall tale told around a camp fire. But you can share or project emotions to others that listen to you. $\endgroup$ – Trevor D Mar 5 at 1:58
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I think the crucial aspect here is physical touch.

In many animal societies touch is used as a mechanism to elaborate the bonds of a society. Both in the positive aspect of knitting together and supporting individuals into a society and in the destructive element of oppressing or excising individuals within/from a society.

Given that touch has an elevated nature in this society its effects will be greater. It might even be considered a requirement in certain social conventions, such as a handshake to seal a deal. Perhaps there would be a handshake to open negotiations? ie. Prove to me that you are here honestly, and desire to reach a resolution that isn't too terrible for me.

Conversely I can see this being used in an exploitative fashion. Torturers would be able to use it to glean more optimal ways of inflicting pain and misery. They need only a more accurate read of the individuals emotional and motivational state. The person wishes to escape? Plan a room/situation that allows them to feel like they are escaping, only to have them literally through themselves into a worse situation. Nothing like being in pain, and knowing that it was your own fault.

I see this as a more extreme society. It is probably going to tend toward tyranny more often than not.

  • Perhaps its the tyranny of repression, where by individuals are strictly forbade from physical contact so as to prevent the negative consequences, but at the cost of the good. In such a society individuals will be deeply afraid of contact, even so much that individuals initially experience the worst when they do marry, perhaps they never experience the good.
  • Or it will tend toward a tyranny of love where you cannot have a bad day, were to even eat means that you must disclose your emotions and motivations to the other individual. In such a society if you have depression, it will be judged as a personal defect, perhaps to the point were society judges that it is better for the depressed individual to not exist than to be interacted with.

It is possible for such a society to keep the middle road, but this would take a lot of societal organisation. Much more than our human societies at least, simply because touch is so much more compelling and powerful than it is in our own societies.

Otherwise I see no particular reason for why such a society could not manifest in any of the societal models humans have already discovered: Anarchy, Monarchy, Communism, Republic, Democracy, etc... There just needs to be a little thought about how the power of touch transforms the small interactions between individuals, like how they greet, trade, court, learn, etc...

One interesting consequence might be that these individuals lack the skill to visually infer emotional and motivational state like humans can. We do it by monitoring body posture, facial ques, eye direction, etc... perhaps because they can infer this from touch, these skills are not manifested fully. Perhaps there is an individual without the touch ability who is remarked as having godly powers because they can tell the emotions/motivations of another from a distance without touch.

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    $\begingroup$ I have thought of the handshake as a sign of good faith in business, it's good to see someone on the same page here. I think some of what you say here would be limited by the fact that the empathic sense doesn't help at all when you aren't touching someone. So people still need to learn to read body language and expressions, because touch is considered intimate and avoided on a general basis, so you still need tools to "read" the others you encounter in society that you aren't able to touch. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Mar 5 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ It entirely depends. Biological speaking humans expend a frankly astonishing amount of brain mass on interpreting the emotional and motivational states of other humans, the majority of this is visual. The wiring is so powerful that we perceive emotion and motivational states in pictures, and rocks. Most other species on this planet are not visual creatures and use smell, hearing, touch as their primary senses. An alien where touch is enhanced does not necessarily have a highly evolved visual system, nor is it necessarily adapted to detect motivational states in other individuals. $\endgroup$ – Kain0_0 Mar 5 at 4:12

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