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The Attractive Human Capacity for Empathy

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Had we not been given so fitting a term, someone would have surely had to invent it.

It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from talk therapies to film—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire understandings that privilege compassion over judgment.  As film critic Roger Ebert noted about movies, “films are empathy machines.” We want to connect, and so we are drawn in when we see ourselves in the behaviors of others. It is an axiom of screenwriting that viewers will need to align with at least one character within a story.

Despite its obvious place as an essential feature of the fluent communicator, the capacity for empathy is unevenly distributed across any population.  Especially in these sour times, with many happy to describe their estrangement from others. But empathy remains a central capacity necessary for individuals engaged in true interactive communication.

Empathy is a bond created by recognition of oneself in someone else’s experience.  Or, as Martin Hoffman ingeniously describes it, empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own.”  It simultaneously acknowledges the authenticity of another’s feelings and suggests the momentary creation of a more personal shared experience. It is a reminder that we are not alone, even when we feel estranged from other people. Empathy happens when we meet the challenge to imagine the inner lives of others.

President Obama after Hurrican Sandy White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 

The word itself was not the invention of academic psychology, but grew from German aesthetic theory at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Robert Vischer was looking for a way to express the idea of projecting oneself onto another object (Einfühlung). He wanted to find a vocabulary that would help in the analysis of the individual’s response to the visual arts.  Had he not discovered so fitting a term, others would have surely had to invent it.  It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire empathetic understanding.

To some extent we seem hardwired for simple forms of empathetic responses.  In his Social Intelligence 2006, Psychologist Daniel Goldman describes an unlearned “primal empathy” that flows from simple contact with others. We and other primates are naturally inclined to “read” facial and physical expressions, converting them into tentative understandings about what others may be experiencing.  The threshold of awareness can be measured at the margins, as when a primate or infant is able to recognize itself (as opposed to an unknown or threatening alien) on a reflective surface. This kind of “mirroring” begins a sequence of consciousness that includes thinking as if they were the other. “I know how you feel” may be a cliché for the ages, but it reasonably describes what we take to be relatively faithful inferences made in limitless ranges of situations. Knowledge of an individual and their world increases the likelihood that we will recognize some of their experiences as our own.  In friends those bonds deepen and grow.

Most of us worry if we don’t find this impulse alive somewhere in the words or actions of a new acquaintance.  We ‘read’ others for signs that they understand the challenges we express.  The alternative is indifference or hostility: responses that school us into accepting feelings of estrangement.

Still, even with sincere effort, there is no guarantee. Familiarity can sometimes make empathy whither. Sometimes the more we know about another person, the less of a connection we feel. Biographers of famous people sometime report this effect.  The advantage of a loyal pet is that it will rarely reveal a backstory that makes us question our willingness to project the best into their actions.

In clinical settings focusing on mental health, empathy still functions as a core value in client centered therapy.  The idea of talk therapy without a supportive and accurate listener is almost unthinkable.  If quick and critical judgment is the poison of too many troubled relationships, empathy and full consciousness of how each party is feeling is a necessary antidote. This therapy is predicated on the suspension of judgment long enough to understand another.  Not surprisingly, the inability to be sympathetic is a recurring symptom in problematic mental processing, including paranoia, narcissism, and some forms of autism.

Because empathy is a subjective experience, it is easier to observe its basic impulse than to accurately map its affective meanings. We can strive for objective measures of it, but its sources are always bound in alignments and understandings unique to the individual. Thus, the great paradox of empathy is also the paradox of communication:  we live in the isolation of a unique private consciousness, even while an innate quest for connection pulls us out of ourselves and toward others.

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