Dr. Sara Konrath, a social psychologist and empathy expert who directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEARlab.org) and serves as an Associate Professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, offers these insights into the nature of—and the need for—empathy, and how it can benefit both society and the individual
While some people define empathy as “putting yourself into another’s shoes,” Dr. Sara Konrath suggests a better definition might be “seeing the world from the other person’s perspective. If you’re putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you’re going to think ‘oh, what would I do in that situation?’ And actually, that can lead to less empathy because you might say, ‘but I would never make that choice’ without really understanding the way the world is from their perspective, how many different parts of their life have led to what they’re doing right now.
“There are two kinds of empathy; one is more emotional, and one is more cognitive. You can have empathy with your head. And you can have empathy with your heart. The one with your head is when you imagine what the world is like for the other person, when you look at the body language, listen to the tone of voice. You really try to figure it out. That’s called perspective taking. The one with your heart that we often think about, which to me is the same as compassion, is just feeling caring for other people.”
The need for empathy becomes obvious when you consider its positive impact on the individual, says Konrath: “If you look at empathy and mental health on the individual level, research finds that the two go together. More compassion is associated with well-being, and it’s hard to say what causes what. But a healthy human expresses compassion and care for others….There’s some research that caring for others, thinking about their needs is actually associated with physical health, too, including in older adults a lower risk of mortality.
Empathy benefits society as well, says Konrath: “Empathy is one of the primary reasons that people give, help, share, reach out, support other people….When we hear there’s been an earthquake in another country, you feel this response: “What can I do? I want to help.” There’s no reason. There’s no logic behind it. You don’t get anything for helping someone in another country, but you’re just responding as a human to another human’s suffering. And in general, empathy helps us to be less aggressive. If we’re about to hit somebody, but we also have empathy, we can imagine that it’s going to have a negative effect on them. That makes us less likely to do it.
“We think of empathy and other character traits as ‘soft skills,’ says Konrath. “That just implies that they’re second-rate or less important. But these traits are what make us human beings, what make us connected and happy. They are fundamental.