The capacity of individuals to imagine another’s perspective or personal agenda, and our own ability to feel anger, despondency or frustration in response to their pain and distress, has been singled out as something to consider in multiple stories and studies found on the web this month. Is empathy a choice, or something less conscious? Is it always a good thing, or do some situations challenge our empathetic nature? This month’s roundup highlights pieces found around the web in which this question is tackled.
Empathy is normally thought of as being a positive quality to have, however a few stories this month challenge that assumption. The notion of empathy as an unfashionable political emotion is the subject of an article examining recent government policies surrounding cuts to benefits for destitute asylum seekers in the UK, which the article argues ignores the human cost in favor of perpetuating a particular ideology and fiscal responsibilities before the individual lives affected by these policies. This sentiment rings true when thinking about the rise in inequality and its threat to empathy as well, where the less interaction one has with someone unlike themselves, the less empathy one tends to have for them. This is the focus of a piece focusing on the link between empathy and trust, and the need for empathy to ensure the smooth running of a society. The article suggests that the less trust and empathy among a citizenry, the more measures such as policing, regulation and other external enforcements are relied upon. Such propositions highlight a well-researched effect of empathy, in which individuals feel more empathetic to those similar to themselves, thus exacerbating already existing social inequalities. It is this tendency, to use one oft cited example, to view one death as a tragedy and one million as a statistic, which is the focus of an article in the Atlantic highlighting recent research proposing that to be an empathic person doesn’t actually make one a better person. The New York Times conducted a review of recent studies that back up this claim that empathy is actually a choice, and is constrained when it comes to individuals of different races, nationalities or creeds. Citing several recent studies, the article concludes that empathy is in fact a limited resource that cannot be applied to everyone for indefinite periods of time and can sometimes fail when it is most needed.
Recent research from Northwestern University into why some people have more empathy than others suggests that those who have suffered are often times the least compassionate, indicating that those who have gone through difficult experiences tend to be harsher critics of those who are having a hard time themselves. They conclude that a sense of not remembering the difficulty of their own struggles, and viewing them through a lens of having overcome it on their own makes them less charitable in their outlook. The researchers suggest that walking in another’s shoes is sometimes not enough to truly understand another’s struggle.
On a more positive note, novel approaches to addressing this potential inability to truly understand another’s experience is the focus of research from two sources: A Los Angeles based news site called Ryot, and the Virtual Human Interaction lab at Stanford University which were both included in a recent story on NPR. The piece highlighted research in which film and virtual reality are used as a way to change how people feel about certain situations, suggesting that to experience an event as opposed to watching it will create more of a sense of empathy.
Several pieces addressed the need for increased empathy in a world that feels increasingly disconnected, with many looking at empathy as a skill that can be learned, as opposed to a fixed personality trait. The BBC magazine published an article suggesting you can in fact teach empathy by first examining your own empathic tendencies, and following up with making a habit of ‘radical listening’, developing an awareness of the individuals we come into contact with in the day-to-day living of our lives, and as an extension of this, developing and maintaining a curiosity about strangers. Similarly, another story also uses curiosity and listening as a necessary starting point for teaching oneself to become more empathetic.
Finally, putting empathy into practice is the topic of another article focusing on empathy as a necessity in violent environments such as Afghanistan. The piece notes that the Afghan government has made mental healthcare a priority over the last few years in order to make care more affordable and reduce stigma, and is behind an international psychosocial organization training therapists across the country. As a result, local clinics are employing community residents to act as psychosocial counselors to use empathy as a means to help others living amidst abuse, poverty and addiction, using their own position and experience as a means to help others survive psychologically. The increasing need and effectiveness of empathy is also to focus of a story on the importance of teaching empathy to children, the idea being that empathy is the building block for our conscience. The article argues that a lack of conscience is often the trait that history has shown leads to horrific acts including slavery, genocide, rape and murder. Perhaps the founders of an empathy museum (the subject of a recent article in Independent) set to open in the UK later in 2015 are on to something, as in considering how coming into contact with people you might not otherwise meet in your daily life can have a powerful effect on how you approach understanding the position of others on a deeper level.