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005

FAQ: 005:  Is empathy learnable or are we born with or without it? 


Question:
  • "As one with a psychology background, I was trained to believe that empathy is something you have or have not. And there isn't much you can do to acquire it past your formative childhood years. Like Trump is an extreme case of narcissism without an ounce of empathy. No way that I can see for him to change?"



Assertions
  • Empathy is innate in people, - that is we are born with the basic parts of empathy and it develops and grows over time.
  • The brain neurons are 'plastic' meaning they can change and be rewired.
  • There are multiple parts of empathy. 
  • Empathy can be blocked
  • The blocks can be overcome
  • Empathy can be learned or developed.
  • The process of empathy can be strengthened by repetitively exercising it which wires the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together.


The academic meta studies say it is learnable.
Are empathic abilities learnable? Implications for social neuroscientific research from psychometric assessments.
Authors
"... Continuous social interactions should produce noticeable effects on the empathic abilities of an individual independent of age or brain maturation level. In particular, empathic abilities should be learnable and expandable beyond specific developmental windows. 

To elucidate this hypothesis we surveyed empathy measures of students of various professions with the help of a new instrument, the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE) categorizing them into three different groups depending on their subsequent occupational fields: medical students, students of academic social professions, and a control group. Results indicate that continuous socio-emotional stimulation could increase empathic abilities potentially leading to learning effects."



Is Empathy a Learnable Trait?
Natalie Engelbrecht, psychotherapist,
Feb 16, 2017

"Empathy is a habit that is a learned skill, and also innate. Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York identified that the anterior insular cortex, is the activity center of human empathy, whereas other areas of the brain are not. Research also supports that it can be learned. Mindfulness has certain practices, such as Loving-Kindness, Forgiveness and Compassion, in which people can learn to develop or increase their empathy."



Believing empathy is learnable supports people in being more empathic.
Believing empathy is not learnable keeps people in not trying to be more empathic.
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....


Can we learn empathy? Yes
Or is it a fixed trait?



We are born wired for empathy and it's a core biological part of us.

The brain is 'plastic' and can be reviewed through experience.

The brain is 'plastic' and the pathways of empathy can be deepened or strengthened through experience.

Academic studies show that empathy can be learned.





Are empathic abilities learnable? Implications for social neuroscientific research from psychometric assessments.
Authors
"... Continuous social interactions should produce noticeable effects on the empathic abilities of an individual independent of age or brain maturation level. In particular, empathic abilities should be learnable and expandable beyond specific developmental windows. 

To elucidate this hypothesis we surveyed empathy measures of students of various professions with the help of a new instrument, the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE) categorizing them into three different groups depending on their subsequent occupational fields: medical students, students of academic social professions, and a control group. Results indicate that continuous socio-emotional stimulation could increase empathic abilities potentially leading to learning effects."


 



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I think there are several things to tease out here.

Do humans have an innate capacity for empathy?
If the answer is 'yes' than 'learning' empathy is only necessary with respect to strengthening this capacity, and knowing how/when to activate it. Empathy doesn't have to be explicitly taught.

 Empathy is positively or negatively reinforced, implicitly, through hundreds of interactions we have with others. Sometimes, spiritual epiphanies lead to increased empathy abilities, or life events, like sickness or becoming a parent, or sometimes empathy improves through reading literature or engaging in the arts.

It would seem likely that (like a great many other human abilities) some people may have much greater capacity for empathy than others, based on biological predispositions. Add in the environmental factors of the early developmental years (which actually translate to biological influences on the brain) and we may see greater or lesser degrees of empathy capacity in different individuals. 

Still, if a person with an underdeveloped capacity for empathy wanted to improve his/her capacity, we know that empathy training can go a long way. We even know that empathy skills can be taught to children and adults, who may not even recognize they have a deficit in that area.

That being said, just because someone has the ability to improve their empathy skills, it doesn't mean they will want to do so. Enter Donald Trump, and people like him. He may indeed have the ability to become more empathic, but may lack the motivation or will to do so. (When presented with people like that, great nonviolent practitioners have then endeavored to awaken within individuals feelings of empathy by displays of voluntary suffering, great acts of compassion and by appealing to common humanity.) 

Will DT (Trump) take a class on improving his empathy skills?
 Highly improbable! Are there potential ways to appeal to his dormant ability for empathy- maybe. 

And how does this idea of "will" to learn influence empathy development? Wouldn't it seem likely that someone with low empathy might have difficulty "seeing" and "feeling" the need or benefit to actually improving their skills in this area? This is a bit of a catch-22, isn't it?

Thanks for the discussion.

Best, Christa 
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