You’re in a hospital waiting room. Across the room from you a woman sobs. You gather that she’s received bad news, so you offer her a tissue, mumble “Hang in there,” and return to your magazine.
Now imagine that instead of ending the interaction there, you ask the woman her name. She seems grateful for conversation, so you gently inquire about her circumstances. As she tells her story, you resist the temptation to give advice, and instead just listen. She begins to sob again. Even though you’ve only just met the woman, you choke up, too.
The first scenario demonstrates sympathy — feeling for someone else. The second demonstrates empathy — feeling with someone else.
“To be with another in this way means that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another’s world without prejudice,” explained psychologist Carl Rogers, PhD, the founder of client-centered therapy.
Practicing empathy is harder than it seems. It’s a lot easier to offer a tissue than an ear — especially when it comes to people we disagree with — but “feeling with” others fosters growth and connection both individually and across society.
Here’s how empathy works, why it takes work, and why it’s worth the effort.
Empathy is a neurological process. Put simply, witnessing another person’s emotional or physical experience activates the same neural networks in your own brain. When you see someone stub their toe and instinctively clench your own, or smile in response to a laughing stranger, your brain is essentially mirroring what is happening in theirs. And from an evolutionary view, it makes sense that human brains are built to feel with other people.
“We’re a social species and would have never survived without each other,” explains Maia Szalavitz, coauthor of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered. Parallel benefits persist in modern society too, she says. “We still need social connection to relieve stress.”
Research suggests that our capacity for empathy begins forming around age 2. Though newborns have been shown to cry in response to the sound of another baby crying — that is, to notice and respond to someone else’s emotional state — 2-year-old children can distinguish between the self and other. And this is when children begin not only to experience internal distress in response to another’s suffering, but to offer some form of comfort, such as sharing a cookie or a hug.
Our empathetic capacity deepens as our brain develops. We become capable not only of emotional empathy (vicariously experiencing another person’s feelings) but also cognitive empathy (placing ourselves in the mind of another). Cognitive empathy requires a more sophisticated capacity for language and a broader understanding that the world doesn’t revolve entirely around us.
As we move through childhood and begin developing a social circle, empathy plays an ever more important role. Sharing in others’ emotional experiences allows us to cultivate meaningful, supportive relationships. And if we regularly provide support for others when they’re struggling, we are more likely to receive support in our own tough times.
If you read the scenario at the beginning of this article and thought, “I’d probably just offer a tissue,” you’re not alone. We don’t always choose the empathetic response, in part because it doesn’t always feel good. After all, sharing in another’s emotional experience can mean letting in difficult emotions such as grief, hurt, and fear.
Moreover, empathy — particularly the cognitive kind — isn’t necessarily an automatic process. It’s actually a choice.
Researchers at Penn State’s Empathy and Moral Psychology Lab discovered that cognitive empathy operates along an economic framework: We subconsciously assess the costs and benefits of attempting to understand another person before choosing to do so.
“It’s easy to think that people might avoid empathy because they just don’t want to feel bad,” lead study author Daryl Cameron, PhD, told Neuroscience News. “But what if it’s because empathy is effortful, taxing, and fatiguing? It’s hard work to try to get inside someone else’s head and feel what they’re feeling.”
Whether or not we do the work depends in part on our own state of mind. Szalavitz explains that fear switches our brains into fight-or-flight mode, literally “shutting off the air supply” to empathy. “Less oxygen goes to areas that are involved in compassion, planning, and abstract thought,” she explains. “This makes sense if you actually have to physically fight someone or flee from a bear. But if the fear and anxiety are ongoing, it makes you more reactive and less thoughtful.”
Not only must we feel safe and calm ourselves in order to feel with others, we also need to be aware of our biases. The human brain subconsciously distinguishes between in-group and out-group, and studies suggest we are more likely to empathize automatically with people who look like us.
This bias also extends to people who think like us, explains Harvard University professor Susan Lanzoni, PhD, author of Empathy: A History. “In modern life, it is more difficult to get outside of our own narrow worlds. Much of our news, our social-media streams, and avenues for information are divided,” she says. “This means that it is even more important to find ways to bridge these gulfs and make an effort to understand people with viewpoints different from our own.”
Reflecting on the current state of society — a global pandemic, long-simmering demands for racial equity, political polarization — reveals a paradox: We need empathy more than ever, but the conditions are unfavorable (to put it mildly). Many of us feel far from calm and safe these days, and that makes it easy to devolve into “othering” and post an angry screed or yell rather than listen.
Yet we can, and must, rise above that impulse.
“Everyone is animated by universal needs, and if we can see through another’s behavior and words to grasp their needs, we can empathize with them, because we likely have a similar need.” Lanzoni maintains. “This is an important step in resolving conflict.”