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What if empathy is a learned skill?

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posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 03:32 PM
There's been alot of discussion on ATS lately regarding the elite, and more specifically, their apparent lack of empathy. It has been studied and concluded that overall empathy is somewhat lacking in the wealthy set, and much more abundant in the less-fortunate set. Although this disparity renders multiple outcomes, this post is about how the development of empathy may begin.

We all have subjective traits which mimic those of our families, like a sense of humor or an intellectual bent. But what if our exposure to people in less-than-ideal circumstances, and the ways our families translate their meanings to us, helps us to "develop" our sense of empathy, just as we may develop a sense of humor or an appreciation for poetry? A child's development hinges on one dynamic with two potential outcomes: stimulus with reward, and stimulus with punishment. Although we all develop beyond this mechanism, our formative years are governed by this dynamic.

We also know that repeated exposure to the same stimulus acts as a reinforcement of the corresponding reward or punishment. So if a person is growing up in a privileged environment, without ever seeing a homeless person, without ever meeting someone who must decide between keeping their home or taking their medicine, and without repeatedly witnessing firsthand the suffering endured by anyone who can't take the best course of action because it requires more money than is available, how will that sense of empathy develop?

In psychology, the fundamental attribution error is the phenomenon we're all guilty of: we each attribute our own negative circumstances to a series of difficult decisions, we tend to attribute the negative circumstances of others as simply being the result of a choice. We essentially recognize our own complex nature while simplifying everyone elses'.

Could combining this fundamental attribution error with limited exposures to common, yet unfortunate, human dilemmas be the cause of this lack of empathy? Does a lifetime of privelege disable our ability to empathize?

In Herman Hesse's "Siddharta", the wealthy Siddharta is awakened to the real world around him in his adulthood, and he is shocked and saddened by the suffering and sickness hidden from the interior palacial walls his family lived in. Upon venturing beyond the walls, he decides to not return, and instead, contemplate the nature of humanity and its relationship to suffering. But Siddharta wasn't exposed to misfortune until he was an adult, allowing him to recognize the shocking contrast. In modern day, the wealthy elite are aware of the people around them in unfortunate circumstances as soon as they can process the evening news, allowing for gradual desensitization to suffering.

Could empathy be a behavioral skill we learn to exhibit in order to create stronger interpersonal bonds, thereby broadening our circle of social support and safety? And could the insulation provided by wealth, negating the apparent need for this degree of support and safety, combine with the fundamental attribution error and limited exposures to create this absence of empathy in our governing elite?

I think so. What say you, ATS?
edit on 8/31/2011 by chasingbrahman because: urf

posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 03:58 PM
I'd just like to start but saying I was a class clown and somewhat of a bully in grade school. This landed me into the behavior disorder class. In this class they taught us all about empathy and other types of thinking to help us gain this sort calm, collective thinking that would overall improve our attitudes toward other people. I must say though this has stuck on me quite well over the years, I can't help but try to put myself into other peoples position and it makes me much more susceptible to other peoples thoughts and under right circumstances demands. To say that it makes one a more intelligible person, yes. But it can also be a burden on you since you are more likely to accept things even though you know them things are gonna hurt you in the long run.

You say we should use empathy and acknowledge our governments way of doing things? I say we don't have enough information to even began to think like they do. To think that the government is involved in this type of thinking is absolutely wrong. I for one think that empathy was brought about to create peace and susceptibleness to all the government rules and regulations brought on for the people.

So to have a society fully informed with empathy means that they will be the easiest to control and be manipulated into thinking things that could possibly benefit them, but in the long term hurt them be accepted.

I really don't understand where you're going with this, but I tried my best to give you an answer.

edit on 31-8-2011 by Anoynymoose because: (no reason given)

posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 04:19 PM
reply to post by chasingbrahman

What if empathy is a learned skill?

I think we all have strengths and weaknesses, talents and rough spots that we nurture and battle our entire lives. We may be born with the capacity to reach some lofty place, but we don't unless we work at it and develop the fertile soil to grow the intended crop.

I suspect that empathy is no different. Some are born with the ability to develop it, some are not. We probably don't even realize this ability until sometime far enough into life that we take notice of those more subtle, nuanced feelings that generally get washed over and/or ignored in the headlong rush of our youth. And like anything, the more it is applied, or exercised, the stronger it becomes.

The human condition demands of each of us to be something special. It just doesn't tell us how to do it. There's not an owner's manual to these physical machines. We're just dumped into them at birth and have to figure out the buttons and levers as we go.

So, yeah. I'd say it is a skill that relies on a talent that depends on recognition, acceptance and then, exercise.

posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 04:22 PM

Originally posted by chasingbrahman
Could empathy be a behavioral skill we learn to exhibit in order to create stronger interpersonal bonds, thereby broadening our circle of social support and safety? And could the insulation provided by wealth, negating the apparent need for this degree of support and safety, combine with the fundamental attribution error and limited exposures to create this absence of empathy in our governing elite?

I think so. What say you, ATS?
edit on 8/31/2011 by chasingbrahman because: urf

Those are very interesting questions for sure.

I had a natural empathy since childhood - one of my earliest memories is of the absolute sadness I felt when I learnt that my brother's cat had been killed by a car. I was about two years old at that time - but I grieved for the cat and I grieved for my brother's pain. I recall clearly how I felt his sadness and how heavy it laid in my own chest.

All my life I have been very sensitive to the suffering and pain of others. I had a reasonably hard life as a child, which contributed to and reinforced my respect and compassion for all life. I do not feel though that my natural empathy was the result of a need to develop "stronger interpersonal bonds", but rather arose spontaneously as if given to me.

Yet - if the wheel had to be turned and if I were given a different life - one of privilege and one in which I was raised by ignorant and self-absorbed parents who kept me isolated from the suffering of others, I am certain that my regard for all life would have diminished somewhat - if not greatly.

Perhaps that is the answer. Perhaps all beings are born with an innate ability to sympathize and be compassionate - perhaps that is the clearest definition of "innocence". But life-long conditioning will forge new pathways in the brain and instil a different value system.

I once heard that we are the product of 50 % genetics and 50 % upbringing. The poor elite then do not have much chance in hell of developing a different value system (one of empathy) if they are the purest product of elitist genetics combined with the worst possible kind of loveless upbringing.

On the other hand though, if a person who has never felt empathy can be taught to feel same - doesn't that possibility provide us with that sliver of hope for humanity?
edit on 31/8/2011 by shimmeringsilver73 because: (no reason given)

posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 04:46 PM
Empathy IS a learned skill.

The raw carnal human is a beast that wants more than it needs, and will kill to have it. Even the most brilliant of evolved humans have that predatory nature, and that's why humanity rules the planet. It's not bigger, or stronger, or more resilient, and it certainly isn't properly equipped to live in very many places on this planet, but its sheer overwhelming greed for whatever it can get its spindly little mitts on has driven it to become the most powerful creature that this planet has ever hosted.

Hell, even empathy itself is (more often than not) employed as a means of achieving control over other people's behavior (sales and marketing) and - when considering the more "enlightened" among us, and their love of empathy - as a bankable system of credits toward the big score; a seat at the big table after death, and maybe even a few nights here and there with the TV remote, as God's BFF.

Empathy is learned. It's practiced. It's perfected. And the reason it is, is so that the adherent is at least in the room when the door opens for a split instant, and he/she gets to experience what it really is for that moment. It's completely counterintuitive and a brief moment of intellectual transition from one state of self interest to another that's interrupted by a collision with something just that much more significant than either state of self interest. It only lasts for a moment, and then life starts back up again. And, it's back to "what do I want here?".

posted on Aug, 31 2011 @ 05:49 PM
Awareness of ones own condition or emotional state is a requirement of empathy I think. If you dont care or recognize your own emotions, how can you relate to the emotions of another? That said, I feel empathy is often confused for sympathy. I think real Empathy is the actual perception of the emotions/sensations others are feeling, like if I take a bite of my apple and you can taste it, or if I see a spider and get scared, and you being unaware of the spider become afraid as well.

I've had a few of these real empathic moments in my life that I'm aware of. And these types of moments can be between people and even animals.

As far as learning empathy, there are limits to that possibility in that a person is subject to their environment while growing up and in the early stages of development. if an infant is abused or neglected, or if there were stresses to the mother during pregnancy, there can be developmental and emotional issues that arise as a result, including the apparent lack of empathy an individual can show thru their life.

In sum I do think it can be learned, by some people. It would be a better world if people actually experienced the joy and love they made others feel, as well as the suffering/pain we can cause others. Empathy would be a great feedback tool for people to have to help guide their decisions in knowing they would help or hurt someone.

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