Empathy, Part One: Why Are We Sometimes Nice and Sometimes Not?

This entry is going to be the first of a two-parter about empathy. I’m starting this week by exploring the concept of empathy and how it is deeply ingrained into human nature, despite the many ways we sometimes suppress it. Next week I will follow it up with advice on how to channel empathy and overcome some of the obstacles to compassion that we humans face on a daily basis.
em·pa·thy
noun
1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Every so often, you hear something that makes you question whether someone else possesses basic human empathy. We feel this way about the perpetrators of horrific mass shootings at one end of the extreme, but it’s also easy to question the empathy of people who make insensitive or racist political commentary in the wake of serious tragedies, or even people who commit everyday microaggressions. However, many of us can also remember a time when we suppressed own own empathy. Maybe you wanted to stand up for someone but were too afraid. Maybe you wanted to tell someone you cared but didn’t want to show weakness or vulnerability. Maybe you wanted to give money to a homeless person, but the idea of opening your wallet in a crowded subway made you too nervous (true story).

Experiencing empathy and suppressing empathy are both very human things to do, but let’s face it – most of us could use some help understanding how empathy works and how we could channel it better. The good news is, there are lots of reasons why empathy is good for us. The bad news? Our brains have lots of ways of tricking ourselves into thinking it isn’t. Let’s go bad news first. Here are some everyday ways that our brains are bad at empathy and compassion:

1. We would rather help one person than one million.

A recent experiment revealed that individuals were actually more likely to give to a charity after hearing a story about one girl who was affected by starvation, rather than hearing about millions of people suffering from starvation. This wasn’t just a question of hearing a warm fuzzy story vs. boring statistics – those who heard both the story and the statistics were less likely to donate than those who just heard the story about one person. Scientists theorize that this stems from a feeling that a problem affecting millions of people is insurmountable (although if you read my entry about factual inspiration, you would know that we have already conquered some huge global issues).

2. We have biases against other people based on race, gender, and other cultural stereotypes.

A number of studies found that perceived race had a frightening impact on whether applicants were called in for a job interview, and the same went for gender in a similar experiment. This has led to a phenomenon of non-white or non-male applicants altering their names when submitting resumes to sound more like a white man, in the hopes of being hired, called “covering.” Many associate these phenomena and a long list of others with an implicit bias measured by a Harvard-developed Implicit Association Test (IAT). If you click that link, you can take the test and it can be a great tool for exploring your own unconscious bias.

3. We dehumanize people.

When human beings want to distance themselves from someone, they are sometimes able to view them as less than human. Scientists who has studied dehumanization of the homeless and drug-addicted had difficultly stimulating empathy for these groups among their target population. Researchers believe that this kind of dehumanization is what enables people to commit atrocities.

THE GOOD NEWS

Despite the fact that we humans have perpetrated some terrible atrocities, we have also committed some great feats of kindness, bravery, and generosity. As much as we sometimes try to suppress it, empathy and compassion are in our DNA. Some examples to even out the score:

1. We put other people before ourselves.

A recent study suggested that people were more eager to hurt themselves than others. The study offered participants money based on how many electric shocks they would administer – either to themselves or to another person. It found that when administering shocks to others, the participants showed much more restraint than when administering shocks to themselves, and were willing to lose money in order to spare others the pain.

2. Spending money on others makes us happier than spending money on ourselves.

It’s been documented that people get more pleasure out of spending money on other people than on themselves. A more recent study showed that this manifests very early on – in one experiment, two-year-olds were happier after giving treats to others than when they received treats themselves. This shows that generosity is deeply ingrained in human nature.

3. We seek a higher purpose.

Another example of how empathy and compassion are such a large part of human nature is our tendency to seek a purpose or cause greater than ourselves. While many people pursue personal happiness over the course of their lives, the ones who succeed are those that find meaning in helping others. It’s this sense of purpose that has been proven to carry people through hard times, and keep their spirits high even during trying times.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two: Taking Empathy to the Next Level!

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