In researching my post on unthinking unkindness on Facebook, I encountered a statement from the American Psychological Association:

Empathy is the trait that makes us human.

The assertion gave me pause.

First, let's define empathy. According to Mirriam-Webster, empathy is the capacity to notice and share the feelings of another person, whether the person is real or fictional. I may sense that you're sad from behavioral cues or because something I consider sad befalls you. In turn, I may feel sad with you. That's empathy.

So don't nonhuman animals empathize?

Actually, they do. Biologists fight the notion that humans alone have the capacity to empathize with other animals. After all, the capability had to evolve from somewhere. Research summarized by Frans de Waal in an article in the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good: Science of a Meaningful Life, indicates that animals--especially mammals--do express empathy for other creatures.

Want an example? A 1964 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and mentioned in de Waal's article found that a rhesus monkey refused to pull a chain that provided food if pulling the chain shocked a companion. The animals would rather starve than eat at the expense of another animal; one monkey even went without food for a solid twelve days.

That's not to say that humans can't be more empathetically advanced than nonhuman animals:

  • We can ascribe feelings to an object, such as a work of art of something in nature. For example, we can look at a painting and feel things that we think the person depicted might feel. Numerous religious devotional paintings inspire emotions in the devout.
  • All animals are programmed to fear and dislike outsiders. As de Waal writes, even humans have trouble liking people who are different in culture and skin color. Yet humans do have the ability to project themselves into the outsiders' positions and empathize.

These examples of advanced human empathy are in no way "givens." Biologists have determined that empathy is innate, yet its highest forms require practice and refinement. As de Waal points out, "[Empathy] is a hard-wired response that we fine-tune and elaborate upon in the course of our lives."

All worthwhile things in life take practice.

Sadly, few of us bother to hone the art of empathy. We should. The better we understand and care about each other, the better the world could be. The more human we are, the more humane we can be.

Want to make the world a better place? Practice your empathy.

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Reader Comments (4)

Empathy is the ultimate aim of life.

If you look at history you invariably find that some of the worst wars and conflicts come about from not empathizing with another group of people, or even trying to.

When you refuse to put yourself in another person's shoes and ponder what their situation is, it makes it much easier to hate or demonize them.

On the other hand when you do empathize with others, when you allow yourself to have this broader view of life, you gain perspective on what that other person is going through. More often that not you also get the urge to help.

At the most basic (and pragmatic) level having empathy can allow you to see what a customer's needs are and what their situation is. This can allow you to craft better solutions to fulfill their needs and budget.

At a higher level having empathy for your fellow human beings allows you to put yourself in their place. To realize that others do not share in the same opportunities that presented themselves to you during your life. This can lead to action that can help remedy those needs. Humans are not innately stingy and they gladly give and help out when they can, and sometimes even when they can't.

At the highest level of empathy is love. Somewhere along my meanderings through life (and I honestly can't remember where) I picked up a definition of love.

Love, I was told was putting one other person's happiness above all other things in your life. When you find yourself in a situation that your happiness is linked to making or keeping someone else happy you pass beyond mere carnal lust or simple obsession and start getting into a whole different realm.

If we accept that definition as true, then love is the ultimate expression of empathy.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Pora

What can I say? I agree with you.

Nature did a program recently on friendships between animals of different species you might find interesting:

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I hadn't heard that song in decades, Will! Awesome pick!

I have a set of cards on my dining table that have dinner conversation topics. One asks what superpower you would grant everyone on the planet, if you could. After a lot of reflection, I decided that the superpower I would give everyone, if only I could, is perspective. If only people could understand other people's points of view, so much hurt in the world would end.

I can't wait to watch the full video you sent, Rebecca! Talk about a feel-good program!

December 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteredwin rutsch

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