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Empathy: How to learn to feel more for other people

March 8, 2024

We learn to feel empathy from the people around us. The same people can teach us to lose empathy. And if we feel too much, it can harm our mental health.

Two people in a room, one has placed a caring hand on the other's hand and another hand on their shoulder
Empathy helps build social bonds, but it has its downsides tooImage: Colourbox/ldutko

If only politicians could learn to empathize with other people and their lives, they would get to fixing the world's problems. Ever heard that idea before? We have.

The question is: Can people learn empathy? A new study suggests we can indeed learn empathy, but that we can learn to be both more and less empathetic.  

Published in the journal PNAS, the study found that watching people respond empathetically to other people in pain boosts your own sense of empathy, but it also found that we learn from non-empathetic people to feel less empathy.

It was already known that children learn empathy, but it is less clear whether and how empathy changes as we age. It turns out that a person's social environment has a great effect.

"Our results indicate that the social environment you create has a long-lasting effect on whether empathy unfolds or diminishes," said Grit Hein of the University of Würzburg, Germany. Hein led the research.

"If we have empathic role models, even if they are strangers, our chances of learning empathy are higher," said Hein.

Empathy is learned through social interaction

Humans are not born empathetic—about 10% of our empathic capacity is inherited, passed on genetically, and the rest is learned during childhood.

"If empathy is woven throughout social communities, that's when you really boost children's learning empathy. The more you use it, the more you think of yourself as an empathetic person," said Sarah Mears, co-director of Empathy Lab, a UK-based charity.

Mears said that while social interactions are important for building empathy, books are also great and can help us feel empathy for people outside of our usual social bubbles.

"When we read, we are transported into a story, and we empathize with characters. It's like a flight simulator of the mind, so you're simulating what you can feel in real life. It's giving people empathetic experiences, maybe before they've had them in real life," Mears said.

Empathy can create tribalism

When people urge other people to show empathy, to imagine what it's like "in their shoes," the goal is to create a shared emotional experience.

And it often feels good. We experience a warming joy when we perform an act of empathy, particularly when it's linked to offering help. Studies show this activates reward pathways in the brain. Thinking evolutionarily, empathy helps form group bonds and develop common morals.

But is empathy always beneficial? Research suggests that empathy can be associated with bias. Your empathy makes you pick favorites, people or causes with whom or with which you identify, and they are often people, things or ideas from within your bubble.

It's called the identifiable victim effect. It creates a situation in which the suffering of one person you know can matter more than the suffering of a thousand people you don't know.

Hein said that empathy needs to be combined with other motives for it to have a long-lasting effect on society.

"Empathy is good because it creates an immediate connection, but to maintain this, you need social norms like respect and justice," said Hein.

Infectious empathy & a laptop with a nose

Schadenfreude gives you a rest from empathy

Why do we laugh when clowns fall down the stairs or get pie in their face?

In a normal situation, we would feel empathy for the injured person, but comedy allows us to pause or suspend our empathy in a safe environment. Psychologists think we evolved this as a way to deal with the toll of empathy.

"We know empathy can lead to distress and can harm our own mental health if you are unable to regulate it. This distress can lead to burnout, which at the end of the day leads to withdrawal rather than collaboration," said Hein.

Many people experience this after being exposed to constant images and videos of war on social media. It's also true for people who care for family members daily or work in the care sector.

Enter comedy: "It's a cartoon-like situation, where we don't really see the comedian as a real person. The audience detaches, and all of a sudden, things are acceptable that are not normally so in real life," said Hein.

It is like a simulation of not needing to empathize. It puts empathy on pause, and the relief makes us laugh.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred