Insert Empathy Here

Posted on: July 24th, 2012 by Guest
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Empathy. It’s not something you’ll find taught in schools or practiced in politics, business or the courts, yet it is an essential component to life. Empathy is so fundamental to human development that people without it can be classified as psychopaths. It is a part of psychology that has not been studied until fairly recently but is one of the most precious resources on the planet.

There are two types of empathy, affective empathy (the ability to have consideration and sympathy for other people) and cognitive empathy (the ability to understand situations by reading people’s facial expressions, their way of speaking or their demeanor). A lack of affective empathy will tend to lead people to dominate or abuse others while a lack of cognitive empathy can make one an easy target for bullying because of an inability to properly respond to each situation.

We assume children will naturally develop the ability to empathize and sympathize with people, but this could not be farther from the truth. How a child is raised will have great influence over their ability to empathize and function normally. The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory and memory consolidation, and the neural systems that respond to threats are impaired in children of abuse and neglect. The same holds true for people who are constantly under stress, the hippocampus will become irreversibly damaged.

Even if children are raised in a loving relaxing home they can still develop an empathy impairment through hyper-connected lifestyles. In fact, millenials score up to 40 percent lower on empathy tests than previous generations, the lowest scores coming after the year 2000. Through exposure to violent media and the trend toward virtual relationships, children can develop a decreased capacity to feel empathy. “In addition to missing facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, today’s digital addicts may miss signs of deception and insincerity in-person,” says Government Executive John K. Mullen. He also asserts that over-reliance on technology can diminish valuable social skills, such as the ability to make eye contact.

Before we go off and blame video games and technology for everything, we have to point out parental responsibility. Lots of kids play violent videogames and spend hours in front of the TV and grow up with a full capacity for empathy so obviously parenting plays an important role. However, parents are also increasingly distracted by technology. In some homes where both parents work full-time, children miss out on their one opportunity for face-to-face interaction (exacerbated by parents glued to their smartphones at home) and are being raised by televisions and the Internet. It is any wonder that these kids don’t understand authentic relationships? They are being raised by the media and taught that worth is defined by looks and that violence is no big deal.

Violence and bullying in school also affects how well children are able to empathize. One study done in Korea on 2,232 pairs of twins age 12 found “The average empathic ability quotient of the children who had no experience of school violence was 5.06 while the bullies and their victims were 4.22 and 4.24 respectively. Children who had both suffered bullying and acted as bullies had the lowest rating at an average of 3.64.” As professor Kim boldly asserts, “Education only focused on English and mathematics cannot solve the school violence problem.”


Once the importance of empathy is realized we can begin to fix the structural problems in the system. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen puts it best, “Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, politicaldeadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbor. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.”

What will you practice with your 1440?


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