Effective Ways to Improve Your Empathy For Others

In order to begin to develop empathic ability, it is essential to care how someone feels.

When we have compassion, we attune to the needs and feelings of the person we want to help. When we resist the energies, need and feelings of another, it is pretty hard to really open your self to them enough to know what is going on. 

Today's College Kids are 40 Percent Less Empathetic, Study Finds

Today’s college students are 40-percent less empathetic than those of the 1980s and 1990s, says a University of Michigan study that analyzed the personality tests of 13,737 students over 30 years.

The influx of callous reality TV shows and the astronomical growth of social networking and texting – technologies that allow people to tune others out when they don’t feel like engaging – may be to blame, the authors hypothesize. 

“Young adults today comprise one of the most self-concerned, competitive, confident, and individualistic cohorts in recent history,” the researchers write, referring to the “Me Generation.”
They note that the most sizable empathy drop came after 2000 as social networks such as Facebook and Myspace began to flourish. These “physically distant online environments” allowed people to “lionize their own lives” and “functionally create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.” 

The authors cite a 2005 study that found significant decreases in empathic concern and perspective-taking among a longitudinal sample of medical interns from the start of their internships in 2000 to completion three years later. They also point to the recent case of a New York medical student who posed smiling, giving a thumbs-up, with a cadaver, a photo that later circulated on Facebook. 

Other cited studies reveal that more young adults are living alone, and more are materialistic. Both conditions are linked to lower empathy, the authors argue. Also on the rise is narcissism, a trait that has people viewing others in terms of their utility. 

“Not surprisingly, this growing emphasis on the self has also come with a decreased emphasis on others,” the authors write.
In the case of students who were attending college after the year 2000, developmental factors may be at play, says lead author Sara Konrath, an assistant professor at the university’s Institute for Social Research.
“These kids were born around 1980. It could be a change in parenting style. … Kids are getting the implicit message from parents that success is what really matters. It’s hard to spend your life pursuing success and at the same time pursue empathy, because empathy takes work.”
Mary Gordon, the Toronto founder and president of Roots of Empathy, also blames a “poverty of time” in families. 

“You have to experience empathy to continue to develop it. If children don’t have enough opportunity and parents don’t have enough time to be with their children, it’s really difficult,” she said. 

The non-profit organization offers an experiential learning program to students from kindergarten to Grade 8 to help beef up children’s “emotional literacy.” School officials typically call the organization after they’ve seen a spike in bullying. (The program was offered in 13,000 Canadian classrooms this year.) 

“When you have social change, the children are always the canaries in the mine shaft,” Ms. Gordon said. 

The program invites a neighbourhood parent and infant to visit a classroom 27 times over the school year, along with a special instructor.
“They are coached in observing the baby, understanding its feelings and what’s going between the baby and the parent, which is the attachment relationship, the template for every other relationship in life. The baby is a launch pad.” 
Although psychiatrists still squabble over the definition of empathy, Ms. Gordon puts it simply as “understanding how another person feels.” She said the younger children who partake in the program quickly come to realize that “the baby has feelings, and that we’re all grown-up babies.”

Although Prof. Konrath is concerned about the empathy gap, not least of all because it’s a key symptom of autism and sociopathy, she says programs such as Roots of Empathy make her optimistic.

“Empathy is kind of like exercise: People who are low in empathy are a little bit out of shape, and people who are high in empathy are practicing it a lot. The hopeful part of me wants people going to the empathy gym.”
How To Become More Empathetic

A person's ability to empathize can improve. We know that people can be trained to become more empathetic through a variety of programs and methods. Studies have shown that empathy can increase when people are trained to improve their interpersonal skills or ability to recognize others' emotions. It can also improve after role-playing exercises involving another person's feelings or situation, after observing the misfortunes of others, and after exposure to highly empathetic role models.


Burying your head in a novel isn't just a way to escape the world: psychologists are increasingly finding that reading can affect our personalities. A trip into the world of Stephenie Meyer
, for example, actually makes us feel like vampires.

Researchers from the University at Buffalo gave 140 undergraduates passages from either Meyer's Twilight or JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to read, with the vampire group delving into an extract in which Edward Cullen tells his teenage love interest Bella what it is like to be a vampire, and the wizardly readers getting a section in which Harry and his cohorts are "sorted" into Hogwarts houses.

The candidates then went through a series of tests.Published by the journal Psychological Science, the study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And "belonging" to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. "The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment," Gabriel and Young write.

"My study definitely points to reading fulfilling a fundamental need – the need for social connection," Gabriel said. She is currently trying to replicate the study with schoolchildren – using jedis versus wizards.

The psychology of fiction is a small but growing area of research, according to Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist himself, who details the latest findings in the area in his online magazine, OnFiction.

One of his own studies, carried out in 2008, gave 166 participants either the Chekhov short story, The Lady with the Little Dog, or a version of the story rewritten in documentary form. The subjects' personality traits and emotions were assessed before and after reading, with those who were given the Chekhov story in its unadulterated form found to have gone through greater changes in personality – empathizing with the characters and thus becoming a little more like them.

The findings could, Oatley believes, have significant implications, particularly in a climate where arts funding is under threat. "It is the first empirical finding, so far as I know, to show a clear psychological effect of reading fiction," he said. "It's a result that shows that reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education. In an era when high-school and university subjects are evaluated economically, our results do have economic implications."


Sexual pleasure among young adults (ages 18-26) is linked to healthy psychological and social development, according to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is the first to use a representative population sample of heterosexuals to find a relationship between key developmental assets and sexual pleasure.

The study looked at the association between three developmental assets -- self esteem, autonomy and empathy -- and three measures of sexual pleasure among young adult women and men in established opposite-sex relationships: Regularity of orgasm, enjoyment of receiving oral sex, and enjoyment of performing oral sex. The findings include:

-Among the young women, measures of self-esteem, autonomy, and empathy are positively associated with the three types of sexual pleasure. "These three developmental assets may enable young women, as well as young men, to experience higher levels of sexual pleasure," said Galinsky.

-Sexual enjoyment in the three areas is consistently associated only with empathy for the young men. "Our hypothesis is that empathetic individuals are more responsive to a partner's needs, and thus initiate a positive feedback cycle," said Galinsky.

-Young men are more likely to report the highest level of all three types of sexual enjoyment. For example, nearly 9 out of 10 young men report having an orgasm most or all of the time they have sex with their partner, while less than half of young women experience orgasm that frequently when they have sex with their partner.


esearch at the University of Wisconsin used advanced brain images (fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging) to show that compassion meditation—a specific form of Buddhist meditation—may increase the human capacity for empathy. 

In the study, researchers compared brain activity in meditation experts with that of subjects just learning the technique (16 in each group). They measured brain activity, during meditation and at rest, in response to sounds—a woman in distress, a baby laughing, and a busy restaurant—designed to evoke a negative, positive, or neutral emotional response.

The researchers found that both the novice and the expert meditators showed an increased empathy reaction when in a meditative state. However, the expert meditators showed a much greater reaction, especially to the negative sound, which may indicate a greater capacity for empathy as a result of their extensive meditation training.


Oxytocin, a naturally occurring neuropeptide that is set off by touching and listening to soothing music, has been proven to increase compassion, empathy and other affiliative emotional responses. “It also increases attentional bias for rewarding social cues and has been found to enhance the attenuation of stress
responses by social support,” said Rockliff.

Therapeutic trends have increased the practice of compassion based therapies, such as Compassion Focused Imagery (CFI), and clinicians have suggested that oxytocin could enhance the treatment experience for people who struggle with empathy. 

For her study, Rockliff evaluated 44 participants for levels of self-critcism, compassion and attachment. Half of the participants were given oxytocin, while the other half received a placebo. After two CFI sessions, the participants were assessed again. 

Rockliff found that “oxytocin did significantly enhance the ease of imagining receiving compassion from another person/being and receiving various compassionate qualities for the self.” But she noted, “Individuals who are self-critical, insecurely attached, and lack a sense of social safeness can find various elements of compassion difficult, especially with oxytocin.” 

She added that although these findings support the use of oxytocin to improve empathic motivation and compassion imagery in therapy, it may not be helpful for all clients. Rockliff said, “This research has highlighted that, although oxytocin enhances the CFI experience, there are important individual differences in responses to both oxytocin and CFI.”


Research around the world demonstrates the tremendous benefits of owning a pet. Studies show that children who own pets
have more empathy and nurturing ability, and as they grow into adulthood, essential skills to develop meaningful relationships.

Researchers in Poland studied the impact of keeping dogs or cats at home on the social development of 530 children 4-8 years old. Those children with pets had higher scores in pro-social behavior and self-reliance than those without pets.

A study in Germany found that children 6-17 years old with diagnoses of anorexia, bulimia, anxiety disorder, and autism
had improved behavior with a therapy dog than without one.

A study in Australia concluded that animal-assisted preventive efforts are an optimal vehicle for promoting nurturing and empathy.


Can imagining yourself in someone else’s actual shoes help increase your empathy for their plight? New research suggests the answer is yes.

Empathy involves, in part, the ability to simulate the internal states of others. 

The researchers of the new study hypothesized that our ability to manipulate, rotate and simulate mental representations of the physical world — including our own bodies — would contribute significantly to our ability to empathize.
“Our language is full of spatial metaphors, particularly when we attempt to explain or understand how other people think or feel,” notes Sohee Park, co-author of the new study and professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

“We often talk about putting ourselves in others’ shoes, seeing something from someone else’s point of view, or figuratively looking over someone’s shoulder.”
“We expected that the efficiency with which people could imagine these transformations would be associated with empathy,” Thakkar said.


What is empathy? Empathy is understanding another person's feelings, situation or point of view without criticism. It is a form of acceptance. I accept that you feel as you have told me. Full stop. No argument. No trying to talk them out of it. No telling them how silly they are for thinking or feeling like they do. 

Thus, if people are upset and finding it hard to manage some aspects of their lives, you may express empathy by showing complete understanding of their worldviews. As an example of empathy you might say, "So you are finding it tough at the moment; and feeling short of money is stressing you out and making you anxious".

Another example of empathy might be when you are talking to someone about the death of her or his cat. You may not like cats. You may also think that it had a good life as it was 19 years old when it died. You may thus not see what all the fuss is about. However, the person is deeply saddened by the cat's death and feeling at a loss. Instead of showing a lack of empathy, and saying, "You must expect these things when your cat is so old," you might show more empathy if you said, "It's going to be hard for you not to have your cat around after all these years." 

Irrespective of your own personal view, expressing empathy demonstrates you understand another person's view and can suspend your own.

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