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Empathy and Self-Awareness

Personal Perspective: Why cultivating empathy towards others is a skill.

Key points

  • People cannot eliminate empathy from their decision-making because of how human brains' cognitive processes work.
  • People instinctively possess empathy toward those they perceive as looking, acting, and thinking as they do.
  • Empathy as a skill involves the ability and willingness to have it toward that which falls outside one's worldview.
  • Objective self-awareness may be a key to cultivating empathy toward those who look, act, and think differently from themselves.
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It is well established that people are naturally more comfortable with and trusting toward those they perceive as looking, acting, and thinking as they do. When people are perceived as thinking the same as oneself, even though they look and act differently, people are more likely to accept or “tolerate” them. That reality has to do with empathy.

Having empathy toward those we perceive as being members of our own tribe is not a skill; rather, it is instinctual. This process cannot be turned off; however, it can be kept in check by being cognizant of it when making important decisions that impact ourselves and others. Doing so requires humility and is known as objective self-awareness, which is defined as follows:

a reflective state of self-focused attention in which a person evaluates himself or herself and attempts to attain correctness and consistency in beliefs and behaviors. This involves the viewing of oneself as a separate object, acknowledging limitations and the existing disparity between the ideal self and the actual self. Objective self-awareness is often a necessary part of self-regulation.

Such self-awareness is a skill, which needs to be developed and honed, like any other skill. If one moves away from empathy toward those perceived as looking, acting, and thinking differently from themselves, they are also moving away from the skill of objective self-awareness.

This self-reflection is the very foundation of emotional intelligence, and is essential to keeping one’s biases in check, to the extent possible. Awareness of a bias is the necessary first step to managing it, and one cannot hope to manage that of which one is unaware. Objective self-awareness is a necessary part of self-other awareness because one cannot even hope to understand someone different from themselves if they lack the humility to realize that their perception is merely their perception and not reality.

Absent objective self-awareness, people sincerely believe that their perceptions and opinions are objective, verifiable, and unquestionable facts. In other words, they conflate their beliefs and opinions with facts, which leads to impaired thinking, injustice, unethical, and immoral behavior, among other harmful things.

When people are objectively self-aware in any given instance, they are able to suspend judgment, thereby allowing them to receive information that conflicts with their beliefs and opinions, try to understand that information, and consider it in a fair manner. When people are able and willing to do this, that is how empathy toward people and information that falls outside of one’s existing worldview works. That is what it means to have “self-other awareness.” This is essential to active or empathic listening.

The research that reflects that people’s empathy has been declining since at least the 1970s is referring to empathy towards those whom people perceive as looking, acting, and thinking differently from themselves. It is one reason that there has been an increase in tribalism and polarization. In other words, people’s empathy toward those they perceive as members of their own tribes has increased as their empathy towards "others" has declined. That is not a decrease in empathy; rather, it is a decrease in empathy toward that which falls outside of one’s worldview. This has occurred due to a decrease in people’s objective self-awareness, the very foundation of emotional intelligence and the means through which human beings are able to calibrate their ethical and moral compasses.

People can talk about the downsides of empathy and the need to move away from it because we know a lot less about other people than we think we do; however, addressing those concerns requires objective self-awareness. People tend not to be able and willing to have compassion toward those for whom they lack empathy. If we want to decease the downsides associated with empathy, the solution is not moving away from that which is instinctive; rather, it involves helping people to develop their objective self-awareness.

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