Tuesday, 2 February 2016

What is empathy and should we be teaching it?

Dear Reader,

Would you consider yourself someone who has empathy?

Empathy - often seen as a 'soft skill' - is something small children don't seem to have. It is common for toddlers to snatch, hit and steal because they haven't yet formed the idea that other people feel as they feel and think as they think.  As we grow, we realise that the inside of us corresponds in some way to the outside of others, and learnt to behave accordingly.  We try to put ourselves in another's shoes (their minds would be a better description, surely?).

Having empathy, then, means two stages.
1. You acknowledge your own identity and know that it is separate and different to others (young children are still developing this).
2. You realise others have this too and try to imagine their perspective.

                                                          Empathy: easier when you look EXACTLY THE SAME!

But empathy is  also complex.  It is both: 'I understand that you are different' and 'I understand that you are the same.'  It is seeing that people and their experiences are unique and trying not to dismiss them ('You responded in a way I consider inferior') and at the same time seeing that there are similarities with you and your feelings, and trying not to 'own' them ('I've been through that, and it's not as bad as you say').

You might be familiar with the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a fancy way of saying that when other people behave badly,we say it is their character ('they are dishonest/lazy/rude'); when we do it, we say it is contextual ('I was mistaken/ill/rushed').  People who have really learnt about empathy do this less, because it relies on the mistaken idea that you are different to other humans.  Think about this for a minute.  How often do you think - really think - about the motives of others?  Do you label their characteristics without considering the context?  Do you assume others are less motivated, intelligent, or ethical than you?  Is this based on evidence, or just impressions?

You are, of course, inside you.  It would be terribly tiring, as well as counter-productive, to constantly label yourself with negative characteristics. Instead, you consider the circumstances.  But when does contextualisation turn into excuse-making, self-deceit, delusion?

In other words, what you think about others inevitably betrays what you think about you.  In schools, we teach a little about self-esteem (although there are still those who deny its existence) and some of the key concepts of empathy, such as sharing and being considerate.  However, research shows that thinking from another's perspective has some amazing effects - such as reducing the 'stereotype threat' sexism felt by girls when performing tasks traditionally associated with male superiority, for instance.  Should we be teaching empathy more explicitly, and what might be the consequences?

1 comment:

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