Cultivating Empathy

What does it take?

Posted Sep 15, 2017

For some time now I have been thinking about empathy. Given the current political climate and in the face of recent natural disasters, it seems timely to ask the question: What is empathy and how can we have more of it?

As many people know, empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Empathizing with another is more about the ability to place yourself in their shoes and share the feelings they are experiencing. Oftentimes there is a stunning lack of empathy in our species despite the notion that many have that empathy is a purely human emotion. At the same time, under the right circumstances, we can see extraordinary acts of kindness, generosity, compassion, and cooperation that stem directly or indirectly from feeling empathetic. Before exploring why such contradictions in our own behavior as a species might exist, let's explore whether or not empathy is exclusive to humans. 

As scientists continue to dig deeper into the emotional lives of animals, it is becoming clear that we share a rich mental experience with other species. Prairie voles give us a glimpse into the capacity for empathy that other animals have. Although there are exceptions (aren't there always?), prairie voles generally mate for life and are monogamous. Imagine that you are a stressed out vole. What stresses a vole out? Well, a lot of things probably. But in this case, being separated from their mate and experiencing mild electric shocks. 

Todd Ahem CC BY 2.0
Source: Todd Ahem CC BY 2.0

When the partners were reunited, the one that was not shocked quickly went to their mate and began grooming their partner by licking them. How do we know that this is not just because they were separated? Because pairs that were separated but not shocked took longer to reunite and groom each other. What this implies is that the individual that did not receive the electric shock was consoling his or her mate that experienced pain.

Now, you might be thinking this is not remarkable because it is between mates. They have bonded, after all. What about strangers? For that, we can turn to rats. Rats may seem like an unlikely candidate for comparison, but their empathetic response to fellow rats is well studied. What does rat empathy look like? 

AlexK100 CC BY 2.0
Source: AlexK100 CC BY 2.0

One study in 2011 found that when rats observed a fellow rat trapped in a tube, they rapidly figured out how to open the door to release their comrade, even if there was no reward, and regardless of whether they were permitted to have physical contact with the rat they saved. In another experiment, researchers placed rats in a pool of water, which is distressing for them. Next to the pool was a dry compartment. The only way the immersed rats could get out was if a fellow rat opened a connecting door. And those fellow rats did. And most of the time they even turned away treats to help each other out.

Where does that leave us? If rats and voles and many other species can demonstrate empathy toward each other, what does that mean for humans who are turning away refugees who are so desperate they are throwing themselves in the water in Greece? Why are we sporadic, unpredictable, and unreliable in our own ability to empathize? 

Again, rats may provide a clue. There is an unexpected twist in the rat empathy story: Rats do not discriminate when it comes to whom they help or don’t help unless their social environment is not diverse. What does that mean? Normally, a rat is a rat is a rat...to another rat. However, rats can and do develop biases depending on their social experiences. They will definitely help a rat with whom they have had a past positive experience. Second, rats’ coats come in different color patterns. Some are white, some brown, some black, some spotted. You get the idea. And if rats are raised exclusively with rats that look just like them—white only, or spotted only, for example—they will refuse to help rats that look different from them! The implications of this are far-reaching because we know that humans also show similar biases. And maybe, just maybe these biases are the reason some people lack empathy for others, especially those that they see as different from themselves. 

What can we do about this? How can we cultivate a culture of empathy? One thing we can do is expose our children to a variety of people, places, and cultures. Why? This will reduce the tendency to see any group as different and broadens the scope of empathy to include all people. This means that even though our tendency to be helpful and empathetic is part of our biological inheritance, it needs to be nurtured—for some people more than others. If you are an adult, do the same for yourself. Introduce new experiences, conversations, situations, and groups of people into your life and in doing so you are more likely to feel empathetic toward a greater number of people because they will seem familiar to you. Isolation breeds contempt and we need a lot more cooperation, compassion, and empathy to counteract the culture of hostility taking hold in our society.   

** Please note: My use of the results of this type of research to illustrate our shared connection with other animals and what we can learn from them to improve our lives is in no way an endorsement of the methods some scientists have used to address these questions. I firmly believe that creativity can produce ways of observing/demonstrating the same capacities without the use of stress, pain, or any negative experience. Observing species in the wild and careful documentation can allow us to plumb the depths of the mental and emotional lives of other animals.

References

Bartal, Inbal Ben-Ami, et al., “Pro-Social Behavior in Rats Is Modulated by Social Experience,” Elife 3 (2014): e01385. 

Bartal, Inbal Ben-Ami, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason, “Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats,” Science 334, no. 6061 (2011): 1427–30.