Empathy–I Feel You! (A Learning Cybersift)

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The word gets thrown about often, but what exactly is empathy?  How is it different from sympathy?  Let’s ask the internet!

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary offers these definitions: Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Sympathy – the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

Grammarist offers this comparison:

Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

The United Kingdom’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce!) offers this video illustration of the contrast:

So empathy seems to be about connecting deeply and personally with someone else’s feelings. Sympathy, in contrast, is caring about and feeling sorry that someone else is having a hard time, but not truly connecting with them on a deeper emotional level.  When I have empathy for someone, I am experiencing them as an extension of myself.

We might imagine, then, that empathy is a higher-level brain function reserved for creatures with fancy pre-frontal cortices–we human beings.  After all, having empathy for others sounds like a big part of morality and justice, and humans are the only animals able to process these complex concepts, right?  Not so!  Various studies have shown that apes, monkeys, elephants, and dogs, among other animals, have showed persuasive evidence of empathetic behavior.

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even chickens!

Recently, an interesting study showed that a rat would work hard to free a trapped roommate, even if there were distracting and delicious chocolate chips to be had in another part of the test area!  In fact, even if the free rat sampled a chocolate chip or two before releasing the trapped rat, she would save some chocolate for her buddy.  How’s that for non-human empathy!

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The fact that other animals of different species seem to display empathetic behaviors suggests that there is a deep, ancient biological basis to empathy.  For some reason or another, empathetic behavior contributed to the survival of our species and others. Considering how social we are, this makes some amount of intuitive sense–indeed, all the animals mentioned in this post live in social groups and/or close physical proximity to one another.

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There are many more studies and resources around the internet regarding empathy, and the sheer amount of information available speaks to the important role empathy plays in daily human life.  Austin ISD social and emotional learning involves explicit instruction designed to help students develop their natural empathy, and supports the integration and reinforcement of empathetic behavior throughout the daily routine at school and at home.  We would love to know your favorite empathy resources, from parenting to neuroscience (to the neuroscience of parenting)!  Leave us a comment!

Thanks for reading, SEL fans, and have a spectacular weekend.

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