What is Empathy?
“Empathy is the ability to see the world as another person, to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state.”
Why Empathy Matters
Empathy is a prerequisite for compassion. Before we can act with true compassion towards another human being, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Empathy is what keeps us in compassion and out of pity. We are empathetic with another, as an equal. Empathy is the glue of every supportive learning community. It holds us together. In this dynamic, rapidly changing world, empathy or the ability to understand another’s perspective is quickly becoming one of the most desirable skills for business and academic success in the 21st century.
Empathy reduces bullying and creates a safer learning environment where students thrive. Studies of social-emotional programs such as Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy (Toronto) have found that such programs decrease bullying and aggression among kids, making them kinder and more inclusive toward their peers.
As an antidote to bullying, empathy reduces the dropout rate. A recent study by the University of Virginia found that the dropout rate was 29 percent above average in schools with high levels of teasing and bullying. Schools with social-emotional programs also have fewer suspensions and expulsions and better student attendance (Dymnicki, 2007).
Empathy reduces prejudice and racism. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated that perspective taking (seeing things empathically from another’s point of view) combats automatic expressions of racial bias (Todd, 2011).
Empathy supports academic success. A 2011 study in the publication Child Development looked at research involving 270,000 students - comparing those who participated in social and emotional learning programs with those who had not. Their findings showed that students who received the training not only increased in social and emotional skills but also had an 11 percentage point increase in standardized achievement test scores.
Empathy is a key to success in the business world. Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership.
A literacy curriculum focused on fiction can promote the development of empathy. In studies at the University of Toronto, researchers have discovered that people who read fiction tend to be more empathetic than those who don’t. One of the researchers, Keith Oatley, writes: “…we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”
Dymnicki, A. (2007). The impact of school-based social and emotional development programs on academic performance. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois at Chicago.
Todd, Andrew R.; Bodenhausen, Galen V.; Richeson, Jennifer A.; Galinsky, Adam D. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 100(6), Jun 2011, 1027-1042. doi: 10.1037/a0022308.