The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.

Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.

Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.

From Greater Good: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition



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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.” 

From: http://www.skillsyouneed.com

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.

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