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Emotional Self-Awareness Is Essential for Managing Biases

Left unchecked, biases lead to impaired thinking.

Key points

  • The skills required for cognitive empathy, such as perspective-taking, are entirely different from those required for emotional empathy.
  • Emotional self-awareness is the mechanism through which humans are able to calibrate their moral and ethical compasses.
  • Left unchecked, biases cause people to constrict and distort the information they receive, understand, and consider.

Many people incorrectly believe that they possess a wealth of empathy by virtue of their training, licensure, and profession. They frequently hold this belief because they have been trained in and regularly engage in perspective-taking, which is known as cognitive empathy and which Daniel Goleman has defined as “the ability to understand another person’s perspective.”

However, Goleman and others also refer to other types of empathy. The two other types of empathy Goleman refers to are emotional empathy and empathic concern, which he defines respectively as “the ability to feel what someone else feels” and “the ability to sense what another person needs from you.”

It bears mentioning that social science researcher Brene' Brown explains that empathy consists of the following five skills:

  • Perspective taking;
  • Being nonjudgmental;
  • Understanding the other person’s feelings;
  • Communicating your understanding; and
  • Mindfulness.

Cognitive empathy is most certainly important; yet, it is not the type of empathy that is included as one of the twelve emotional intelligence competencies. As such, it does not require the development of any emotional intelligence skills.

The belief that one’s training, licensure, and regular practice of perspective-taking means that they possess a “wealth of empathy” is incredibly inaccurate. Furthermore, that belief causes people to think that they already possess and have honed at least some emotional intelligence skills. Not surprisingly, this belief discourages those holding it from putting in the time and effort required to develop and hone some or all of the emotional intelligence skills. After all, why develop something you already believe that you possess in spades?

The empathy which is an aspect of emotional intelligence is a skill, the foundation of which is emotional self-awareness.

The skill of emotional self-awareness is defined as “knowing what one feels.”

Emotional empathy is "an astute awareness of others’ emotions, concerns, and needs." It is not possible to be aware of and accurately understand other people’s emotions unless and until one is aware of and understands them in oneself. While emotional self-awareness can be learned, it is essential to distinguish between being taught a skill and learning it.

It bears mentioning that our emotions impact our perception of fairness, among other things. Fear keeps us safe from perceived danger, disgust (the emotion associated with perceptions of immorality) protects us from our perceived threat of being poisoned physically and socially, anger is a response to a perceived injustice, and sadness is a reaction to a perceived loss. While these perceptions may be real, they might also be exaggerated or completely imagined. As such, emotional self-awareness and bias management efforts go hand-in-hand.

As Dr. Brown has said, one of the skills required for empathy is nonjudgment. Untested assumptions and beliefs are biases.

People talk about engaging in "non-judgmental listening." However, it has been found that this is an impossible task because of how the human brain work. Fortunately, people can suspend judgment in order to listen to hear, understand and consider information. Suspending judgment is far easier said than done.

Once people have experienced something or formed an opinion about it, that becomes their default -- they no longer have a clean slate in that regard. They have, for all intents and purposes, become biased and pre-judge based upon their experience or opinion.

There is no training, licensure, or certification that causes someone to develop and hone their emotional self-awareness. For example, consider the following:

Unfortunately, the results of research on efforts to help judges to reduce or otherwise manage their biases have been rather disappointing. In fact, the research has shown that the effects of the training, if any, for most judges ‘generally declined after two weeks,’ as set forth by the Federal Judicial Center. To be clear, this does not mean that such efforts are entirely ineffective. As has already been said many times throughout this article, ‘admission is the first step to recovery.’ Unless people are required to take courses at which they learn about specific biases, how they are formed, their impact, and what a person can do to try to reduce or otherwise manage bias, people self-select the types of information to which they will and will not even expose themselves. Thus, those most in need of acquiring such information are typically the least likely to receive it, particularly if they believe they are not biased and that their explicit biases exist for good reason. Therefore, the only way to even attempt to promote awareness is through education programs and by requiring attendance.”

Left unchecked, biases cause people to constrict and distort the information they receive, understand and consider. The more constricted and distorted the information heard, understood and considered, the more impaired will be the thinking involved.

As if engaging in unimpaired thinking, to the extent possible, is not sufficient reason for people to want to develop and hone their emotional self-awareness, emotional self-awareness is the mechanism through which human beings are able to calibrate their moral and ethical compasses.

Fortunately, in 1994, Timothy D. Wilson and Nancy Brekke provided scientific proof that bias could be avoided or eliminated as follows:

  • By becoming aware of the bias and why it exists;
  • Having the motivation to overcome it;
  • Awareness of the direction and magnitude of the bias; and
  • The ability to apply an appropriate strategy to help reduce or otherwise manage the bias.

For what it is worth, the opposite of self-awareness is self-righteousness. If you find yourself feeling "morally superior to others," that should signal your need to develop your emotional self-awareness.

References

Goleman, D. (2013). 'The Focused Leader: How effective executives direct their own—and their organizations’—attention', Harvard Business Review.

Goleman, D. (2020). 'Harvard researcher says the most emotionally intelligent people have these 12 traits. Which do you have?', CNBC.

Goleman, D. (2001). An EI-Based Theory of Performance. In C. Cherniss, & D. Goleman (Eds.), The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace (p. 27, 36). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Baer, M., The Amplification of Bias in Family Law and its Impact, 32 J. AM. ACAD. MATRIM. L. 305, 328 (2020).

Wilson, T. & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental Contamination and Mental Correction: Unwanted Influences on Judgments and Evaluations, 116 PSYCHOL. BULL. 117.

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