Can Empathy be Learned?


Empathy is a multifaceted psychological phenomenon characterized by the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, perspective-taking, and self-regulation skills. It can be taught through training programs.

Research has demonstrated that several instructional components, such as didactic, observation, and rehearsal, are successful at teaching people empathy. Some academics, however, believe it cannot be directly taught due to its innate nature and susceptibility to environmental influences.

One study supporting the teachable view, from researchers at the University of Zurich, suggested that people can learn to empathize with strangers. They found that only a handful of positive learning experiences already suffice for a person to be-come more empathic.

Grit Hein, a psychologist and neuroscientist, collaborated with Philippe Tobler, Jan Engelmann, and Marius Vollberg to assess brain activation in participants who had pleasant interactions with members of their own (in-group member) or another group (out-group member). During the test, participants anticipated receiving unpleasant shocks to the backs of their hands.

They also realized that a member of their own or another tribe may pay money to save them from pain. The brain activation while viewing suffering in oneself or another group was measured before and after these events.

At the start of the experiment, the stranger’s discomfort elicited less brain activation in the participant than if a member of his or her own group was harmed. However, only a few positive experiences with someone from the stranger’s group resulted in a large increase in empathic brain responses when suffering was inflicted on another member of the out-group. The more beneficial the interaction with the stranger was, the larger the increase in neural empathy.

The heightened empathic brain response for the out-group is caused by a neuronal learning signal that emerges from unexpectedly favorable interactions with strangers. These findings show that favorable interactions with strangers are passed to other members of this group, increasing empathy for them, according to Hein.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) embodies a systematic educational approach focusing on developing social and emotional skills, vital for fostering empathy, socialization, and cooperation. Implemented across various schools, these programs aim to build healthier social connections and decrease instances of bullying through targeted interventions.

Schools have become a focal point for SEL programs, recognizing their potential to evoke positive student outcomes. The essentials of SEL revolve around self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

Various programs, such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), provide frameworks for educators to integrate such practices into the curriculum, contributing to a holistic learning environment conducive to both academic and personal growth.

Empathy and Socialization

Empathy, a central component of SEL, is cultivated through guided social interactions and reflection on emotional responses. By engaging in activities that promote perspective-taking and empathy, students learn to understand and share the feelings of others, a stepping stone to effective socialization.

These empathic skills can extend beyond the classroom, preparing students to navigate diverse social settings with sensitivity and care. For example, bullying is a complex social issue that SEL interventions target directly. Programs are designed to reduce bullying behaviors by fostering an empathetic school culture and teaching students constructive ways to handle conflict.

SEL strategies may include role-playing exercises, group discussions, and empathy enhancement techniques, equipping students with tools to build respectful peer relationships and intervene responsibly when witnessing bullying situations.

Empathy and Creativity

Research from 2021 indicates that fostering children’s empathy in the classroom has a quantifiable positive impact on their creativity and may result in a number of other advantageous academic outcomes. Year 9 Design and Technology students – aged 13 to 14- from two inner London schools participated in a year-long study at the University of Cambridge that produced the results.

Students at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, whereas the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools aimed at developing students’ ability to think creatively and empathy while solving real-world problems. Both groups of students were assessed for creativity at the beginning and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a well-known psychometric test.

The results revealed a statistically significant increase in creativity among students at the intervention school when the thinking tools were implemented. At the beginning of the year, the creativity scores of students in the control school, which followed the conventional curriculum, were 11% higher than those in the intervention school.

By the conclusion, however, the situation had shifted dramatically: the intervention group’s creativity scores were 78% higher than the control group.

The researchers also looked at particular areas on the Torrance Test that indicate emotional or cognitive empathy, such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school scored substantially higher in these categories, demonstrating that a significant improvement in empathy was driving overall creative scores.

The study’s authors argue that promoting empathy not only boosts creativity but also deepens students’ overall engagement with learning. Notably, they discovered evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school reacted differently to the D&T course than expected based on traditional gender stereotypes.

Boys improved significantly in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher at the end of the year than at the start, whereas girls improved more in cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.

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