Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Empathy
How and why to empathise
Humans are naturally social beings. We seek the company of others for a variety of reasons: love, support, encouragement, friendship, intimacy, guidance and understanding. Being able to support another person, whether in a time of need or a time of happiness, is an opportunity to share the things that we seek for ourselves. Empathy is a unique way of developing our personal characteristics while maintaining relationships and contributing to our own social awareness.
The beginnings of empathy: It's child's play!
The emotional and physical development of children are the main two focuses for parental teaching, with emotional growth being nurtured through the communication of empathy and thoughtfulness (Therrien, 1979). To expand on this concept, a study was undertaken by Knafo, Zahn-Waxler, Hulle, Robinson and Rhee (2008) involving infant boys and girls aged between 14-36 months. Also included in the study were the infants' mothers and a third person who had no significance to the infant. In one scenario, the mother of the infant was instructed to act injured in front of the child while in another instance the unrelated person feigned injury. Results showed infants across all age groups responded more empathetically toward the injured mother than to the person who held no importance to them. This may be due to early parental influences witnessed by the infant including the mother expressing concern for another family member or comforting a distressed child or sibling. These responses and interactions between parent and child assist in the development of caring actions in the infant (Miklikowska, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011).
Expanding on this, toddlers develop a sense of self and realise that other children are separate from themselves (Miklikowska, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011). The child is no longer preoccupied with their own being but has become alert to the needs of others and resultantly, the youngster is willing to put another's needs alongside their own. The child's realisation of self-concept enables him/her to experience empathy for another. This in turn eventuates into prosocial behaviours such as helping and expressing concern for others, and while the foundations are laid in infancy, development continues across the lifespan.
Here are some examples of everyday interactions with others. Take a moment to look at the images, read the captions and consider Who do you turn to...?
Did you find that comfort and closeness were attributed to your mother or a mother figure? Or that solving problems and learning were characteristics you contributed to your father or other close male? In a 2011 study, Chao found that mothers were likely to be more forthcoming with showing emotion and encouraging affection with their child, while fathers had a more prominent role in sharing information and knowledge with their child. Other gender influences were also apparent in the relationship between children and parents, with the study indicating a stronger link to personal and emotional closeness was evident between children and mothers when compared with the relationship type of a child and their father. This was partially due to the social expectation of the female to assume the traditional role of the primary carer, while the male partner was expected to go out to work to maintain the home and provide for the family unit. Furthermore, gender differences were apparent in the display of empathy with females showing more empathetic behaviour than males. This was attributed to mothers tendency to be more affectionate and empathic toward their daughters than their sons.
Empathy and sympathy
What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?
Empathy = aural
Sympathy = heart
Consider the list of working professionals in the table below. Based on the above definitions, think about whether you would categorise them as an empathic or sympathetic occupation and why you would you classify them as such. Think about whether you are basing your decision on personal experience and whether that has affected your assessment of people in that occupation.
|insurance claims officer|
Research by de Wied et al., (2007) provided expressive examples of differences between empathy and sympathy. The example provided involved individuals seeing a child who was crying.
|Empathy:||Seeing a child cry makes me feel like crying|
|Sympathy:||Seeing a child cry makes me sad|
While both examples are similar in phrasing, on deeper consideration they are quite different reactions. Empathy shows the individual displaying understanding of the child's situation, while retaining a personal boundary. Sympathy assumes the emotion of the child and leaves no distance between the individual and the child. Furthermore, empathy allows the individual to be caring and express concern, while sympathy is overwhelmed with mirrored feelings which may be detrimental and inhibit the support the child needs.
How do you think you would reaction in this situation? Would you act differently knowing the differences between empathy and sympathy?
The following short video compares empathy and sympathy. Dr Alessandra prompts the viewer to consider whether we accept ourselves and acknowledge our own feelings and emotions as this may have some effect on how we act and react to other individuals.
Empathy and motivation
Is empathy driven by motivation? Or are people motivated to be empathic? For example, do we show empathy to someone if we think we can gain something from doing so (egocentric), or do we act selflessly thinking only of another persons welfare (altruistic)? It has been indicated that individuals whose primary motivation is to help increase another person's well-being think differently to those who help others for the benefit of themselves (Graziano et al., 2007).
As individuals continue to develop and mature, environmental factors begin to play a role in exercising empathy. A link between empathy and prosocial behaviour has been found and partially contributed to environmental factors including social gatherings and interactions and responses from peers (Knafo et al., 2008). Motivation is considered to be a vital aspect to understanding prosocial behaviour, with Reeve (2009) noting that intrinsic motivation develops through personal interest and is often due to an individual's need for nurture and support. This engages some level of satisfaction for the individual when providing assistance or support to another person.
A working example of intrinsic motivation is volunteering. It would appear the majority of volunteers are driven to help others because they want to make a difference and are acting on altruistic reasoning. Volunteers expect little or no reward and are often overutilised due to their unassuming and hard working attitude. Volunteers provide an invaluable service to local and national communities and are a true representative of empathy by offering support, understanding and respect for others.
Dimensions of empathy
What influence does oxytocin have in the display of empathy? Oxytocin is a neuropeptide which is associated with maternal bonding and social attachments allowing individuals to act in a helping manner and engage in prosocial activity. Oxytocin affects the activation of the amygdala which is located within the limbic system of the brain and is responsible for memory, behaviour and emotions.
Empathy consists of two main factors – cognitive and affective (Miklikowska, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011). The cognitive aspect reflects perspective taking, understanding and comprehension of the situation or issues. The affective component represents the emotional response to another person. Showing concern is the motivator exhibited to engage in helping an individual who is in an unhappy state.
Mirror neurons are found in the premotor cortex and become activated when we witness others who are acting in a focused manner. Ginot (2009) showed that an individual's mirror neuron system fires when s/he sees another individual experiencing discomfort or pain. Research has shown that the observing individual will often unconsciously adopt the same behaviour or emotion the other person in feeling. It is suggested that this adoption is required learning in order for us to understand how to interact and comprehend the feelings and experiencing of those around us.
Personal comparison quiz
(As this quiz is for use as a reflective tool only, it does not require submission)
How empathetic are you? Complete this quiz on three separate occasions when you are in different moods:
- feeling sad or down
- feeling tired
- feeling happy or satisfied.
This will provide an interesting comparison of results to see when you are feeling more empathetic to others and will help determine if hormones and moods influence the individuals willingness to empathise. Note: There are no right or wrong answers to the questions as answers are based purely on individual interpretation.
Did you find there were different answers for questions depending on your mood at the time of taking the quiz?
Or were you reasonably consistent with your responses?
Interest has been taken in the effects of mood and the role it plays in our emotions and our reactivity toward others. A study conducted by Singer et al., (2008) investigated the possibility of oxytocin (OT) influencing our behaviour in a social setting as well as having an effect on our capacity to empathise. The authors hypothesised that manufactured (group 1) and placebo (group 2) administered oxytocin would enhance prosocial behaviour and increase empathic activity. Interestingly, results in both groups indicated no enhancement was evident for empathy based interactions or prosocial activity. However, an effect was found when group individuals experienced personal pain, but no difference was found when the same individual empathised with another persons pain. Additionally, increased amygdala activity was exhibited if the individual was suffering anxiety.
Imagine you are a group member listening to someone tell a story. The story is quite heartfelt and has clearly affected the other members in your group who respond by empathising with the storyteller. You don't really know the person or their situation and the story hasn't really affected you, but you do know the others in the group. Do you act with compliance and also show empathy just to fit in with the group?
The social aspect of empathy was investigated in a 2006 study undertaken by Singer et al. The study indicated that individuals observing a person receiving pain were more likely to show empathy to that person if they had previously witnessed that person treating others in a fair manner. This was in direct contrast to individuals showing little or no empathy to persons experiencing pain if they had witnessed them treating others unfairly.
If an individual has a reputation for displaying empathy, other persons will seek them out when they need someone to talk to. Consequently, the empathetic individual feels an expectation to show empathy and offer support, and by doing so, provides reinforcement that they are empathetic toward others (Reeve, 2009).
A study by Graziano, Habashi, Tobin and Sheese (2007) found that adults were more likely to assist a close relative in need than they were to offer support to a distantly related person. However, when circumstances of life and death occurred, people were more willing to assist another individual irrespective of the presence or absence of a personal relationship.
When discussing the Big 5 personality traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness (to experience), extraversion and neuroticism, agreeableness is considered to be one of the more important aspects of personality as it provides links to prosocial behaviour, motivation and empathy. In a study by Graziano et al. (2007), individuals high in agreeableness were found to be more likely to help a stranger in need and more likely to offer help to family and friends in both low personal cost and high personal cost circumstances. This may suggest that an individual who is high in agreeableness is more sensitive and more receptive toward needs in their peers. Additionally, an interesting comparison was noted between a person with high agreeableness and an individual with low agreeableness. When presented with a life and death scenario, most people were willing to assist regardless of whether the person was known or unknown to them. This was in direct contrast to situations involving everyday helping exercises, where individuals low in agreeableness would not necessarily be responsive to assisting others including family or friends.
Empathy and therapy
Psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors frequently display empathy during sessions with clients. This may be conveyed through the effective use of attentive silence (Ladany, Hill, Thompson, & O’Brien, 2004) or via empathetic responses to the client. The table below captures the sense of understanding conveyed by the therapist to the client during a session.
|Paraphrased from therapy session (Elliott, Bohart, Watson, & Greenberg 2011)|
|Client:||I'm feeling really panicked and anxious all the time|
|Therapist:||So you are feeling really vulnerable right now|
|Client:||Yes. I feel totally lost and unsure|
|Therapist:||So you feel you are unable to find yourself|
Clients are to be treated individually. Therefore, adaptations of this wording is essential to ensure the personal situation of the client is understood and respected.
Empathy is a vital component in building a trusting relationship between therapist and client, and aims to provide a sense of safety for the client (Elliott, Bohard, Watson, & Greenberg, 2011). Importantly, an empathic approach requires the professional to not only listen to what the client is saying, but to indeed hear what is not being said (Crenshaw & Hardy, 2007). Additionally, Therrien (1979) advises therapists who provide empathetic responses during client sessions promote a more positive outlook for change amongst their clients. However, empathy in client sessions will only prove successful it if is displayed in a genuine manner (Elliott & Freire, 2007).
The person-centred approach to client therapy developed by Carl Rogers in 1957 (cited in Elliott & Freire, 2007) has proven effective for persons with anxiety related issues. While it may take several sessions for the client to feel confident and ready to open up fully to the therapist, a comforting and relaxed environment provides a setting where the client feels safe. When these situational aspects are accompanied by an open minded therapist, the session is more likely to produce a positive outcome for the client (Elliott, Bohard, Watson, & Greenberg, 2011).
Mindfulness also has value in the therapeutic setting. Mindfulness is a form of self awareness meditation which allows the practitioner to be aware and accepting of themselves, and in turn enables him/her to be fully present when facilitating a client session (Bruce, Manber, Shapiro, & Constantino, 2010). The combination of empathy and mindfulness allows the therapist to engage with the client and be receptive to the experience of the client while not absorbing the experience as their own. As maintaining personal distance is a continuing factor in the client therapist relationship, the integration of different approaches provides an alternative for gaining a positive session outcome for the client.
Watch the mindfulness relaxation video. While therapists can benefit from taking time to think about themselves in order to be a better practitioner, so we can all afford to take some time to get to know ourselves better. This in turn helps us become more aware of others and how we can respond appropriately to them.
How to be empathetic
As individuals, we all want to have our feelings and experiences recognised and acknowledged. If we understand our own feelings and emotions, we can make ourselves available to others. Being able to show empathy and provide support to others is an opportunity to contribute to social awareness, engage in personal relationships and enhance our own life.
...and if it seems too hard, remember...
Empathy is child's play!
- Mindfulness (Book chapter, 2011)
- Volunteerism(Book chapter, 2011)
- Peer influence in adolescence (Book chapter, 2011)
- Emotional development (Book chapter, 2011)
Bruce, N. G., Manber, R., Shaprio, S. L., & Constantino, M. J. (2010). Psychotherapist mindfulness and the psychotherapy process. Psychotherapy: Theory Research Practice Training,47(1), 83-97. doi: 10.1037/a0018842.
Chao, M. (2011). Family interaction relationship types and differences in parent child interactions. Social Behavior and Personality, 39(7), 897-914. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2011.39.7.897.
Crenshaw, D. A., & Hardy, K. V. (2007). The crucial role of empathy in breaking the silence of traumatized children in play therapy. International Journal of Play therapy, 16(2), 160-175. doi: 10.1037/1555-6822.214.171.124.
de Wied, M., Maas, C., van Goozen, S., Vermande, M., Engels, R., Meeus, W., Matthys, W., & Goudena, P. (2007). Bryant's empthay index: A closer examination of its internal structure. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 23(2), 99-104. doi: 10.1027/1015-57126.96.36.199.
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Empathy. Empathy, 48(1), 43-49. doi:10.1037/a0022187.
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Graziano, W. G., Habashi, M. M., Tobin, R. M., & Sheese, B. E. (2007). Agreeableness empathy and helping: A person x situation perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(4), 583-599. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2063.
Grinot, E. (2009). The empathic power of enactments: The link between neuropsychological processes and an expanded definition of empathy. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26(3), 290–309. doi : 10/1037.a00161449.
Knafo, A., Zahn-Waxler, C., Van Hulle, C., Robinson, J. L., & Rhee, S. H. (2008). The developmental origins of a disposition toward empathy: Genetic and environmental contributions. American Psychological Association, 8(6), 737-752. doi: 10.1037/a0014179.
Ladany, N., Hill, C. E., Thompson, B. J., & O’Brien, K. M. (2004). Therapist perspectives on using silence in therapy: A qualitative study. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4(1), pp. 80-89.
Miklikowska, M., Driez, B., & Soenens, B. (2011). Family roots of empathy related characteristics: The role of perceived maternal and paternal need support in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 47(5), 1342-1352. doi: 10.1037/a0024726.
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Singer, T., Snozzi, R., Bird, G., Petrovic, R., Silani, G., & Heinrichs, M. (2008). Effects of oxytocin and prosocial behavior on brain responses to direct and vicariously experienced pain. Emotion,8(6), 781-791. doi:10/1037.a0014195.
Therrien, M. E. (1979). Evaluating empathy skill training for parents. Social Work. pp. 417-418.