Home > musing > How do we encourage empathy?

How do we encourage empathy?

December 26, 2013

Usually I spend a lot of time reading stuff, and then I get outraged or otherwise respond internally to something I read. I take notes on the article, in an email to myself, and that later becomes a blog post.

But since all I’ve been doing lately is hanging out with the family, cooking, and watching Psych and Star Wars: Enterprise marathons, I have less to react to and therefore less to write about.

[Aside: if you haven’t seen Psych yet, please take a look, especially if you like hilarious and snarky references to the 1980’s, but even if you don’t. Season 4 episode 1 is a great starting point. Netflixxable.]

Even so, here we are, friend, and I wanted to write this morning, and you’re here already.

So I will share some thoughts I had when I took a brisk walk last night, to try to get rid of the big Christmas dinner feeling. Big dinner, not big feeling, although the feeling was pretty big too.

I was thinking about gratitude, for even having the opportunity to have such a nice meal to share with my family, and then I started thinking about what I consider the flip side of gratitude, namely empathy. I was wondering, how do we encourage empathy and gratitude in ourselves and in others? In, say, our children?

First, who cares?

Lots of people have been writing about empathy lately, how rich people have less empathy, and the failure of technical fields to encourage empathy. We also seem to have connected gratitude with happiness.

Personally I’m pretty convinced these are both critical feelings both for relating to others on an individual basis and on thinking about public policy and income inequality, which I think about quite a bit. So I’m game.

Second, why those two things?

It occurred to me as I was walking that maybe other people don’t think of gratitude and empathy together. But for me there’s a pretty straight line from empathy to gratitude, and it’s not all that easy to get to gratitude some other way.

Some people write about how to raise your kids to be grateful, for example, and they often suggest that we ask our kids to think of things for which they are grateful, say before bed every night.

This strikes me as hollow. I don’t think people can just conjure up gratitude. Instead they will learn to list things which they are lucky to have, but being fortunate is not the same as feeling grateful. And listing a bunch of things you are fortunate to have can backfire, I’d imagine. I’m not into this plan.

But maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I misunderstood the plan. Readers, is there a connection for you too between empathy and gratitude, and is there a way to engender gratitude directly?

So, what about empathy?

Do you remember how much you hated your father growing up? I do. And I also remember the time, or times, that I realized I had the same tendencies inside myself. I could be just like that guy, I realized. FUCK.

And that’s when I realized I had a choice. I could either hate myself as much as I hated him, or I could forgive both of us. Or actually there are more options, including things like continuing to hate him and ignoring those same qualities in myself, but I try not to be too hypocritical.

Anyhoo, the point is that I forgave both of us. I empathized with his weaknesses, which were mine as well. And that is how I empathize with people in general, because I realize I am one mistake away from fucking up, or having too much debt, or being homeless or jobless.

And by the way, I even have made those mistakes, or many of them anyway, but I’ve been bailed out because of friends, or because I’m educated, or because I’m white. I am largely insulated from my bigger mistakes, but when I see someone in pain, it’s my pain, because it could be me.

And of course we have empathy for people because they are unlucky, like if someone they love gets sick, or if they themselves get sick and this ridiculous health system lands them in deep debt, or if they are at the wrong place at the wrong time, like if someone gets into an accident or if they are born into poverty.

But we also have empathy in recognition of making super shitty decisions and even of being cruel. Because cruelty is a weakness of ours too.

For me at least, gratitude comes right after that. It’s actually just a continuation of the feeling of empathy. I am grateful to my friends, and I am grateful for my freedom, and I am grateful I have not been in a situation recently where I’ve been overly tempted to wield my personal arsenal of evil weapons.

So, how do we encourage empathy and/or gratitude?

That’s the thing, I don’t know. The truth is, I’m not sure how it can be done without going through this whole process of hating something, then recognizing it inside yourself, and then coming to terms with it kindly. That’s pretty much all I got.

And so instead of asking my kids to be grateful, I just try to do my best to role model empathy and gratitude myself, in my words and actions and especially in my inactions.

Categories: musing
  1. Jason Starr
    December 26, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I love Psych and Star Trek: Enterprise. I haven’t gotten around to “Psych: The Musical”, but I hope to watch it soon. Anyway, the following is *very* specific to academics, but for me, the biggest empathy-builders are (1) grading, (2) refereeing, and (3) reviewing job applications. After I do these things for some time, I feel real empathy (and sympathy) for the people on the other side of the process. In STEM fields, maybe we should make peer grading / review / feedback a mandatory part of the curriculum. At some point in their career, most undergraduates are going to be asked to review the work of others, yet we provide little training for this (except by example — undergraduates are constantly graded).


    • December 26, 2013 at 9:28 am

      Holy shit I didn’t even KNOW about the musical.

      I love your examples but may I point out that some people just get crankier and more judgmental when they do those things. It’s because of who you are that it engenders empathy. And of course I love that about you.


  2. December 26, 2013 at 9:33 am

    As it happens, Buddhist practice includes some excellent techniques for strengthening wholesome states of mind and making them our default mental status. Traditionally, there are four wholesome states (which you may already know based on what you wrote): goodwill, compassion, appreciation and readiness to act.

    Goodwill is the mindset of well wishing — wanting everyone (human and nonhuman) to be well, happy, peaceful, engaged in wholesome activity, easily able to care for oneself, etc. It is the opposite of objectifying other beings.

    Compassion is the willingness to recognize suffering, refusal to look away, and desire to do whatever is possible to help. It is the opposite of self-absorption.

    Appreciation is gratitude and simple acknowledgement of all that we receive from others and from nature. It is the opposite of taking our good fortune for granted.

    Readiness to act is what we deploy when, despite our best intentions, we cannot think of a way to be helpful at this moment. It’s the opposite of “out of sight, out of mind” with regard to problems.

    There are many ways to work with these emotional states, but the most common is to set aside some time each day to cultivate them progressively. We begins with an easy “target” — maybe oneself, maybe someone beloved. Once we are thoroughly familiar with how it feels to have goodwill (or compassion, or appreciation, or readiness to act) in this easy case, we move on to neutral and eventually hostile “targets”.

    One thing I’ll mention (since it comes up for everyone) is that when feeling goodwill for someone, one does not have to wish for them what they might wish for themselves. Some people’s desires are self-destructive; other people engage in self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. One cannot wish that they get what they want in such cases! But there is always something that a person of goodwill and the person in mind can agree is a good thing, so that is what we wish for them.

    Once a person is used to summoning up these wholesome states in solitude, we begin to cultivate them in contact with others — again, progressing from “easy” to “hard” situations.

    Over time, this is a very robust way to cultivate a good character!

    HTH — Shira


  3. December 26, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Speaking as someone without any academic background in the field, empathy seems to be related to letting go of your own subjective viewpoint, and being able to imagine a situation from others’ points of view–particularly the point of view of someone you dislike.

    I imagine researchers have pondered techniques to make this possible–role-playing exercises, game theory, critical thinking skills, and so forth. The classic, “you get to divide the cookie, but Jane gets to pick which half she wants” is a pretty good starting point.

    But knowing HOW to empathize is different than CHOOSING to empathize in any given situation. The spooks involved in the Cold War knew how to place themselves in their adversary’s shoes–but with the goal of defeating that adversary. Weaponizing empathy.

    Less highfalutin: there are a lot of beggars in NYC, and if I allow myself to empathize fully with all of them I’ll go broke, so I gotta make strategic choices.

    * * * * *

    For me, though, one of the big factors in empathy was simply going through heartbreak and mental suffering.

    When I was a teenager, I was desperately in love with a girl who seemed to like me, but was extremely stand-offish, and I kept desperately trying to figure out what she felt, so that I could become lovable.

    In college I had a brief bout with a schizophrenic-type disorder. (There are a couple varieties of these, and I was lucky enough to get one that times out in a few weeks.) Although I did my best to seem normal, inside I was a wreck. And it occurred to me that a lot of the people I met during the day might seem normal, but be similarly fucked up internally. If they felt as bad as I felt, I really ought to try to be kind to them–but if they were maintaining as well as I was, I couldn’t pick them out of a crowd, so I would have to be kind to everyone, at least to some degree.

    Needless to say, teenage heartbreak and mental illness probably should not be part of any pedagogical regimen.


  4. Kari
    December 26, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Of all the traits that I hope to see in my children, I would identify empathy as the most important, yet I have noticed a huge variation in my children, almost from birth. Two have always been naturally tuned to the feelings of others, but the third demonstrated no capacity for empathy until a few years ago–critically judging others without consideration for their circumstances or background. It may have been simply the passage of time, and the normal maturation of adolescence, but following a situation involving personal suffering (major surgery with a prolonged, painful, recovery period impacting school attendance, performance, etc) I noticed her expressing empathy for the suffering of others for the first time.
    I suspect that there are many paths to empathy–not all of which involve hating someone or experiencing physical pain, but all of which involve personal suffering of some sort. (Except for a few naturally empathic people, perhaps.) In our society, however, we go to great lengths to minimize suffering in our children. Stunting the development of empathy for the suffering of others may be a foreseeable result.


  5. December 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    I do not remember hating my father ever. And I have a pretty good memory. Surely hating your father is not a universal thing?


  6. Charles Eldridge
    December 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    w/r/t the gratitude and empathy relationship: to feel gratitude probably requires earlier experience in doing without something likewise empathy is heightened by one’s own experience that is similar to experiences of those for whom one feels empathy; I agree with you that both gratitude and empathy can be hollow without that knowledge (gained through some experience). As for the parenting, I always tried to tell my kid the straight stuff about how I was feeling (e.g., “I feel sorry for X because I lost my Dad at an early age, too.” or “I am grateful for Y because I went without it so many years as a kid myself.”) and I SO agree with your being a role model.!


  7. fiona
    December 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Encouraging others to develop empathy:
    Seems to me the individual has to have a desire to become more empathetic. Chances are those who have this desire are already empathetic, while those with zero empathy will not seek to find it.
    I think your comments on being “insulated” situations that would cause you to make mistakes are key. People, generally, take too much credit for their achievements and do not recognize the people and institutions that have facilitated said achievements. Sometimes folks who have climbed the proverbial social ladder are the worst: they fail to see how luck or someone else’s empathy has landed them the next step in their progression.
    Whether or not born into a privileged, we have all been aided by others: the admisisons person who marginally selected you over the next guy, the interviewer who happened to be in a forgiving mood when you fumbled a question, etc etc.
    Sadly, I think the most powerful way for someone to really truly empathize is to recognize their own failures and how they too are one a few mistakes from a bad situation.
    Also, it’s often overlooked how success breeds success and failure breeds failure. Once you make a mistake, it’s usually followed by a shitty situation, and it’s far harder to make virtuous moves in a shitty situation than in a good one, so chance of making another poor move increase, and so on.


  8. Savanarola
    December 27, 2013 at 6:16 am

    I actually have a few ideas on this point, because I have an autistic son. Autistics purportedly lack empathy, or even the ability to put themselves in the shoes of another, because this belongs to the category of “meta” thinking that they allegedly can’t really engage in.

    So, in my experience, that’s completely wrong. But honestly, I was pretty sure it was without any experience, LOL. My son does not naturally empathize with others (in fact, he used to not notice people at all when he was small – only things). But there are tons of things that you can do to foster empathy as you go. One is imaginative play. When you PLAY at being someone else, you can try on what they feel and how they act. Those things help you appreciate that the person you are playing is a lot like you. So lots of role playing and imaginative play are in order. Second, get a pet and put the kid on the front line of caring for it. You cannot look after a pet without at least imagining that it might be hungry or need to go out. You learn to give the pet what it likes because it lets you know how it feels about it. Of course, you monitor the kid and keep things in line – but learning to be gentle with the cat or dog or gerbil is a very good lesson: it is much smaller than you are, special care is needed.

    Third, explain what you are feeling and why. Don’t be afraid to be emotional around your kids, and let them know that you are crying because you had a really lousy day – or because somebody died, or whatever. Over time, my son really learned not only that other people had feelings like his, but how they differed and how to look for them. And most importantly, he wants to know how other people feel and interact with them. I guess that wasn’t a given.

    But we have been working on these things, in big ways and small, for about 10 years now. There are other things, of course – manners, volunteering, leading by example. All of these are important in their own way. But I’d credit the three above with a lot of the work of teaching this skill.


    • Joshua
      December 27, 2013 at 8:06 am

      Some additional empathy exercises, especially with children:
      1) Encourage them to attend to other people’s feelings. Cues related to different stages include saying these types of things: “That person is happy/sad/hurt/excited/etc” “What do you think that person feels?” “What caused them to feel X?” “How will they feel if you do Y?” “What can you do to help them feel Z?”

      I’ve seen theories that this type of cuing is a common difference in how children of different genders are raised with girls encouraged to attend to people and feelings while boys are more consistently cued to attend to things. FWIW, I find it takes a lot of intentional effort to cue my children toward feelings than toward things, regardless of their gender.

      2) Ask them how they are similar to other people.

      3) have them read stories and books written from a first person perspective.

      4) have them read biographies (but not just hagiographies of great individuals)

      A request to other readers: do you have tips on how to better empathize with your children, especially small ones? I often find it very difficult to understand their perspective, particularly when they are doing things that seem to cost them and me (e.g., everyone would be better off if they made a different choice).


  9. Billikin
    January 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Not to long ago I was reading that one way to develop empathy is reading literature. Now, OC, there is fiction that is heavy on plot and light on character, but much of it invites the reader to enter into the experience of the protagonist. And, as I recall, that was how literature was taught in high school. What were characters thinking and feeling?

    Empathy comes naturally to almost all people except sociopaths. Children can be encouraged to imagine themselves in someone else’s place. And much of children’s play involves that, anyway. Stories and play-acting can build empathy, as well.


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