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.