It’s easy to think of empathy as something you’ve got or don’t got, but researchers contend that a new spate of research proves the opposite: You can choose to be more empathetic, and people who lack empathy are often people whose lives are set up so that they don’t “need” it.
The idea of cultivating empathy, of course, is not so crazy. If you have the slightest bit of self-awareness about your own thoughts, you can surely detect when you’re viewing your fellow humans as more or less deserving of your general regard, broad-mindedness and basic respect. This generosity of spirit toward others can even vary from day to day or by circumstance, but it could also be the framework through which you try to view all of humanity—try being the operative word, in that you can work towards empathy, again and again.
That’s more or less what David Foster Wallace was getting at in his famous commencement speech from 2005 at Kenyon College (text or condensed video here). In it, he warns graduating students of the often brutal tedium of adult life ahead of them, suggesting that it will be all too easy to operate from the default setting where you are the center of the universe, and everyone else as in your way, viewed as a nuisance at best or with contempt at worse.
But he insists that if education teaches you “how to think,” then being good at thinking is in fact being good at choosing what to think about, exerting control over how you see the world and your fellow man, and that every day you can, in essence, make the decision to view them with more understanding and empathy. This is, he says, is what it means to be well-adjusted.
I would venture that we participate in exercises that increase our empathy unwittingly all the time. Anytime we experience an unfamiliar point of view, the ball is moving: documentaries, essays, movies, even listicles can make us aware that we have no idea about the struggles faced by people around us. These are pretty lazy things to undertake, all said—passive and risk-free—and I don’t mistake them with actually doing anything to make the world a better place. But by being even willing to engage other view points, watch them, think about them, and let them in your mind, you have in fact, chosen to be more empathic, and such thinking trickles down into how you interact with and treat others. And that matters enormously.
But apparently past research has not viewed empathy as something we can fine-tune. Writing at the NYT, Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham argue that, although previous research suggests empathy is a “limited resource,” akin to a fossil fuel, it might actually be a more fungible quantity than researchers have made it out to be. Empathy is indeed bounded in practice, they say, because humans are flawed. But its bounds mostly have to do with circumstances and choice. In other words, we can increase the limits of our empathy if we want to.
It’s an often-cited truism that people will feel more empathy for one hungry child than a million. But Cameron, Inzlicht and Cunningham mention one study, in which participants divided into two groups read about either one child refugee from Darfur or a group of eight, with half being told they’d be asked afterward for a donation. They write:
When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. If insensitivity to mass suffering stemmed from an intrinsic limit to empathy, such financial factors shouldn’t have made a difference.
It’s somewhat shitty to realize that being asked to put their money where their empathy was made these people suddenly emotionally guarded—but it also makes a lot of sense. I’d guess that most of us have locked down our compassion in certain situations where we feel we might be being talked into something or coaxed out of money, no matter our stated desire to be good people. What it suggests, in any case, that the problem could be with us and not goodwill itself.
The authors cite another study in which simply being told empathy was something you could get better at made people better at it. And other research identifies why the more powerful may be less empathic as a general rule:
Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others — for instance, powerful people. An experiment conducted by one of us, Michael Inzlicht, along with the researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and Sukhvinder Obhi, found that even people temporarily assigned to high-power roles showed brain activity consistent with lower empathy.
But such experimental manipulations surely cannot change a person’s underlying empathic capacity; something else must be to blame. And other research suggests that the blame lies with a simple change in motivation: People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.
This, too, makes intuitive sense: The very act of leading others in part requires you to see them as a monolithic group in the service of a single task. In order to do that, you’d think less of every person as an individual and more of them in terms of their role, which is, though obviously necessary on some level, also innately dehumanizing.
Finally, they write that another study found that even narcissists or those experiencing “so-called empathy deficit disorders” can be quite empathic toward those they think of as like them. While this is something like an emotional version of honor among thieves—even in circumstances where individuals seem more likely to be out for themselves, they can view others as deserving of consideration—it’s still hopeful.
Other research written up at Scientific American a few years ago found that you can increase empathy by making it more socially desirable. An interesting gender study found that women, who are typically thought of being more empathetic on the whole, did not actually perform any better on empathy tests unless they were told they were being measured on this trait. (Which kind of begs the question: Is fake empathy really any worse than the real thing?)
I’ve personally experienced a radical empathy shift in my lifetime. As I’ve written about many times, having a baby made me wildly more empathetic than I’d ever been. It’s not as if seeing or learning about human suffering never moved me before. It’s that after I had a baby there was an entirely new gradient of feeling within me, in every direction, seemingly overnight, and with it came a new way of seeing everyone in the world.
This isn’t true all the time, of course, but as the years have gone on, the general increase I experienced hasn’t diminished. Recently while looking through a slideshow of the Boston Marathon bombing victims in light of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence, I came across a photo of eight-year-old Martin Richard’s happy, innocent face, and when I read the accompanying sentence—”He was less than four feet from the second bomb. He bled to death as his mother leaned over him, begging him to live,”—I burst into tears so fast, so fully, and for such an extended moment in time, simply feeling a gut-wrenching sadness for this child, his mother, for everything, that I surprised myself.
I have often thought of this change in my ability to quite literally feel more pain for others who suffer as something beyond my control. I don’t imagine I’ve chosen it, but that it’s “happened” to me as part of my transformation into caring for someone else, finally, more than I cared for myself. But maybe I did choose when I decided to become a mother. To continue a pregnancy. To raise a child. To be open to all the feelings that came with it and committed to experiencing them. And as I raise a child every day, and am part of larger groups of parents also devoted to raising children, I can feel my empathy continue to expand.
Certainly, there are plenty of people who become parents and may not become more empathic. Certainly there are other ways to increase your own empathy, big and small. Certainly we’re all working with our own circumstances regarding what we feel capable of giving others of ourselves, our attention, our care. But if we’re all a work in progress—if it’s not empathy that’s limited, but our circumstantial capacity to engage it—I think we can all decide to work on these parts of ourselves, and choose this openness. Falling in love may simply be the act of letting yourself be known; maybe greater empathy is the act of letting yourself know others. It’s a kind of love, both individual and large-format, experienced best by participating—and it comes down to whether you choose to participate or not.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby