When you hear about tragedies that people have done, you might wonder how a person could commit such horrible crimes.

These people lack one important quality: “empathy.” But what is empathy about, and why makes it us share someone else’s pain and stop us from inflicting it on others? As humans, we need to understand others and be, in return, also accepted by others. It is important for our survival and well-being. Seeing the world from multiple perspectives can be a struggle for some people, but it is quite easy for others.

Still, it is hard to imagine what life is like for someone with different gender, race, or culture.

There are varying degrees of social empathy. Often fears and power structures prevent us from putting ourselves in others’ shoes.

What does empathy mean?

Most people rather eat a juicy cheeseburger than an obviously much healthier salad. Something similar happens when choosing between empathy and apathy. Often it is more tempting to look away from another person’s pain than to help. Being kind can be hard.

Empathy plays a part in all types of social interactions. Interpersonal empathy happens between individuals. It includes sharing the other person feeling, taking their perspective but at the same time understanding it is happening to them, not to you.

It is not only a concern with one person’s feelings but also the experiences of entire communities. Empathy understands social groups by becoming aware of their every life and historical context.

The problem often, instead of imagining what it would be like for a person with different circumstances, we simply see what the experience would mean to us. That is why some people only think about what they would do in their current comfortable situation.

But why should we choose empathy?

Empathy allows us to feel the positive energy around us. It inspires us to help people who are different from us on the outside. However, less emphatic people have it harder to make friends and experience greater depression and loneliness.

Social empathy helps us overcome this by looking at the content to understand the experience of other groups. The context includes historical events as well as challenges and obstacles a group faces. To be socially empathic means fully understanding what came before and what led to the experience a community is having now. For example, the experiences of slavery shaped the experiences Africans have today.

Whether you lack empathy or get crushed under the weight of it, there is something to learn for you.

Why is empathy important?

In a group project, you might experience a situation where one person does less work than everyone else. It seems pretty annoying, and the group is blaming the member for doing nothing.

But maybe the member was just sick and couldn’t work on the project. Then most people would be more supportive and show empathy. With empathy, you are more forgiving of others and overlook their faults which can help them.

Empathy is the good deeds you do for others, the act of kindness, and working for any positive interaction between people. It also promotes cooperation which means working together in a way that benefits everyone involved. So we are enabled to understand others’ situations and can minimize misunderstandings.

Social empathy is key to human thriving. It helps you to archive great things and to navigate social situations. This increases your well-being and competence and makes you happier. It benefits not only the recipient of empathy but also the emphatic person as well.

Society is happier when social empathy guides policies. It gives people social support and a feeling of freedom and improves trust in government and institutions.

Empathy for minorities

Tony McAleer was a former skinhead. He had a difficult childhood which made Tony emotionally scarred, and his grades began to fall. He got caught up with the wrong people. As a younger adult, he became a major figure in the Canadian white power movements.

Tony began later ins his life to take a step back from this movement and took courses to better himself. He befriended a leadership trainer named Dov. The two bonded. One day Tony privately confessed to Dove that he used to be a skinhead. He was shocked when Dov mentioned he was Jewish, but Tony still accepted it despite his past.

The story of Tony is quite typical, often, hate group members have low self-compassion or willingness to forgive themself for their mistakes. But when they show they are worthy of love and respect, the prejudice is often washed away.

Self-compassion is important but uncompleted without compassion for others.

The Contact theory states that the better you know people you see as outsiders, the less you hate them. Contact is most useful when the goal is to better understand by flipping an existing power structure.

In an experiment to increase empathy, US citizens and Mexican immigrants were assigned to pairs. One person in each pair was asked to write a short essay about the difficulties their group was facing. The other person had to read and reflect on the essay and give a response back to the writer.

The immigrants, as expected, felt more hostile towards the whites when they read the complaints of the richer, more powerful group. But the immigrants felt better when they had the chance to voice their own troubles. If minorities come together with this in power, it is better to give those the floor who are often silenced.

Ingroup and outgroups

Fear of otherness the more we notice someone as other, the weaker the emphatic connection. Otherness can weaken empathy. Physiologist describes people with clear differences by using the terms ingroup and outgroup. The people who are similar to you are your ingroup, and the ones you see differently are the outgroup.

It affects many areas of life for you, the neighborhood you live in, and the sports team you follow.

Group allegiances are strong when people develop favoritism for their ingroup but biases against the outgroup, even when they are completely random. For example, the fans of a sports team are people of different ages, races, gender, and so on, but they all celebrate the same team, and most dislike their rival opponents and their fans.

The bonds are even stronger the longer they last when growing in the same community. Ingroup loyalties are deep. Neuroscientists discovered that the brain responds differently when we encounter people in outgroups.

It makes otherness a barrier to empathy. But you can develop emphatic abilities by putting your prejudged aside when you see people that are not similar to you.

Increase your interaction with people that are different from you. For example, live and work in a diverse community where you can experience people you normally wouldn’t talk to. If you do this, you develop new neuropathways that help you see the people not so different after all.

The two sides of empathy

I feel your pain is a sentence that many people think embodies empathy. But empathy is much more complicated. There are several different ways you might respond when you emphasize with another person. It could mean identifying their feelings, sharing their emotion, or wishing to improve their conditions. Are you born with empathy, or is it something you can cultivate?

You may hear the saying, “once a cheater, always a cheater.” It is a statement that indicates the belief in psychological fixism, which is that a person’s character is unchanging.

Psychological fixism isn’t backed by science because the brain is always changing. When you learn to play an instrument, it can cause parts of your brain to grow. But other parts of your brain can shrink if you have depression or chronic stress.

The alternative to fixism is physiological mobilism. It is a theory that acknowledges genetics do play a role in defining some of your characteristics. However, there is no set point of trait-like intelligence or empathy. Rather everyone has a range we can achieve within each trait.

Starting in our childhood, we either move to the higher or lower end of our emphatic range. So children with emphatic parents show more generosity, understand better people’s emotions, and are more concerned about strangers. But children that experience a lack of kindness have emphatic deficits similar to those found in psychopaths.

Mobilists are statically more empathetic than fixed, and simply converting to mobilism can immediately boost your empathy level. The difference is new fixist don’t empathize with outsiders, only with the people who look like them though mobilist emphasize everyone.

Stress leads to less empathy

When you are on the last day before the deadline of a big project, you may feel the adrenaline and heightened focus as you get down to work. If so, your brain is releasing hormones to gain the energy to it done. That is how our body deals with stress.

But when you are worried about the deadline for weeks, the body also releases the hormone cortisol. It helps to produce more resources and shut down the functions which are not essential for surveilling. Instead of a burst of energy and focus, you get brain fog and exhaustion, and a reduced capacity for empathy.

That is what happens when stress becomes chronic.

Empathy begins in the body. When you see or imagine others’ behaviors, you sense their emotional reactions. It triggers a similar physical reaction in your own body without you being aware of it. Then your brain processes it and gives it meaning, and the mental awareness might kick in. It is when you start thinking about the other person’s experience.

If something compromises the brain’s function, the chain is interrupted, and empathy is blocked. It is the reason why chronic stress damages empathy.

And it is not about individuals dealing with chronic stress is also a social problem. A cause is often the condition in which people live in. Poverty is still a big problem it damages health and increases the risk of heart disease and cancer. Living in poverty affects brain development for everyone, especially children.

But the right educational environment can help children to develop the neural abilities needed for empathy.

Still, even if poverty negatively affects the brain, being in a lower social class can actually increase empathy. Research shows that poorer people are more tuned into a social context and are more interested in engaging with others, and have great accuracy in reading people’s emotions.

When you care too much

If you have ever cared for a sick or an older relative, you know it can be tough. Caregivers often sacrifice a huge amount of time and energy to help their loved ones. This often results in high rates of depression and worse overall health.

Empathy is very beneficial, but it is also possible to be too empathetic. In caregiving professions like nursing, empathy is particularly important. Patients with emphatic physicians are more likely to stick to medical recommendations and are more satisfied with their care.

Too often, the caregiver gives all the empathy they possess without getting any in return. But caregivers need compassion as much as their patients do. But caring for the sick and regularly experiencing death is very exhausting, and empathy often comes with the cost of the physician’s own health. This is the reason why especially in times like the Corona Pandemic, formerly emphatic physicians often end up burning out, quitting, or dehumanizing their patients to create emotional distance.

That is where programs like RISE (Resilience in Stressful Events) help with an emphatic peer-to-peer hotline. Caregivers can call and talk about emotionally draining events like patient death or medical errors.

It gives them a judgment-free dose of empathy that has greatly helped the community of caregivers. Nurses who used RISE were much more likely to take days off or leave their jobs.

For caretakers, the problem isn’t often a lack of empathy but rather too much of the wrong type of empathy. There is a difference between distress versus concern.

Distress causes people to take on pain of others and feel it themselves. The people who easily feel distressed are highly empathetic but avoid situations where they might have to feel another person’s pain. This also often leads to burnout.

The concern involves feeling for others and wanting to help reduce their suffering.

Researchers test meditation-based programs for caregiving professions that should help increase empathy and reduce distress. The result is very promising; those who took part in the program experience drops in exhaustion and greater empathy. When caretakers focus on concern, they can protect their own feeling while still having an emotional connection with patients.

The kindness method

How much do you think you can control your emotions? For instance, if you see a photo or watch a movie, can you choose to be overjoyed or moved to tears, or is it an automatic reaction?

It might seem a little bit crazy that you can control your emotional state through rational thought. Many people, right before a sports match or a difficult set at the gym, turn up the most motivating and fast-paced music to boost themself up.

So in a way, we constantly choose how to feel at our best in a particular situation. Proactively choosing empathy is to make small nudges or changes in behavior that can lead to bigger ones down the road.

When the number of AIDS diseases was high, victims were often blamed for their condition. A psychologist named Dan Batson did an experiment with a group of students at the University of Kansas. Batson played a recording of Julie, a young woman that had been diagnosed with HIV. The students should try to really listen to Julie and imaging how her diagnosis made her feel.

After listening to the recordings, the students not only felt more empathetic towards Julie than before but also more towards other people living with HIV or aids.

While nudges like in this study help, they often only create temporary changes. To create long-lasting improvement, you need to make bigger changes.

For example, in a two-year period, a team of neuroscientists ran 300 participants through an intensive training course known as all loving-kindness meditation. It focuses on increasing well-being and relieving suffering. Every day students need to practice empathy together.

By the end of the program, the participant’s attention spans had grown, and they were better at pinpointing specific emotions in themselves and others. And additionally, they were more generous and felt a greater desire to help people in pain. The MRI scans also showed the empathy-related part of the student’s brains had grown.

The power of stories

Most fiction isn’t about the lives of real people, but the characters and their problems feel real to us when we read it. Stories can make us smile, laugh, and cry, and they also can increase our empathy.

The power of stories can be used to help one of the most vulnerable communities, ex-convicts.

In America, in 1990, there was a Changing Lives Through Literature program founded with the ambitious goal of reintegrating ex-convicts into society.

The stories of loss and redemption gave the students a new way to view themselves. Society cast the ex-convicts as “bad guys,” but the stories they read taught them they were still human and worthy of dignity and respect. From the students in the Changing Lives first four classes, only 20 percent reoffence compared to 45 percent of ex-convicts in comparable groups.

For the program, Judge Bob Kane selected convicts with long rap sheets and a high risk of offending. He agreed to reduce the sentences if they joined the reading group with his friend English professor Bob Wexler. Every two weeks, the student met in a classroom to discuss classic novels such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Stories of recognition also help the citizen of Rwanda. They experienced one of history’s most brutal instances of ethnic cleansing. Just in about three months, the Hutu majority murdered 70 percent of Rwandan Tutsis.

Even years after the genocide, Rwanda was still dealing with the fallout in the form of pursuit and community justice. A radio drama called New Dawn had a potential solution.

New Dawn avoided directly addressing the genocide. Instead, the story was about a fictional villain turned peacemaker, loosely a Hutu. With the story of New Dawn, Rwandans could slowly begin to heal and forgive each other.

The radio program’s mission was very successful. Researchers who studied the psychological effect of the program found that the New Dawn listener experience increased empathy for both Tutis and Hutus compared to other radio program listeners.

The New Dawn story also inspired trust. One of the program’s lead actresses recorded messages discussing political issues related to the genocide. When the Rwandans heard her recognizable voice, they expressed more trust toward Rwanads of other ethnicities.

Religion and Empathy

When you take a look at the major world religions, there is one Golden Rule: “To treat others as you would like to treat yourself.” For many people, this encouragement to care for and help others is one of the most positive sides of religion.

But still, some of the world’s worst attacks have been committed in the name of religion. The problem is religion can become corrupted for many reasons, and then social empathy is lost.

The mentioned golden rules do a lot to promote good behavior and have the motivation of empathy in mind.

However, religion encourages tribalism and promotes otherness. It can be a form of exclusion, like a club only allowing members who practice a certain religion. The problem is that it can justify force against non-believers, such as the infamous witch hunts.

Still, religious values have been extended to justify slavery, but on the other hand, it also led to the end of slavery.

The issue with religions is when they get too intolerant. It happens when a religion claims to have access to the one absolute truth. And blind obedience to the trust is required without any kind of resistance. This can lead to the belief that the holy purpose justifies any means to achieve it. So violence and domination are used.

It comes down to the differences between exclusive and inclusive religions. Once again, it is about perspective talking by recognizing other faiths that are equally important for different people and need to be equally respected. In other words, tolerance is needed.

So the problem is not the religion itself but that extremist positions are uncritically accepted.

The problem with powerful people

People at the top of the hierarchy tend to be less emphatic. One of the reasons is that powerful people simply don’t need to pay much attention to others’ needs or social contexts because they are higher up and have less to lose by failing to consider others.

Powerful people resort to stereotyping to make their lives easier, and they are quick to judge people. They often don’t bother to understand the people below them in the hierarchy. Also, these people don’t see the perspective of others.

Those on top feel confident and in control. They feel free to do whatever serves their needs and desires. They don’t have to worry about what other people think.

The power makes them more focused on themself and their own experience instead of others. Their ego is too big to make an effort to take someone else’s perspective.

But there are powerful people like civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela who worked with empathy to improve the lives of others. So power doesn’t need to conflict with empathy; it can be informed by it.

Technology and relationships

Internet trolls post and comment online just to cause conflict and offense. You may notice such upsetting posts, which are often about inequalities like attacking people of color, women, or LGBTQ folks.

Trolling is clearly a lack of empathy. The anonymity of the internet enables trolls to show their worst behaviors. These are the downsides of technology.

The relationship between technology and empathy is the focus of communication.

So does technology harm or help human relationships? An online survey found that connecting with someone online doesn’t reduce in-person communication. This is especially important to know in times of the pandemic. If you already know the person getting in touch online can actually increase the chances of being connected offline and improve your relationship.

This also works for people you don’t know. Technology can enhance empathy through online communities.

When members share information in a support group, the trust boost empathy and the other way around, so everyone benefits. It works because participants of the community become an ingroup which naturally increases empathy.

Connecting through social media can help you maintain offline relationships and provide support to your peers.

But still, social media is often about comparing with each other, and many negative posts affect people’s moods and life satisfaction, especially for younger. Clearly face to face communication can not be replaced. It can make strong relationships stronger, but it can’t improve what is not there.

The conflict between empathy and technology

Technology can bring out the worst in us. With smartphones and computers, we can easily bully and harass others behind the protective screen. And the behaviors go in both directions.

One problem is the physical damage of bullying in our digital age. Another issue is that people in countries with high levels of internet users have lower empathy than those in other countries. These people also have trouble understanding others.

But technology isn’t all bad, as it can be used to foster empathy.

For instance, Koko a bot where strangers can anonymously help each other. Through Koko, users can submit a message venting about a problem they are struggling with. The system will send the message out and ask people to write encouraging words. While the user waits for the responses, Koko asks them to send out their words of encouragement to others.

The expressive writing of Koko has been studied to reduce depression. Also, helping others gives people a sense of fulfillment and lowers stress.

There was a test wherever Virtual reality technology could increase people’s empathy for vulnerable groups like homeless people. A powerful Virtual Reality experience that brings people the perspective of Ray and Ethan, a fictional father and son who start out facing eviction from their apartment and eventually find themselves sleeping in a bus at night.

After completing the VR experience, participants were more likely to support affordable housing initiatives and donate more money to local shelters. And even a month after the study, participants were still supportive of incentives to support the homeless and less likely to dehumanize them.

With the power of VR, you can experience a day in the life of an older person or someone of a different race. Many blame technology for driving us apart, but it also has enormous potential to bring us back together again.

Policies for more empathy

When a norm is established, and we see larger groups of people act one way, it is easier to follow in their footsteps. If this principle is applied to empathy and intuitions adopt emphatic policies, it could be a big step toward a more empathetic society.

One institution that needs an emphatic rework is law enforcement. Today many offices now subscribe to the warrior mentality program, which encourages them to view themselves as combat embedded in dangerous communities rather than peace protectors.

But luckily, some programs want to change that. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) is where officers get traditional definitive training and plenty of time to fire at the shooting range. But the rest of the training is totally different. The officers are encouraged to interact in an open casual manner, not in a formal military style.

They take classes on racial bias, emotional intelligence, and mental illnesses. And in their practical training, they focus on de-escalation instead of force. This training makes a huge difference because CJTC graduates show more care in their policing than other cops. And they also use force 30 percent less often than their peers.

School system also have their own version of warrior mentality. There are zero-tolerance policies where students are instantly suspended when they engage in threatening behaviors. While these policies are meant to discourage violence and create order, they often do the opposite. Students who have been suspended are more likely to drop out and be arrested.

Teachers that follow these zero-tolerance policies are less understanding and focus on rooting out the so-called bad kids from their classes.

Some programs are working on establishing new norms to encourage schools to a more emphatic standard. New Jersey Middle schoolers were asked to identify the worst social problem within their schools, like bullying and rumor spreading. Then the kids created campaigns and put posters around the school to encourage kindness.

It helped students to care more about one another, and disciplinary issues increased. A kind system creates kinder people.

Interpersonal empathy and Social empathy

In 2016 a shocking video of a five-year-old boy being rescued from a bombed building in Aleppo, Syria, went viral. It was shocking for many people, and many felt the pain and fear of the boy.

Not only have they wondered what life is like for a child in a city ravaged by war. But also what all other groups have experienced. And the social and political reasons for the violence.

When people take a broader end and try to understand social situations from multiple perspectives, they feel more included in fighting injustice.

That is where social empathy comes in.

To fully engage with every aspect of empathy, you need both interpersonal empathy and social empathy. First, develop interpersonal empathy. Then build on those skills to become socially emphatic.

The link between the two is paying attention to the context. It is how our brain works. The context affects how we respond to what we see.

Social empathy differs from interpersonal empathy by the scale of context. So you not only think about the feelings of individuals but also what it might be to be part of an entirely different social group (race, gender, or culture.) It is not only the perspective of one person from the group; rather, you consider the perspective of many others in all kinds of different circumstances.

Social empathy is the heart of public policies. It is about understanding and awareness of other people’s lives.


While it is easier to be emphatic on an individual level, social empathy takes some work. You need to consider the wider context of people’s lives. And the social and historical circumstances that shaped their present. But once we understand the empathy block, it is a big step a build a better society by using social empathy.

Empathy not only feels good, but it also has many benefits to individuals and collective health. Choosing empathy isn’t easy. It often involves a big shift in attitude and perspective. But it is possible to kill cruelty with kindness.


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