Extending empathy

I went to a talk on empathy a few days ago. It was about the determinants of empathy and the things that result in it’s erosion or loss. It began with an image of a Cold Water Immersion experiment at Dachau and I should have realised, at that point, that my expectations of an uplifting ’empathy will change the world session’ were wildly off key.

So I learnt a lot about how empathy is made up of cognitive and affective elements, and the groups of people who, scientifically, lack empathy. About how your early experiences, unsurprisingly, impact your ability to relate. About how hormones, genes and situation are just some of the things that inform where you sit on the empathy spectrum, and about how experiencing empathy is neurologically mapped and far less consistent than I imagined.

Any questions that I might have had about a lack of empathy were answered; those around why it’s so important and how we nurture empathy were not. And, whilst the association between a lack of empathy and cruelty were clear; I’m not quite sure that we arrived at a good understanding of exactly why empathy is so positive. This was probably outside the scope of the talk but it has got me thinking about why I jump at the word empathy, why I seize and cling onto it, and why it has felt, in the past few months, increasingly significant.

After the presentation, a member of the audience asked whether, as a society, we implicitly value a lack of empathy. Whether the qualities of ruthlessness and decisiveness so often seen in positions of power are rewarded more than the softer qualities of empathy.

The question surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. In my little corner of the world, empathy is celebrated. Loudly. It is neither woolly nor weak but is, instead, intrinsic to how we build strong relationships and how, as individuals and then as a society, we grow. It is challenging because it forces us to question our behaviour; and the flexibility it promises derives, not from indecision or fickleness, but an ability to move position and perspective. It matters to me because it has been so important in bridging the gap between myself and the world, and because it offers a way, I think, towards acceptance and out of loneliness that has the potential to change lives.

And so I have been trying to work out how to hold onto my conviction in the value empathy and also the idea that there are times where empathy can’t be the focus – and how, should this be the case, we navigate this precarious line. To see how empathy works on a macro, as well as a micro scale; or whether the personal nature of the feeling makes it impossible to translate. Whether an empathetic movement must, therefore, work like a ripple – or whether there are things that, on a larger scale, we are able to do? I kind of think there are – in terms of education and reducing barriers and sharing experience – but I wonder if this will reach far enough?


5 responses to “Extending empathy

  1. Hi Melissa, there is some good stuff out now on how attachment is so very important to infants. Perhaps even more so than security – and far more than happiness. That abused children will attach to dangerous parents shows this convincingly and horribly starkly I think. So empathy involves all this very primal stuff I think.

    I think we are as much social as individual beings. Although empathy is always individual in some ways there are some contexts where it is easier for it to thrive. This can be effected by groups and even government policy I think. For instance governments legislating competitive testing instead of emphasising group problem solving in schools. On a larger scale I think it is about setting up a more nurturing environment and then empathy can flower more easily for individuals.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the policy – although I do wonder how easy this is given the precarious nature of empathy: the fact that it is as much about how things are done as what is done, if that makes sense. The influence of others does seem to be key so I can see how groups and communities can move empathy from the individual to the collective…I just hope that everyone can be as lucky in finding these groups as I have been.

  2. Evan is, of course, correct: There is a lot that our societies could do to make empathy easier. And as the talk you went to discussed, there are also biological imperatives and predispositions that affect the natural inclination towards or away from an emphatic world view. But I tend to focus on empathy as a choice we make for the good of those around us and ourselves based more on long-term benefits than short-term ones.

    Empathy can come with a real cost, especially in terms of that question you mentioned; our culture does, absolutely, reward a lack of empathy in business and politics. Sociopathic tendencies seem to be a prerequisite for success at the highest levels of business, for example, just as an ease with dishonesty and obfuscation is mandatory for political success.

    So choosing to embrace empathy is something we do in spite of its costs, like embracing eco-friendly practices in spite of their monetary and convenience price tag: Because it’s the right thing to do. Not because it’s the easy or profitable thing to do. And empathy has an even better return on investment when seen in that light. So keep holding on, please, and keep inspiring us to do the same. That’s a fight worth fighting regardless of the cost.

  3. Agreed. And the cost is also in revealing your personal vulnerability, I think, as much as it is going against the values we implicitly esteem.

    There was also a bit on where morality and empathy overlapped. How empathy could inform our ideas of morality which was interesting….

    It is far more complicated than I thought 🙂

    • Empathy and compassion affecting morality and ethics. A Buddhists might be momentarily inclined to ask, “What took you so long?”, but wouldn’t. Their empathy would prevent the sarcasm… 🙂

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