“In sympathy, you get into the position of the other. In empathy, you do not get into the position of the other. You’re the other.”
There are a lot of times that we have heard the word “empathy”. Yet, few of us will know exactly what it means and how it is defined. Empathy is defined as a person’s ability to make emotional matching with someone else to make him feel that he is not alone and helpless. It’s in a nutshell “step in someone’s shoes”, something that means that one person is able to put himself in the position of the other, experiencing the same feelings.
Differences between empathy and sympathy
“I feel with you. I feel what you feel, I leave your misery or your problem or your joy to get into my brain. To become part of me, so I share what you tell me and I feel with you.”
To show sympathy is another thing – far away. “I’m sorry, what a pity”. Words that do not come inside of you, or come out of you. While a simple head movement and a movement, something like caress, a touch, even with absolute silence, is able to become empathy. The feel what the other person feels, get into his place. It is not easy, however, to explain in words the great difference of “I feel”, even if I say nothing, in contrast with the “sympathy” that, as honest as it may be, keeps the doors half-closed.
The term “empathy” resembles the word “sympathy”, but it is not identical and it is beyond that meaning. The deep understanding and participation in the mental state of another who suffers. The concept of sympathy includes elements of compassion, consolation, and agreement.
In general, in the “sympathy”, the attention of the individual turns to his own feelings and supposed similarity to those of the other, without losing his personal identity, whereas in the empathy the attention of the individual turns to the emotions of the other while losing his own.
How do we cultivate empathy?
Showing empathy and solidarity to people, who belong to different ethnic groups, is something that people are able to learn and cultivate. Although this was empirically known from a long time ago, nowadays it was scientifically confirmed, thanks to the collaboration of two research teams working at the University of Zurich and at University College London.
The findings of their research are set out in an important article entitled “How Learning Shapes the Empathic Brain”, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By the term “empathy” modern science describes our almost magical ability to recognize, and above all, to experience in the first person, the inner and personal experiences of others. Thus, empathy is not just a neologism, but a fundamental, innate function, as well as the inalienable component of our interpersonal or social relationships.
However, the manifestations of this inherent capacity are significantly influenced by external-social factors and are regulated by our experiences. For example, our preconceived views or prejudices are able to affect, how much empathy we show off in our social relationships. All investigations said that the manifestations of empathy are clearly depleted against the “foreigners”, like people from different ethnic, religious or cultural groups.
Throughout their research, Grit Hain and her colleagues wanted to uncover the brain structures involved in both negative-phobic and positive solidarity behaviors. According to John Bowlby, a renowned British psychoanalyst, the psychological “attachment” of the newborn to his or her parents or caregiver, plays a decisive role in the development of empathy.
Other experts said: “For the activation of brain empathy, only a few” positive “personal experiences with the members of the group of foreigners are enough. These positive experiences with foreigners are rapidly spreading among members belonging to the same group.”
Finally, Jamil Zaki, a social psychologist at Stanford University has found that, when people believe they have control of their empathy, they are more likely to be compelled even in difficult situations.
He said: “It turns out that, when empathy is thought to be something that can be diversified, it seems to motivate people to give it more weight, especially in situations where empathy may not naturally help people to do the right thing.”
Negative Impact of Empathy
The latest psychological research suggests that empathy is a powerful force, capable of doing both good and bad. Some psychologists also believe that humanity would be beneficial if we wholly avoided it and relied on rational reasoning.
Recent psychological studies suggest that, while it can help promote cooperation and mobilize prosocial behaviors, empathy can actually deepen discrimination among groups and create aggression against third parties. While empathy can be a powerful incentive for a morally good or altruistic behavior, its influence can also lead in the opposite direction.
This was recently supported by psychologist Paul Bloom at Yale University. He explained: “The notion that empathy is not always good. Don’t forget that empathy has historically been used as an important tool to motivate people in the war. When people are in a competitive situation, instead of feeling sad, when they see a member who does not belong to their group suffer, tend to feel pleasure in the pain of the other.”
The philosopher Jesse Prinz, and Immanuel Kant has put forward a similar argument: “Under certain circumstances, despite the motivation of positive social behavior, empathy cultivates hostility and aggression.”
Empathy is a skill and, like any skill can also be used for self-serving purposes.
Empathy: the unknown power of communication
Empathy brings people together, helps them to understand each other. In this way, mutual respect develops. When people listen with empathy, they do not just listen to their interlocutor. It is something more! They react in a way that it develops mutual understanding and trust. They are able to perceive and interpret the interlocutor’s message while giving the most appropriate answer. This answer can be a key element of communication.
Finally, the fact that we usually show reduced empathy towards “outsiders”, especially when they come from other ethnicities, helps to strengthen xenophobic feelings and racist attitudes in our supposedly multicultural societies. More generally, it pushes us to move away from our fellow humans.
Conversely, cultivating empathy may serve the most peaceful social relationships of solidarity and mutual assistance.