Sunday, July 26, 2015

Choose empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. The capacity for empathy is, above all, human. Empathy allows human beings to communicate and build societies, empathy is what allows parents to anticipate the needs of their children, and appealing to the empathic part of humanity is a powerful strategy for motivating behavior, such as charitable giving and activism. Psychologists have been studying empathy for decades. Is the capacity for empathy human? Are there some people who do not experience empathy? Are more empathic people more moral? More intelligent? More successful in their communities? And so on.

Generally, people agree that the capacity to take another's perspective, within which emotions are implicit, is innate. However, this innate capacity appears to have declined in recent history. But if empathy is innate, then what might explain the changes in capacity for empathy in society? These clues and questions led psychologists to wonder whether the capacity for empathy is malleable, and therefore can be incrementally developed, rather than fixed. This is an empirical question. In other words:

Does effort increase our capacity for empathy? 

To answer this question, Karina Schumann and colleagues at Stanford University conducted 7 studies that systematically tested empathy under conditions designed to disentangle whether people who believe that empathy requires effort will experience more empathy, as well as the consequences of those beliefs and effort. 

The first few of these studies aimed to simply test and then replicate whether believing that empathy is malleable is related to more empathy. It is. They found that individuals who reported beliefs that empathy was malleable, rather than fixed, also reported putting forth more effort and persistence in interactions with others. For example, people who reported that the capacity for empathy is malleable were more likely to strongly agree with statements such as, "When I disagree with someone, I try to understand their emotions," or "When I do not understand someone's feelings right away, I put effort into trying to understand them." So there was strong enough evidence that believing that empathy is malleable was related to the amount of effort people put into being empathic. 

The fourth study was my favorite, though. In this study, they wanted to know whether people could be primed to believe that empathy was either malleable of fixed, and whether that influenced their empathic thoughts and behaviors. To do this, they randomized 119 participants to either read a sham Psychology Today article about how empathy is malleable (can be cultivated), or a sham article about how empathy is fixed (doesn't change) within an individual. Next, participants were randomly assigned to imagine having a discussion with another person about an issue. The person is someone who holds the opposite view as them on an issue that the participant previously ranked as highly important to them, or unimportant to them. So to review, the participants ended up spread randomly across 4 groups:

1. Read an article about how empathy is malleable + disagreeing with someone about an important issue
2. Read an article about how empathy is malleable + disagreeing with someone about an unimportant issue
3. Read an article about how empathy is fixed + disagreeing with someone about an important issue
4. Read an article about how empathy is fixed + disagreeing with someone about an unimportant issue

They found that people in group 1 exerted more effort toward being empathic compared with group 3, suggesting that inducing beliefs about the malleability of empathy caused individuals to exert more effort to be empathic than those induced to believe it was fixed. Then they replicated this finding in experiments measuring different types of empathic, effort-related behaviors. For example, inducing people to believe that empathy is malleable led to more listening to another person's position in an argument, altruistic behavior, and making attempts to improve their empathic ability through online training. 

In short, this series of studies systematically demonstrated that believing empathy can be improved will cause people to use more effort to be empathic, which translates into more empathic behavior. Thus, the title of this article: choose empathy. Believing that empathy is flexible is the key. This has widespread implications in our society, from parents to teachers to the media. There appears to be a tendency today to assign people labels as empathic or not. I've seen people assign these labels to themselves, their children, politicians, and colleagues. Apparently, it is the belief that some people either are or are not empathic that holds us back. Hopefully, this article is a small step in changing that tendency. Instead, especially with children, we ought to be promoting the idea that our innate human capacity to take another's perspective and experience their emotions is a skill that can be practiced and even mastered, but it takes effort. 

Now, it is important to keep in mind that this study was conducted with presumably health adults who represent the normal population. Within clinical psychology, there are certainly clinical populations that are characterized by difficulty taking another's perspective or even the inability to experience empathy. So, as a clinical psychologist, I have to acknowledge that the findings of this article may not be universal, and that at the very least there are subpopulations where the effort necessary to experience empathy is greater. Even so, these sub-populations constitute less than 5% of the population, and more importantly no harm comes to this group by living  in a society where there is a expectation that empathy is a cultivated skill, requiring and worthy of effort. 

Now the real question is, how will you cultivate your empathy? Here are a few ways to start for both kids and adults. What's fabulous is that one of the best ways to cultivate empathy is through reading fiction. Yes, please! 

Schumann, K., Zaki, J., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Addressing the empathy deficit: Beliefs about the malleability of empathy predict effortful responses when empathy is challenging. Journal of personality and social psychology,107(3), 475.

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