Nurturing a Better World: Empathy as a Malleable Trait

Author: Abhramika Choudhuri

Moral stories have been teaching us ‘before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes,’ to show us the value of empathy since we were children. Given how frequently we use the term empathy, it would seem that its definition is pretty straight-forward. If one were to define empathy, they would usually describe it as the ability to see situations from another’s perspective. However, with increased research on empathy, misconceptions and oversimplification surrounding the concept have come to light.

Early research on empathy, especially within psychology, focused on its role primarily within therapeutic settings (Elliot, 2011; Mercer & Reynolds, 2002); but more recent research on empathy indicates its role in everyday interactions. Across its research, the definition of empathy has broadened beyond the simplified idea of just placing oneself in someone else’s position. Rather than just being looked at as an isolated concept, empathy is now understood as a nuanced and layered idea. Based on these nuances, most definitions of empathy have a consensus on two aspects: the taking of a mental perspective (cognitive empathy), which is the ability to cognitively perceive situations from another’s perspective; and the vicarious sharing of emotion (emotional empathy), which is the ability to then feel the same emotion as the person who is in the situation. Both of these aspects are known to work together to form the human ability to empathize with others (Smith, 2006).

Research on empathy, especially within psychology, became particularly popular in the mid-1990s. This increased interest in empathy came from a mostly from the neuroscience community. The neuroscientific lens lent itself to the understanding of mirror neurons (Elliot, Bohart, Watson & Greenberg, 2011). Mirror neurons, much like the name suggests, are a set of neural connections in the brain that aid in acknowledging others’ emotions and subsequently mirroring them (Coplan, 2011). While viewing empathy from a purely biological perspective has its limitations, establishing a connection between empathy and mirror neuron has implications on empathy being a trait that can be learnt. The human brain has the capability of neuroplasticity, which is its ability to form new neural connections and adaptive changes within it. One of the factors that impacts neuroplasticity is learning (Fuchs & Flugge, 2014). Essentially, learning or developing a certain skill results in the formation of stronger neural connections within the areas in the brain which are utilised for the skill. Given that one of the factors which determines empathy is mirror neurons, this would imply that teaching empathy could result in strengthening of the neural connections in the mirror neurons.

Whether empathy can be taught and developed has been a topic of debate within psychology research for a very long time. Even with evolutions in the definition of empathy, a consensus on the matter has not always been reached. In 2017, Weisz and Zaki conducted a review of existing literature, consisting of experiments and interventions of different forms that had been conducted on the topic of teaching empathy. Multiple studies that were reviewed found empathy to be a trait that could be nurtured. Furthermore, even the interventions and experiments that had failed to increase empathy concluded that empathy was in fact a malleable trait.

Empathy being a quality which can be taught has implications in multiple spheres of everyday life. Empathy has the ability to impact everyday social interactions and therefore mould social environments. Studies conducted within the field of positive organisational psychology have found that empathetic managers are more likely to stand up to their superiors and refuse employee wage cuts (Dietz & Kleinlogel, 2014). Another study conducted within the industrial setting by Mandera, Neal, and Dawson (2011) found that empathy-based diversity workshops for managers resulted in significantly higher positive attitudes towards non-English speaking employees. Empathy has been found to create positive social environments and decision making beyond the industrial setting as well. A study on U.S judges based on family data found that judges who have daughters were more likely to more feminist decisions in court owing to their ability to empathise more with victims of sexual assault (Glynn & Sen, 2014). Even political movements like the #MeToo called for empathy by social activists to encourage individuals to stop visualising the victims of abuse as the ‘other’ (Rodino-Colocino, 2018).

The evidence that points towards empathy being a malleable trait, along with its ability to create positive social environments, implies that empathy has a lot of potential. Now more than ever, we need a world with more empathy. The potential of empathy to create social change and be a starting point of social justice systems suggests the need to enhance the trait. If empathy can be taught and nurtured through appropriate intervention, then it’s a need of the hour that should be invested in. Research has found that increase in empathy results in more feminist, diverse and inclusive behaviour. The need to develop such positive behaviour exists in every space: from schools to justice systems and politics.

We are at present living in a world that pushes aside individuals who are different and lets certain narratives dominate, over-power and oppress others. The more we view victims of such systemic oppression as the ‘other,’ the more likely we are be compliant to such injustice. A starting point to breaking down systemic injustice is being able to show solidarity through empathy. Finding effective mechanism and interventions to teach empathy could aid in taking the step into creating a more diverse and inclusive world.




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