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Empathy as a choice 3: “Growing” empathy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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For the last few weeks, I’ve written about a simple idea: far from being automatic, empathy often requires a choice to engage with others’ emotions.  This choice, in turn, depends on would-be empathizers’ desire to connect with others even when doing so is painful or costly.  I think a “choice model” can change how we view many key features of empathy (for instance, its failures in disorders such as autism).  In closing this 3-part series, I want to consider another implication: concerning how we might intervene to “grow” people’s empathy.

For many scientists studying empathy, this is the million-dollar question.  Is empathy fixed, or can scientists offer ways to increase it?  This is especially critical in domains where empathy is often lacking, such as our increasingly polarized political arena or (if memory serves) middle school.  Interestingly, evidence that empathy can change comes from a recent study bleakly demonstrating that college students’ self-reported empathy has plummeted over the last 40 years.  The good news is that what goes down can also come up: if empathy is malleable, there should be ways to systematically increase it.  But how?

A flurry of recent interventions has been targeted at answering this question.  Such interventions often rest on the popular model I’ve contested in these posts, under which empathy comprises (i) skill at understanding others’ emotions, and (ii) automatic tendencies to share those emotions.  If you follow this logic, trying to change the automatic “pieces” of empathy is as pointless as trying to speed someone’s reflexes.  Instead, interventions typically aim to improve skills, for instance teaching people how to recognize emotions based on facial expressions, or giving people feedback about when they’ve succeeded or failed at understanding someone else.  These interventions have had mixed success, with very few producing stable, long-term changes in people’s empathy.

Kurt Lewin's ideas about the motivational forces that drive behavior can inspire empathy-building interventions

A “choice model” totally reframes this discussion, and suggests that instead of trying to make people better at empathizing, interventions should focus on making empathy more desirable.  This idea is not new.  More than half a century ago, Kurt Lewin suggested that people’s behavior represents a push and pull between different psychological “forces” (or motives) that drive them towards and away from that behavior.  Lewinian psychology, then suggests that interventions should focus on increasing the motives that push people towards empathy, and decreasing the forces that pull them away from empathy.  Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller brilliantly describe this approach as increasing “psychological subsidies” and decreasing “psychological taxes” associated with a behavior: in this case, empathizing.

One powerful way to “subsidize” any behavior is to frame it as socially desirable.  Social norms are powerful enough to make individuals do anything from buying flowers for hundreds of dollars to standing backwards in an elevator. So, too, can norms shift people’s empathy.  Take two of my favorite studies on empathy and gender.  In one, Bill Ickes and his colleagues challenged the old assumption that women are more empathic than men.  Ickes and his colleagues reasoned that instead of being better at empathizing, women might be more motivated to do so, because traditional gender roles suggest that they should be empathic.  To test this, Ickes gave people two types of empathy tasks: ones that were described as measures of empathy ahead of time, and ones that were not.  Consistent with a “choice model,” women only scored higher on empathy when they were told the nature of the test, and were thus likely motivated by social norms.  In a separate study Geoff Thomas and Gregory Maio used a similar strategy to increase men’s empathy.  In their study, men took an empathy test after either being told that women found emotionally in-touch men to be attractive, or after not being given such information.  This “sensitive is sexy” manipulation powerfully (and hilariously) improved men’s performance on a later empathy test.

These studies might appear to be “tricking” people into increasing their desire for empathy based on made-up or outdated norms, but it’s just as easy to motivate empathy through real-world information.  Over the last decade, a groundswell of research has demonstrated that empathy and generosity really do benefit individuals, making teens better adjusted, improving inter-group interactions, and even fostering longevity.  This information—given undiluted to participants at the right time—could provide the right motivational “kick” that drives people to choose empathy.

Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. davenussbaum 11:39 am 08/22/2013

    Fantastic — really thought provoking. The idea of empathy being taxed leads right back to Lewin again, who suggested that sometimes people are already motivated in a particular direction, but that there are barriers in their way. If you can remove those barriers, then their motivation will translate into behavior.

    So the Thomas and Maio study shows how you can increase men’s motivation to show empathy. My hunch is that, for many men, the motivation to show empathy is already there, but there are barriers, like appearing unmasculine. One advantage of the removing barriers approach is that it capitalizes on what people already want to do, rather than pushing them in a new direction.

    One example, from a Scandinavian country I can’t seem to remember, is (roughly) that parental leave must be split between both parents; if men don’t take their part then it’s forfeited (it can’t be given to the mother). This encourages more men to take the leave (material subsidy), but also undermines the descriptive norm that only women take parental leave, making it easier for men to take it (reduces psychological tax).

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  2. 2. Jamil Zaki in reply to Jamil Zaki 11:59 am 08/22/2013

    Dave, so true, and such great ideas. I wonder whether in addition to the reputation / normative tax of appearing less masculine, men might also face a tax in their perceived risk of failure, b/c of the stereotypes surrounding their poor abilities in understanding others… there are lots of ways (including mindset manipulations) through which to reduce such perceptions. But love your example of a relevant nudge…

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  3. 3. Coffeeshots 5:07 pm 09/7/2013

    I found your article very interesting and thought provoking. In discussing it with my ethics class it was pointed out that empathy is personal while sympathy is more general. I don’t know how you can increase one’s empathy without increasing their personal experiences with which one would use to empathize. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Empathy_vs_Sympathy

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