COLUMN - THE AGE OF REASONABLE DOUBT:
Empathy? Is it Innate or can it be learned?
In my experience, I find that empathy is one half innate and the other half learned. But the innate part can be unlearned depending on how a child is raised. Parents must take the time to instill empathy in their children. The innate segment of empathy must be emphasized and reinforced. Even if we believe that empathy is not innate, I believe, it can be taught. We only have to say to a child repeatedly, “How would you feel if…” and repeated in appropriate situation.
There is a societal fear that goes along with teaching empathy. The thinking is that a child’s future prospects are impaired by too much caring for others – especially when training boys. Parents, wanting children to be super ambitious when they are adults, take the word empathy out of childrearing, and may even encourage intimidation of others. Their thinking is that too much empathy might make a child soft and vulnerable and that a sympathetic individual will take the steam out of achieving success. I totally disagree. It is that facet of human behavior that will enhance careers like medicine, teaching and law – yes, even law.
Every day we meet people on every level of the pecking order who seem devoid of humanitarian feelings. We’ve all experienced being helped by people in the service industry who service nothing but their own cell phones or keep you waiting for information and finally just cut you off.
We certainly hear enough about the dearth of empathy these days in the media. Police brutality is a frequent event and child brutality an even greater occurrence. We’re developing a number of mass murders attacking randomly in schools, movie theaters and malls. There are female celebrities or partners of celebrities and athletes, commonly sporting bruises and black eyes. That is not to mention how many households across this nation harbor abusers both physical and mental.
“One in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.
Estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend to 3 million women who are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year.
Women accounted for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence, men for approximately 15%.
Globally, we have constant wars, many fought in the name of religion (even those promoting peace in their scriptures), random and designated murders, rapes, beatings, fights among fans at professional sporting events, abusive parents at children’s games, child abuse, and hurt inflicted with words. Sadly, the list is endless. Much of this can be charged to lack of empathy and compassion for our fellow humans. How else could these horrific acts be perpetrated?
These concepts cannot be taken lightly. Bringing it down to basics, empathy is a vital component for a good relationship. The time has passed when we can label unsympathetic behavior as “boys will be boys,” or “girls are by nature gossips” or that tyrannical kids are better prepared for the outside world. These concepts produce too much damage.
As for the overly aggressive child who grows up lacking empathy, commonly they are doomed to fail. The lack of consideration learned in childhood doesn’t bode well when they reach adulthood. They are unable to read people appropriately and therefore often act improperly. We say we empathize with others, but do we really feel some of their pain? Even if we’re not experiencing the same thing, we should still be able to feel a piece of the emotional angst of the other person.
Today we have electronic gadgets galore! Are they distancing us from identifying with other humans, face-to-face or eye-to-eye? We communicate with texting, computers, iPhones, e-mails and Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn. We have new friends as well as acquaintances. No longer do we need or want close confidants. If insults or slights are exchanged in cyberspace we simply unfriend them. We don’t have to apologize or worry about facing them and feeling sad for what was lost. They were never really in our lives and now, using finger-power, we move on to other friends. It is the easy way out rather than questioning our behavior.
I feel that a major reason for relationships grinding to a halt is because either one or both lack empathy. It’s not just using the words of apology that does the job. It is the behavior that is telling. The question arises: Do we really feel the emotional pain we inflicted? Having empathy for a partner is one of the strongest factors in achieving harmony and satisfaction. Not having it will damage a couples’ capacity to enrich their communication, hence their lives.
In a study called: Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction and the creators of the study:
Shiri Cohen Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital Marc S. Schulz and Emily Weiss Bryn Mawr College Robert J. Waldinger Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital
“This study examined links between two distinct facets of empathy—empathic accuracy and perceived empathic effort—and one’s own and one’s partner’s relationship satisfaction…
“Men’s relationship satisfaction was related to the ability to read their partners’ positive emotions accurately, whereas women’s relationship satisfaction was related to their partners’ ability to read women’s negative emotions accurately. Women’s ability to read their husbands’ negative emotions was positively linked to both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction. Findings suggest that the perception of a partner’s empathic effort—as distinct from empathic accuracy—is uniquely informative in understanding how partners may derive relationship satisfaction from empathic processes. When working with couples in treatment, heightening partners’ perceptions of each other’s empathic effort, and helping partners learn to demonstrate effort, may represent particularly powerful opportunities for improving satisfaction in relationships.”
If thoughtfulness and consideration are not taught early on, can it be instilled at a later age? I think yes if one has the desire and makes the effort. Of course, it is much more easily integrated in our everyday lives if taught early on, but it is never too late to learn. There is no downside to having the capacity for empathy or by learning it and the rewards are great if you put it into practice.