kittens empathy

The shoes of understanding | Day 149

Yesterday I wrote about a categorisation of people based on their ability to empathise (and systematise).

Empathy is one of those psychology concepts with a blurry definition. It can be understood as the ability to read other people’s minds or to intellectually interpret others’ emotions and feelings. A more narrow and, perhaps, accurate definition describes empathy as responding to someone’s feelings with similar feelings of your own. If your friend is sad, you don’t just understand how they are feeling – to an extent you become sad yourself.

Empathy is also lumped together with a group of similar concepts, such as pity, compassion, and concern. To me it appears that without empathy none of the latter can truly be experienced.

All this talk about levels and scales of empathy makes you wonder – even if one’s empathy quotient can be determined via a series of questions, can it change over time? Or are we all only as empathetic as we can be based on the wiring of our brains, and the ability cannot be learned?

For example, people with narcissistic traits are notoriously bad at having regard for other people – in other words, they lack empathy. This is exactly what makes them an excellent candidate for empathy research. If you can teach a narcissist to feel towards another human being, surely the general population has a chance as well.

One recent study brought narcissists into a lab, and tested their responses to reading vignettes and watching videos about people in emotional distress. It turned out that after being prompted to “imagine how the character feels,” the participants did seem to empathise with the distressed person more. This seems to suggest that empathy can indeed be learned, however, I think the jury is still out on this one. Most theories suggest that empathy is an innate skill, not an acquired one.

Even so, the skills that bolster better interpersonal understanding, including feelings and emotions, can definitely be improved. For the most part it simply means practising to be a better listener, learning to read and interpret facial cues and other signals from the other person, as well as knowing how to react properly.

It may not be ’empathy’ in the narrow clinical sense, but it still makes human interactions better.

3 thoughts on “The shoes of understanding | Day 149”

  1. Great post, and thanks for the links! My layman’s perspective/opinion is that most individuals are probably able to learn empathy. I think it might only partly be an innate skill. That part, it seems to me, might be related to how altruism has been empirically shown to be an innate trait. You’ve probably heard of the experimental studies on altruism with human and chimp infants at very early ages, haven’t you? But I think that along a natural life-cycle evolution of one’s morals, empathy should also develop consequently / in parallel. Anyway, I might be totally wrong, since I haven’t studied this, and have read way too few papers.

  2. To some level empathy must be learn-able, because even carcissistic people feel their own pain, distress, discomfort or rejection, so if nothing else, a simple “think of the times when you felt bad, that’s how that person feels” gives at least an echo of empathy as a starting point.

    Based on that, you can practice consciously mapping your emotions to those displayed by others and eventually it will become an automatic (even if not unconscious) habit.

  3. Pingback: It's Day 366+

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