SO WHAT IS EMPATHY?
“Empathy is the psychological identification with, or vicarious experiencing of, the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
In other words, it’s our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and understand what they’re feeling or thinking. The question is, is this a human reflex that is simply stronger in some than in others? Or is it a skill that can be learned and fine-tuned?
Empathy is often thought of as being automatic, however if it’s too distressing for us to empathise, we have a tendency to shut it down, suggesting empathy is not in fact a reflex, but something that can be controlled. This study by psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that people who believed empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — tried harder to relate to (i.e. expressed more empathy towards) ethnically diverse cultures, and had enhanced empathetic responses towards people with conflicting views on important sociopolitical matters.
This data suggests that people’s mindsets powerfully affect whether they exert effort to empathize when it is needed most. In other words, it appears that empathy can be enhanced simply by modifying our views about empathy itself.