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Empathy: Tap It or Teach It, but Definitely Integrate It

Empathy is poised to become the buzzword of the 21st century– the defining trait of our social and political evolution.  Empathy will be to this century what “rights” was to the 20th century and “equality” was to the 19th century. 

As a word, a concept, and a goal empathy is omnipresent.  From parenting newborns to teaching college students, to training doctors and employees of profit-driven ventures, to effecting radical political and social change, empathy is becoming the prevailing philosophy. 

Organizations, such as Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy, design and bring to schools programs aimed at teaching primary school children and preschoolers to have more empathy.  A school in Cambridge, Ontario, recently raised $6000 to hold an anti-bullying workshop which focuses on building empathy.[i]    Yet another initiative, “The Empathy Project” of Capital University in Ohio, aims to teach college-aged students to have greater empathy.[ii]   Political theory students study Franz de Waal’s The Age of Empathy as part of their university curriculum.[iii]  Author and political advisor, Jeremy Rifkin, explores all aspects of empathy and encourages that we embrace empathy to improve our world.[iv] And empathy has entered the profit-driven workplace and is making an impact, with books such as Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-spread Empathy.[v]  

Yet, at the political level, whether domestic or international, we seem to be shirking from empathy and moving toward more division, blaming, and short-sighted selfishness.  Political divisions appear to be getting starker and more hostile.  In the United States, Canada, and France, political parties that emphasize separation and encourage the “us” against “them” approach flourish.  In Canada, our government and, as a result, we, move toward a more individualistic and vengeful justice system, and build more prisons and impose harsher and longer jail terms, rather than develop effective programs that will prevent crime and will heal those affected by crime, including offenders.  And in an era of cut-backs, international aid and social programs are among the first targets of our political representatives.

It appears that the more some groups in society move toward inclusion, understanding, togetherness and empathy, the more other segments, politicians and governments recoil and seek to distinguish themselves from and set themselves above others. 

Do all human beings have the capacity to identify with others and their experiences? Or are we doomed to an everlasting conflict between those who want to understand and include and those who want to judge and exclude?  Can we teach empathy to everyone?

There are certainly findings that suggest that empathy can be lost or eroded over time.  A study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor concludes that over the last 30 years, college students’ self-reported levels of empathy have decreased and their narcissism has increased.   Several studies have shown that medical students becomes less empathic over the course of medical school, while medical interns become less empathic as their internship progresses.     Other anecdotes suggest that while many young people participate in community and volunteer work, the lessons learned do not stick-  they do not translate into behavioural changes and routine activities where a person can make a real difference.  

But there are also encouraging studies.   Teachers whose students have participated in the Roots of Empathy programs report a decrease in aggressive behaviour by their students.  They also exhibit higher levels of pro-social behaviour.[vi]   Furthermore, efforts into teaching empathy to medical students and to people in the workforce appear to lead to some success.

Like so many other skills, empathy is best learned at a young age.    And what is more reassuring is that we don’t actually need to “teach” empathy.  Unlike knowledge of certain concepts, such as quantum mechanics or even reading, we are not born void of empathy.  We do not need to have our cup filled with empathy from scratch.  We appear to be born, “soft-wired”, as Jeremy Rifkin describes it, with empathy.  We may have different levels of predisposition to empathy, but we all have it, at some level.  Studies of primates and of human babies confirm this finding.[vii]

Since every healthy baby is born with empathy, the task for parents, educators, and the rest of us is to ensure that we do not repress that empathy.  We must encourage and “hard-wire” the empathy that exists in our children, rather than to replace it with anger, jealousy, greed, and a desire for material success that necessitates keeping others down.  And there are plenty of resources to help parents and educators in this invaluable quest. 

True, not all children possess the same level of empathy.  And they definitely differ in their abilities to act on that empathy.  But our acceptance of children’s different abilities, in particular their capacity to share and show kindness, and our appreciation for and encouragement of such kindness—will ultimately encourage more empathy from them. 

What will all this empathy honing and cheerleading mean for justice issues?  What will happen if we change our approach to crime and justice from an individualistic, punishment-oriented one, toward one that uses empathy and brings together offenders and victims, allowing each to understand and feel the pain of the other?  Are the accusations of Canada’s Conservative Party, for example, that anyone who opposes more punitive responses to crime doesn’t care about victims justified?  Are fears that integrating empathy into crime and justice issues make us “soft on crime” valid? 

Empathy is not a new concept in justice issues.  Different societies have, at different times, dealt with crime in an empathetic, cohesive manner, one which contrasts immensely with our own punishment-oriented, individualistic and largely ineffective means of dealing with crime.  Healing circles have been used by Native peoples for centuries.  And the efforts to implement victim-offender reconciliation in the western criminal justice system have been growing. 

The Toronto Star recently ran an encouraging good news story about a high school in Toronto which has, for the past few years, used restorative conferences (much like healing circles and victim-offender reconciliation) to deal with conflicts among students.[viii]  The project has had visibly positive results. 

The proof for the effectiveness of restorative justice, which focuses on the involvement, understanding and empathy of all parties affected (not just one “offender” and one “victim”) is abundant.  Restorative justice is more effective as a means of increasing understanding and accountability, decreasing recidivism, and encouraging individuals and communities to work together. 

We must embrace and encourage empathy in our young, in ourselves, and especially, in our political representatives.  Empathic governing is simply better and more effective at achieving our goals of democracy, equality, peace and security.

Empathy begets cooperation.  Empathy thwarts adversity.  We need to hone it, to implement it, to use it to effect radical social and political change and to reach a higher level in human evolution. 

And then, in about a hundred years or so, we will latch on to the next big idea.

Take a look:

RSA Animate video on The Empathic Civilization:

Jeremy Rifkin on TVO:

The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People:


[i] Kate Hammer, “Schools Teach Empathy As a Way to Combat Bullying.” Theglobeandmail.com, Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

[ii]  Go to: http://empathy.capital.edu/, or check this article on Dispatch.

[iii] For example, students of Political Theory at the University of Toronto study Frans De Waal’s Age of Empathy.

[iv] Rifkin, Jeremy.  The Emphatic Civilization. (Putnam, 2009). You can aslo see portions of Jeremy Rifkin’s appearance on TVO’s The Agenda by clicking here.  Or watch the RSA Animate summary here.

[v]Patnaik, Dev, and Mortensen, Peter.  Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-Spread Empathy (Pearson Education, 2009.)

[vi]Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Anat Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011) “Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviours in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children.”     See also http://www.rootsofempathy.org/
[vii] See Rifkin’s TVO interview, supra and Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy

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