Empathy – What, How, and Why for a Better Understanding of this Shift in Perspective

Empathy – What, How, and Why for a Better Understanding of this Shift in Perspective

By: Mirela Ramacciotti

To start a productive discussion–ideas are first born in the mind and then become food for thought that can be digested in public in fruitful exchanges–let me begin this article on empathy with a multiple-choice question. According to the experts, which option below is the most empathic response?

If you hear that a colleague is getting bad results at school because of a hard phase he/she is going through, what are your thoughts?

a. This person does not know how to establish priorities.

b. Oh, poor thing! What can I do to help?

c. It might someday happen to any of us.

d. It is none of my business. I barely know this person.

If you want to check right now whether the option you picked is right, please refer to the footnote[1]. Otherwise, let us consider what empathy is and what it is not; what it entails, and to what extent it can be helpful to our present society. In view of its importance to the educational scenario, knowing about empathy and social contagion should interest all stakeholders in the education system since teaching and learning is a social enterprise. Thus, successful rapport is required to produce satisfactory learning outcomes. As rapport involves a predisposition for social involvement, every teacher should understand the feelings that move others (the literal meaning of empathy, from the Greek origin of the term, en patheia).

The concept of empathy, as introduced to the larger public by Reader’s Digest in 1955, initially meant the “ability to appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected.” This definition came as an early effort to popularize a concept previously only used in academia (as a reference and full account of the history, see Lanzoni, 2015). After some later discoveries and research conducted without any gold standard for clear cut distinctions and parameters of the term, the concept of empathy has evolved to encompass three kinds of responses in congruence to something someone else may be experiencing that you are not: a motor response (as in doing something), a cognitive response (as in knowing something), and an affective response (as in feeling something). Hence, the present popular notion of empathy is to share the feelings of another, to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. But before you assume the proverb, “before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” reveals all there is about empathy, there is much more than a mile of discoveries that we need to explore first.

[1] The right answer is c. Read the full article to understand why.

Whereas “feeling for” someone in pain or distress (answer b above) may show some empathic concern, this kind of “caring for others” falls within the zone of compassion and sympathy (Singer & Lamm, 2009), and both of these are distinguishable from empathy. Compassion is the feeling of sorrow that overwhelms us and propels us towards action when we see someone who is in a bad state. We yearn (or should, if all is functioning correctly) to do something to alleviate the hardship of a fellow being, although that yearning is not felt as deeply; that is, in feeling compassion, one feels for the other, but not with that other. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone who is going through a hard phase/in a tough situation. But, unlike compassion, it does not propel us to action. Although compassion and sympathy can be related to empathy in the realm of social connections, each brings forward a distinct behavior and neither should be confused with empathy. While, by feeling compassion, one would probably act to change the situation; in feeling sympathy, one is content with producing a sufficient outward response, like showing pity, giving condolences, or keeping silent in the face of distress (Sinclair et al., 2017).

Distinctions made, let us proceed to analyze what empathy entails, that is, its many facets. One important distinction to make here is that, while mirror neurons–one of the brain mechanisms once claimed to be related to empathy-may lead to an empathic response, this does not necessarily imply subsequent (or inevitable) empathy. Mirror neurons, by the way, are those that mimic in one’s own brain what you see happening with others (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).

However, when talking about mirror neurons, some caution is advised. When they were first discovered, in a study with monkeys, these populations of cells were soon–and prematurely–hailed as the newfound answer of human brain evolution, the holy grail of altruism. From social relationships, to language, to disorders (as in when one lacks such neurons), mirror neurons were first regarded as the very substrate of what makes us human, what makes us care for others. For a good review of the issues, check this source-Jarrett, 2013).

Today we can say that the role of mirror neurons, and whether mirror neurons really exist as a separate system, is under greater scrutiny and has become a source of debate. The early position, as given by Ramachandran (2000), that mirror neurons would answer for all human activity involving social interaction, has been discredited in the last fifteen years. That position changed to a view of mirror neurons as just regular neurons simulating what is seen in order to take meaning from it, thus implying a neural modulation that happens inevitably after initial activation caused by vicarious experience (Hein & Singer, 2008). Whereas, some recent evidence, from a rat study (Carrillo et al., 2019), has once again reinforced the connection between mirror neurons and empathy, that connection is still not as strong as believed before. While the previous concept of empathy held that mirror neurons are the underlying cause of empathy, this recent evidence points to mirror neurons as being a mere precursor for an empathic response.

A new model of empathy proposed by Mafessoni and Lachmann (2019), based on an evolutionary game theory approach, frames empathy as a prosocial behavior involving neurophysiological responses in both recipient and cooperator. The findings point to the phylogenetical evolution of two mechanisms that underlie emotional contagion and empathy: simulative strategies, which evolved at first for mind-reading, but are now used for empathy and cooperation; and parental care, which has served as the basis for the development of empathy by exerting a selective pressure for cooperation at the same time as providing an understanding of the needs of others (the offspring). Both mechanisms point, nonetheless, to the importance of embodiment, i.e., one has to acquire information by means of experience derived either from observing others, observing oneself, or recollecting a previous experience that one had. That is how prosocial behavior, and social cognition, have evolved.

As noted, while the motoric response (the mimicry) that mirror neurons generate may be related to empathy, they are not nearly sufficient for an empathic response, i.e., the kind of which informs prosocial adaptive behavior (Lamm, Batson, & Decety, 2007Lamm, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2010Perry, Troje, & Bentin, 2010). And that leads us on to another important facet of empathy: social emotional response.

"Empathy needs to be developed like any other skill!"
Mirela Ramacciotti
TT Author

While humans are indeed biologically primed to develop empathy, that is, we are all born with the potential for empathy (de Waal, 2008; Decety, Norman, Berntson, & Cacioppo, 2012), this does not mean, as we have seen, that we will necessarily-or automatically–become empathic. Empathy needs to be developed like any other skill. And that happens as a function of our own experiences. Research has shown that empathy is modulated by early learning experiences and socialization (Engen, & Singer, 2013; Hein, & Singer, 2008). For this modulation, everything connected to sociability, such as relationships, contexts, and one’s appraisal of a situation (meaning what you think about what is happening around you) matters–a lot (Cheon et al., 2011).

And the fact that empathy is so linked to our social ties may aid us in understanding very recent findings in relation to empathy: it is highly sensitive to parochialism. This means that empathy is seen clearly in cliques, for instance, where being part of one’s group makes it easier to receive (or show) an empathic response (if you answered d to the question at the beginning, your emphatic skills might be leaning towards parochialism). Moreover, the altruistic response that is seen when empathy is at work is more frequent when the empathic response involves members of one’s own ethnic group (Chiao & Mathur, 2010). Additionally, if a person’s attitude is not like your own (answer a above), you might feel a total blockage of empathy (Votinov, Pripfl, Windischberger, Sailer, & Lamm, 2015; Yamada, Lamm, & Decety, 2011).

For all that, the real discussion that we should perhaps have is not whether we should develop empathy. Instead, we should be focused on how to make our experiences more inclusive, more diverse, less homogenous. By doing that, we will develop empathy. Therefore, we should strive to shift not only our cognitive perspective (how we think others feel) or our affective state (how we would feel in someone else’s shoes) but also, and mainly, our social encounters. We should enlarge our own conceptions of who our significant others might be. After all, it might really be you who is in an unfortunate situation should conditions change–and they do. That is why the most empathic answer to the question at the beginning is c: “It might someday happen to any of us.

Now, if you gave the right answer at the start, my bet is that you are already familiar with a form of meditation that can reverse some parochial preferences. That is the Loving Kindness mediation (see this video for more on that-Kabat-Zinn, 2017), where you are trained in distinct mental exercises to expand your “group” to include people who might be very different from you–even total strangers. Research has also discovered that, in addition to expanding your circle of empathy, your own sense of well-being will be positively affected by this exercise (Engen & Singer, 2016; Weng et al., 2013).

And if you are thinking about shifting your perspective, you might start by paying heed to Rafiki’s advice in the 2019 Disney Lion King film: change is good!


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Mirela Ramacciotti: former lawyer, teacher and translator, turned to education consultancy and materials writing in the area of TESOL and MBE; MSc in Interdisciplinary Studies from Johns Hopkins University (2019) and author of Aprender: Entendendo o cérebro; runs the site www.neuroeducamente.com.br

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