Can We Learn to Be More Empathic?

Can We Learn to Be More Empathic?

An excerpt from Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It

Adding together this accumulation of evidence and insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, there is little doubt that we are social creatures defined by our capacity to empathize. Accompanying our self-seeking Hobbesian side is our Vulcan other half. We are both serpents and doves.

But there may be a niggling worry at the back of your mind, which is whether it really is possible to become more empathic and expand your ability to look through other people’s eyes. Might your empathic capabilities be fundamentally limited by the kind of brain you happened to be born with? Or what if you didn’t receive enough nurturing care as an infant to develop deep empathic sensitivity?

On these questions there is overwhelming agreement among the experts that our personal empathy quota is not fixed: we can develop our empathic potential throughout our lives. Our brains are surprisingly malleable, or “plastic,” enabling us to rewire our neural circuitry. Empathic ability is a bit like musical ability—part nature and part nurture. Some people just seem to be born with innate musical skills—they’ve got perfect pitch or can pick up almost any instrument and play it beautifully. But musicality is also learned. It is best if we start young, yet most people could still learn to play the guitar pretty well at forty-five, as long as they put in the effort to practice. And that is how it is with empathy.

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that adults can tap into their latent empathic abilities by making a conscious effort to focus on the minds of others. In one experiment designed by Adam Galinsky and Gordon Moskowitz, a group of U.S. college students were shown a photograph of a young African American man and told to write a short narrative about a typical day in his life. One third of them—the control group—were given this instruction and no more. One third were additionally told to actively suppress any stereotypical preconceptions they might have about the person. And the final third were given an empathic perspective-taking instruction: “Imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person, looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.” The result was that the perspective-takers showed the most positive attitudes toward their subject, followed by the suppressor group, then the control group. The experiment was repeated with a photo of an elderly white man, with the same outcome.

In another famous study of the transformative power of perspective-taking empathy, C. Daniel Batson asked two groups of students to listen to a tape recording of a young woman in distress because her parents had recently been killed in a tragic car accident. The first group was given the instruction to listen objectively to the facts in the recording, while the second group was asked to imagine the experiences and feelings of the woman involved. The second group was shown to have higher levels of reported empathy for her than the first. Moreover, when subsequently asked to help her raise funds to care for her surviving younger brother and sister, members of the second group gave much more generously. In more than three decades of research, Batson has consistently found that “perspective-taking has proved effective in inducing empathy not only for total strangers . . . but for members of stigmatized groups” and that it tends to produce moral or prosocial helping behavior, rather than leaving people unmoved.

This kind of research suggests that it is a mistake to believe we are the prisoners of the empathic abilities we were born and raised with in our early years. Rather, most people are able to expand their capacity for empathy throughout their lives—especially their cognitive or perspective-taking empathy—by practicing mindful attention toward other people’s feelings and experiences.

Our capacity for doing so has been confirmed by studies of empathy training for doctors, who are often criticized for being too clinical and emotionally detached from their patients. In 2010, doctors at a Boston hospital took part in a program in which they were advised to pay greater attention to the changing expressions on their patients’ faces (for instance whether they showed anger, contempt, fear, or sadness), to take note of voice modulations, and to make simple changes such as facing the patient rather than their computer screens during a consultation. After just three one-hour training sessions, doctors who went through the program showed vastly improved empathy levels. Their patients said these doctors made them feel more at ease, showed greater care and compassion toward them, and had a better understanding of their concerns. The doctors too could see the benefits. After spending a day putting the program’s methods into practice, one hospital doctor reported that while it was initially difficult to empathize with the patient while simultaneously making her diagnosis, eventually it “became fun” and embodied the kind of personal interaction that had initially drawn her into medicine.

There is also a growing body of neuroscience research showing that compassion training, which is partly focused on enhancing empathy, can shift the neural configuration of certain brain regions and lead to increased prosocial behavior. In one study co-designed by Matthieu Ricard, a world-renowned French Buddhist monk with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, participants took part in a training broadly based on Buddhist meditation techniques. The workshop included practices such as sitting in silence and mentally focusing attention and positive feelings first on themselves, then on a beloved person, a neutral person, a person they have difficulties with, and finally all human beings. The result of the training was to increase brain activation in areas typically associated with social connectedness. It was also found to reverse feelings of emotional distress after the test subjects had watched news and documentary videos of people suffering as the result of a natural disaster or due to personal injury. This kind of research remains in its initial stages: it is only in the last decade that neuroscientists have been willing to team up with Buddhist monks and take their practices seriously. Moreover, the studies tend to focus on women, which skews the results as women are generally more responsive to compassion training than men. Nevertheless, it is clear that our brains are surprisingly malleable when given appropriate stimulus.

Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker, leading international expert on empathy and the art of living, and the author of EMPATHY: Why it Matters and How to Get It (Perigee; 2014).

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