Understanding Empathy

Building empathy in society through social science research.

by Knology
Nov 29, 2022

Empathy is a subject of growing concern across the world. In the United States, commentators and scholars have described a growing "empathy deficit," and have penned pleas for the cultivation of ideas and practices that can stimulate more empathetic behavior. But what is empathy? Where does it come from, and what does it do for us? And how exactly can we live our lives in a more empathetic way—personally, interpersonally, and socially?

At Knology, we study empathy because we see it as key to creating a better world for all people. Our research on empathy informs partnerships with organizations like Empatico—a nonprofit that connects K-8 classrooms across the world through live video exchanges to foster empathy and cross-cultural relationships. As a thought partner, since 2019, we've helped Empatico measure the impact of their work—both in terms of empathy development and in terms of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. In 2020, we evaluated Empatico's "Empathy Across the USA" program, which connected young learners (mostly 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders) across 67 classrooms through virtual exchanges designed to help bridge racial divides within the country. We worked with Empatico to develop measures that assessed the "landscape of change": the help and resistance participating teachers would encounter in their schools and communities while trying to help youth build compassion across racial and ethnic groupings. In 2021, we built on those findings by evaluating Empatico's "Coding with Empathy" project, which brought together middle-schoolers from the US and Egypt to collaborate on a series of empathy-building computer science and virtual exchange experiences.

Through our research and our work with Empatico, we've learned about how this crucial skill can be used to support behaviors that improve our personal, interpersonal, and collective wellbeing. Here are some key insights from our lead researchers on Behaviors and Wellbeing: Melina Sherman and John Voiklis.

What is empathy?

Melina: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person or group. Importantly, empathy is a multidimensional and dynamic phenomenon. It's emotional, cognitive, and behavioral, and does not stand still. That is, empathy has to be cultivated and refined in an ongoing process, over time, through multiple interactions.

John: We can think of empathy as one of our many social-cognitive tools. It's the mental machinery that helps us navigate—predict and explain—social situations. Empathy is a way of co-feeling. And we measure this by using some of the physiological measures of emotion, as well as emotional expressions and the responses they elicit from observers. Ultimately, the whole point about empathy is about seeing the overlap between your emotions and those of others; it is about knowing what you will do for the other in that moment.

What does empathy have to do with behaviors and wellbeing?

John: Empathy is fundamentally about behaviors, because the only way that empathy can actually happen is through social interaction. If we were completely instinctive creatures that didn't have to make inferences about what others think and feel, we wouldn't need empathy. But humans have a cognitive system that supports our negotiation with each other, if for no other reason than survival. Empathy helps us get along, at least to some minimal extent.

Melina: Empathy is a learned skill that conditions different kinds of altruistic behaviors, such as helping others. These behaviors are crucial to wellbeing, especially in public health contexts. Think about vaccination. A person who is truly empathetic of others—who is concerned about protecting the health of people they know personally as well as those they do not know at all—will be likely to get vaccinated, on the basis of knowing that vaccination is crucial to developing collective wellbeing in a public health context.

What's the most important thing people need to know about empathy?

Melina: There are two important things to know about empathy! First, empathy must be an ongoing process of cultivation. We cultivate empathy over our entire lives, through the moments we share with people and groups that are unlike us—who have different traditions, cultures, and ways of life. To be an empathetic person requires us to explore and be forever curious, forever open to possibilities. It requires us to recognize that what is important to us is not necessarily the same for everyone we will meet (or not) in our lives. It means asking lots of questions and building our understanding of the world from the ground up.

The second thing is that empathy is not just an interaction or series of interactions, but a world-building exercise. It is about constructing (even if only in our imaginations) a world that is vast and diverse, one which challenges us to learn and grow. World-building can start from reading literature or watching television, since entertainment often presents us with worlds that look unlike our own. It should be an active exercise of imagination, which takes into consideration how other people might live and love and grieve and flourish. It is a profoundly creative kind of labor—one that requires us to see things differently, and to feel others' pain and joy.

John: Empathy takes work. Evidence from developmental and cross-species psychology makes it fairly clear that people are born with most of the basic abilities that contribute to empathy. Even so, empathy is about relationships. And relationships take work.

A lot of sports research has shown that you see tiny differences between people's athletic abilities when they are young. But then somebody decides that they're going to start developing those particular skills. The same is true for empathy: you have the cognitive toolset already in place, but you have to start building on those very basic abilities and turning them into full-blown skills, on par with a great tennis serve or playing the violin. As with sports, so with empathy: practice makes perfect. We need to practice empathy to counteract miserliness. People need to cultivate the habit of responding empathetically to those around them. Phenomena such as habitual empathy emerge, bottom up, from behaviors that combine into processes and eventually yield the norms that perpetuate those behaviors.

What is empathy good for? And how can we translate the research on empathy into behaviors that help improve wellbeing at all levels–personally, interpersonally, and socially?

John: There are some things empathy is not that helpful for, likebusiness decision-making or equity decision-making. Because empathy is highly personal, it is good for maintaining interpersonal relationships. It's a way of showing people that you hold them in favor. What we need to understand is that empathy is not an end in itself. Part of this has to do with its limits, because empathy isn't always possible. Unless you're a direct witness of someone's suffering, how will you be able to understand it or feel what it's like?

To translate research on empathy into behaviors that enhance wellbeing, we need to first understand that wellbeing is an inherently collective enterprise. Empathy is about social interaction, and about being part of a healthy collective. Second, wellbeing and health are underlined by social determinants. For example, healthy relationships lead to better wellbeing, but the number one factor underlying those healthy relationships is how much social support a person has. Empathy leads to healthier social interactions, healthier relationships, and a stronger social support system. This is why it's intimately tied to wellbeing.

Melina: We care about empathy because it is one of the keys to stimulating behaviors that enhance both our individual and collective wellbeing. But how do we translate empathy into helping behaviors? In my research on drug policy, I've wondered how we can leverage research that shows that harm reduction works (and that prohibition doesn't work) into behaviors that include—at the individual level—helping people who use drugs (PWUD) achieve wellbeing on their own terms. At the social level, I've also wondered how we can convince policy-makers and other key decision-makers to stand behind PWUD as advocates, rather than an enemy who should be punished.

The key thing here is that researchers have to start perspective-taking, which means thinking and working not just from our own perspectives, but from the perspectives of the people we are studying. This means seeing these people not as research subjects, but intimately involving them in our research—from the initial design phase through end-of-project evaluations. It also means taking seriously what people tell us about what they need, expect, and desire as ground-truths. From that place of empathy and mutual understanding, our research can then expand and perhaps even help the people we study.

How can we approach empathy from a transdisciplinary perspective?

Melina: Tackling empathy from any single disciplinary framework is bound to have shortcomings. Given that empathy has an individual, interpersonal, and social dimension, research on this requires experts from psychological traditions, communication studies, and other social science fields to think together.

The first step toward transdisciplinary collaboration would be to think about how these different dimensions of empathy are connected, and how one can serve as a bridge toward another. How can we leverage empathy at the individual or interpersonal level to stimulate empathetic attitudes and behaviors at the more abstract social level? In other words, how do we move from people being kind to themselves and others toward people being kind to groups and societies that they have never encountered? And, relatedly, how do we get people to care about social issues that do not necessarily involve them? These are some of the key questions that only a transdisciplinary approach to empathy can hope to answer.

John: No one science can really define or understand empathy. Only a transdisciplinary approach can do justice to empathy's dynamic and multifaceted nature.

Empatico's empathy framework is a good example of a transdisciplinary approach to empathy. In that approach, we see many processes happening at once, at different levels and contexts. To know how these different levels and contexts are affecting each other, we need people who are knowledgeable about all of these things. The ideal study would be a multi-sited, multi-partner one, because you have to put many methodologies in conversation with each other so that you can look at the phenomenon from as many angles as possible. That is the only way to really advance empathy research.

What are some of the things we don't know about empathy yet, and need to devote more study to? How might we go about furthering the research on this?

Melina: We need to develop a more nuanced understanding of how the different dimensions of empathy are connected. We need a firmer grasp on the kinds of mechanisms and processes that allow empathy to bridge the gaps between the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social levels. Only then will we be able to say that we know how something like empathetic communication between two people can lead to social change in the broadest sense.

I also think we need to think more deeply about who we mean when we talk about empathy. Who is empathy for? Who needs it most? Is it for everyone, or are there situations where empathy is not the answer? These are important questions for Knology, since we engage in research for social good. But working toward social good also means recognizing, critiquing and fighting against the bad and ugly in our world, which cannot be done with empathy alone. I think we have to consider how empathy can function in combination with other emotional and cognitive phenomena, like indignation or a sense of justice. If we can hold these in our minds along with empathy, then perhaps we'll have a better shot at stimulating behaviors that go beyond kindness toward active critique and social transformation.

John: Empathy offers many opportunities for original research. We have started to think about how to re-imagine interpersonal empathy to guide intergroup relations. At an early age, we start learning about who deserves our empathy and who does not. Often these norms promote in-group favoritism with the intention of fostering group solidarity. Empathy often makes that favoritism possible: we perform favors for those near and dear to us in response to the feelings we share with them. But in-group favoritism excludes people from other groups. This exclusion usually means that people ignore the needs of out-group members. Ignoring the needs of people from other groups may contribute to intergroup conflict just as much as active out-group disfavor.

So when I hear people offering empathy as the prescription for improving intergroup relationships, I ask: How does one scale a tool for strengthening interpersonal connections to people within one's group to interactions between people from different groups? Some might propose a "love everyone" attitude akin to expanding one's moral circle. That seems like a tall order and, maybe, a little disloyal to those nearest and dearest to us: if you cry for everyone, how can I trust your tears for me? Others might propose that we simply rely on interconnected social networks (the fact that people belong to different groups that may bridge divides) to "spread the love." Warnings about diminishing social capital may cast some doubt on the efficacy of such an approach.

At Knology, we have a different approach that reimagines empathy. When it comes to perspective taking, we've explored ways to interrupt this in favor of perspective seeking and perspective giving—asking and answering questions about each other's lives. My big question is: would people be better off—better able to interact across groups—if they simply stopped empathizing and started asking questions and listening?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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