Knowing what’s happening with others is perhaps one of our most important social skills. Because only empathy enables cooperation, help and constructive communication. Therefore, it is considered to be a key condition for the development of our society and culture.
Two types of empathy
Empathy includes both cognitive and emotional aspects: On the one hand, empathy means that we can understand other people’s thoughts, perspective, and intentions. On the other hand, emotional empathy means feeling sorry for others: For example, if we see a person in need, we not only understand their situation mentally, but also be able to empathize with them.
While empathy has deep biological roots, and animals such as apes and maybe even rats may feel a kind of compassion and rush to help your fellow man, it is different with cognitive empathy: it is not innate and only just developing in childhood. Only between the ages of three and four do children suddenly begin to understand that other people see the world differently than they do and think differently.
But how does science define empathy? Can this skill be trained? And can too much empathy even hurt? Psychologist Matthias Hoenen from the FOM University in Wesel studies the phenomenon of empathy and its neural basis. In an interview, he gives us answers to the most important questions.
Professor Hoenen, the media is now calling for more empathy in political debates. Is this a new phenomenon?
Mateusz Hoenen: The question of how empathy works in our society has long been a topic of science. After all, it’s about the basics, like how we organize our social coexistence.
Before we delve deep, how would you define empathy?
It is not that simple because there are an infinite number of concepts that cannot be clearly distinguished. Basically, empathy has three components. First, cognitive: it’s about taking a different perspective. Can I put myself in the shoes of another person? Second: affective. It’s about emotional understanding. Finally, we are talking about the motivational component, i.e. the will to be active. For example, am I willing to help someone in need?
With a bit of cynicism, we could say: this is all good and good, but is this skill really helping us?
Of course, nature is very efficient. I would list two main functions of empathy. On the one hand, it facilitates communication. We all live in our own reality. The advantage is the ability to empathize with another person’s point of view. This gives us more information that we can interpret.
On the other hand, there is a social level. Empathy promotes our pro-social behavior, thanks to which we are able to organize social life at all. However, emotionally, it can also be beneficial for a person, as research shows empathy can be a factor in preventing diseases such as burnout. Your well-being increases.
However, we do not have the same willingness to sympathize with everyone.
That’s right: social closeness creates social meaning. We spend more energy on learning about people close to us, because they are important to us and our lives. However, basic empathic-affective processes are always active. We can also show empathy to people we do not know, as evidenced by, for example, our willingness to help after natural disasters.
And what does it look like in the professional context?
It depends a lot on where we are. In some professions, empathy itself is part of the job. They increase the satisfaction of patients and clients – the effect is improved. In teams, it can also be beneficial if people treat each other with empathy. This reduces the potential for conflict and leads to greater satisfaction.
There are definitely some critical voices saying that there may be too much empathy. Argument: Empathy is exhausting, it can be exhausting and contribute to mental stress. In addition, decision-making behavior is negatively affected by strong emotional involvement. Compassion can then turn into pity and unpleasant decisions are avoided. My personal opinion is this: I would not condemn or celebrate empathy.
Can we learn this skill?
Basically, people are empathetic. Therefore, I would talk less about “learning” and more about “train”. For example, empathy can be trained by reading fictional literature. In this way, we find ourselves in the inner perspective of other people and share their feelings. There are also some meditations that promote compassion. Finally, just knowing that we are in control of our empathic abilities, that we can train them to be empathetic helps.
Where do you see future starting points for further research?
An exciting area is certainly the question of empathy away from people. We can be empathetic towards animals, their humanization certainly plays a role. But the thought goes further: What about inanimate objects – such as empathy for technology? This is an exciting thing, especially for robots that could be used in care, for example.