The case for teaching empathy:

Why empathy doesn't "just happen"

© 2009 -2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Teaching empathy? A skeptic might wonder if it makes any difference.

Can’t we assume that empathy will emerge automatically, as part of the developmental process?

After all, even babies show signs of empathy.

For instance, experiments confirm that newborn babies are more likely to cry if they hear recordings of other infants in distress. And normally-developing infants begin to show empathic concern for their family members between the age of 12 and 24 months (Zahn-Wexler et al 1992).

But that doesn’t mean that empathy "just happens" -- regardless of child's upbringing and environment. 

In this article, I review the evidence for teaching empathy. Can caregivers make a difference? I think so. As I note below, we have many good reasons to suspect that parenting influences the development of empathy. I’ll go over these points:

  • Human empathy involves a whole package of skills and social beliefs. Most of these must be learned.
  • Numerous studies have reported a link between parenting practices and empathy in children.
  • Genetics might explain some of the differences between individuals. But experiments demonstrate that adults can learn to be more sensitive and responsive. If grown-ups can learn empathy, why can’t kids?

And what about sex differences? While studies confirm that females report greater feelings of empathy, that doesn't mean they experience more empathy. Cultural training influences the way girls and boys express themselves.

Teaching empathy: What kids need to learn

We might define empathy as the sharing of another person’s feelings: Sam winces in pain. Emma, who watches, feels distressed.

There is actually neurological evidence for this sort of phenomenon. When kids see other people getting hurt, their brains respond in a characteristic way. The same neural circuits that process first-hand experiences of pain are also activated by images of pain in others.

But there is more to human empathy than merely sharing another creature’s pain.

Neuroscientists Jean Decety and Philip L. Jackson argue that human empathy requires several components (Decety and Jackson 2004).

In addition to sharing feelings, the empathic person also needs to be capable of

  • A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others. When Emma watches Sam wince, she feels his pain. But does she understand the source of her discomfort? If Emma lacks self-reflection, she might not recognize that Sam is the one in real trouble.
  • Taking another person’s perspective. Emma loves broccoli, Sam hates it. So how does Sam feel when he’s told he can’t leave the table until he finishes his broccoli? It might be hard for Emma to recognize Sam’s feelings without understanding his point of view.
  • Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses. It’s not pleasant to witness someone else’s distress. If empathy were merely about “sharing feelings,” then, we might expect empathic people to withdraw from creatures in distress. To show empathic concern, or sympathy, Emma needs to control her own responses to Sam’s pain.

There are other factors, too. People are more likely to show empathy if

  • They are on familiar terms with the victim
  • They perceive similarities between themselves and the victim
  • They have experienced the victim’s circumstances themselves

And our willingness to show empathic concern is tempered by our moral and political beliefs. Who deserves our empathic concern?

Societies offer different answers to this question. Very often, the answers are about who’s considered “one of us.” A recent survey of pre-industrial societies found that people who feel strong loyalty to their own social group are more willing to consider violence against outsiders. They are also more likely to enjoy warfare (Cohen et al 2006).

People may also disagree about what situations demand empathy.

For instance, young children frequently fail to respond to the speech of others, even when they are old enough to understand what’s being said. These kids are developmentally normal. They just don’t think it’s necessary to acknowledge other people.

Judging from my own experiences in the United States, some American parents seem content to let these children remain unresponsive.

But things may be different in Japan. Japanese culture stresses omoiyari, or showing sensitivity to others. Children are encouraged to attend and cater to the needs of other people. And mothers don’t let their children get away with ignoring other people.

If a toddler fails to respond to the request or question of another person, the mother repeats it. She also conveys a sense of urgency to the child. The snubbed person needs acknowledgement…right away (Clancy 1986).

Moms may even put words in the person’s mouth, as when a child accidentally hurts another person and fails to apologize: “Grandma says, ‘Ouch, ouch!’”

Or consider a situation in which most parents don't want their kids to be swayed by empathy: Your teenager gets involved with Joe, an emotionally disturbed drug addict who is desperate for money. Should she help Joe steal--because she feels sorry for him?

So the development of empathy--and our beliefs what is an appropriate empathic response--are influenced by a variety of factors.

But these factors are subject to learning, and that suggests that parents can influence the development of empathy in a number of ways:

  • Parents can encourage children to reflect on their own feelings, and distinguish these from the feelings of other people.
  • Parents can encourage kids to imagine the perspectives of other people.
  • Parents can teach children how to soothe themselves and “bounce back” from negative emotions
  • Parents can control how much violent media their kids consume -- which may help prevent children from becoming sensitized
  • Parents can teach empathy by humanizing and personalizing the victims of suffering
  • Parents can teach their children when it is appropriate to use empathy

Sounds plausible, right? But where's the proof that it works?

Evidence in favor of specific practices

To establish the importance of parenting, we'd ideally like to perform randomized, controlled experiments and track child outcomes over the long term. But who'd volunteer for that? There are ethical problems with randomly assigning kids to receive different types of parenting. 

Instead, researchers have looked to see what parenting practices are correlated with better outcomes.  Some examples:

Sensitive, responsive parenting and secure attachments. Studies tracking children from an early age have reported that kids with secure attachment relationships show greater empathy, stronger emotional coping skills and more developed moral sensibilities (Elicker et al 1992; Easterbrooks et al 2000; Kerns et al 2007; Kochanska and Murray 2000). Secure attachments are promoted by sensitive, responsive parenting practices, so it seems plausible that such practices contribute to the development of empathy.

Emotional "coaching." Parents who help their kids cope with negative emotions (by discussing them in a sympathetic, problem-solving-oriented way) have kids who are friendlier and more empathic. Parents who tend minimize or "brush off" their children’s emotions have kids who are less socially competent (Davidov and Grusec 1996; Denham 1997; Denham et al 1997; Denham 1989; Denham and Grout 1993; Eisenberg et al 1996).

Rational, explanation-based discipline. In study of 78 adolescents, researchers found that parents who used inductive discipline (an approach that emphasizes the reasons for rules and the logical consequences for bad behavior) had kids who showed more concern for other people and more remorse for committing misdeeds (Krevan and Gibbs 1996).

But what about genetics?

Maybe there are heritable traits that make people more empathic AND more likely to practice the parenting practices described above.

It’s easy to imagine how that would work. Presumably, sensitive, responsive parenting is more appealing to parents who are more empathic to begin with. The correlation between parenting style and child empathy might reflect the influence of shared genes.

But even if genetics explains some of the differences between individuals (and I think they probably do), it’s clear that environmental factors play a role in the way that people express empathy.

If this weren’t true, then we couldn’t train adults to become more sensitive and responsive. But we can.

Short-term interventions that boost empathy

In one study, medical students took part in a role-playing game that simulated the special problems of the elderly. For example, to recreate the experience of having cataracts, the students wore goggles covered with transparent tape. To recreate the loss of fine motor coordination, the students wore heavy rubber gloves (Varkey et al 2006).

The results? After the experiment, participants became significantly more empathic and caring for real elderly patients.

This doesn’t mean that the same approach to teaching empathy will work for all ages. Very young children don’t have the same capacity for perspective-taking that older people do. Nor are they capable of the same degree of self-control. So we need to adjust our efforts according to the child’s stage of development.

But, as mentioned above, most normally-developing kids start showing empathic concern for their family members before they are two years old. I suspect these young minds are ready to learn a lot about the feelings of others.

And what about sex? Aren't females more empathic?

Folk wisdom argues that women are more empathic than men are, and studies generally confirm that females report more feelings of empathy. But that might be explained by cultural training. In societies where men are expected to be aloof, cool, or stoic, men may be more reluctant to acknowledge their feelings of empathy.

This notion is supported by recent neurological research. In a study that presented adults with emotional imagery -- including pictures of people in pain -- women reported feeling more empathy. But the activity in their brains -- as measured by EEG event related potentials -- did not reveal evidence of differences in cognitive empathy (Groen et al 2012).

Another study presented kids, ranging in age from 4 to 17, with animated clips depicting people getting hurt. Again, the females reported more feelings of empathy. But when researchers looked at physiological signs -- like pupil dialation and cerebral blood flow -- there were no differences between boys and girls (Michalska 2013).

So I think it's a mistake to assume that boys and girls have different capacities for empathy, or to shrug off unsympathetic behavior because it is "male." Even in the absence of this scientific evidence, we should judge people as individuals. There are plenty of cold women in the world, and many warm men. If boys do demonstrate less sympathy or empathic concern for others, this is reason to help them develop their communication skills. Not give up.

More information: Evidence-based tips for teaching empathy

For more information about teaching empathy, see these evidence-based tips.

References: The argument for teaching empathy

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Content of "The case for teaching empathy" last modified 5/13