Empathy is something people can actually ‘transmit’ to others

WURZBURG, Germany — Think you can’t pass on empathy to others? Think again. University of Würzburg neuroscientist Grit Hein has found that adults can both “lose” and “learn” empathy by observing others around them. Her research challenges conventional wisdom that empathy is fixed trait developed during childhood.

What does this mean? Essentially, the people we interact with shape our capacity for empathy over time. Spend time with highly empathetic people, and you may become more empathetic yourself. The opposite also holds true. Hein captured this phenomenon through brain scans and mathematical models.

Hein conducted multiple studies with over 100 participants to test whether empathy can be socially “transmitted.” Participants watched videos of hands being painfully stimulated, rating their own empathetic feelings on a scale. They then observed the reactions of others to the same videos – either highly empathetic or completely non-empathetic responses. Finally, participants re-rated their empathy towards new video subjects.

The results were clear: observing others directly impacted participants’ empathy.

“Depending on whether empathic or non-empathic reactions were observed, empathy ratings increased or decreased,” explains Hein in a university release.

💡Key Findings:

Brain scans even revealed physical changes in regions related to empathy processing. Hein’s computational models help explain what’s occurring at a neural level. Essentially, the brain uses reinforcement learning to tweak its empathy responses based on social cues.

With positive reinforcement from an empathetic environment, the study finds that empathy can be strengthened over time, like a muscle. However, Hein notes that empathy can also waste away in insensitive environments.

“It is essential to understand that adults can learn or unlearn empathy through observation, even from individuals they do not know,” stresses Hein.

Caring supportive woman standing behind her stressed boyfriend
With positive reinforcement from an empathetic environment, the study finds that empathy can be strengthened over time, like a muscle. (© zinkevych – stock.adobe.com)

For businesses, the researcher says this presents an important lesson: the social environment created for employees shapes their emotional skills. By allowing or encouraging callous, uncaring attitudes, businesses can gradually extinguish empathy in their workers.

This can also impact performance. Prior research shows higher empathy boosts cooperation, helping behaviors, and patient care. However, unchecked empathy can also increase stress and burnout risk. Hein believes successful environments balance empathy’s pros and cons through mutual respect.

“Respect is the soil for empathy,” explains Hein. “One can respect someone without having empathy for that person, but it is challenging to develop empathy if the other person is not respected.”

Her message resonates in an increasingly fractured world: though empathy has limits, purposefully diminishing it threatens social bonds fundamental to human flourishing.

“It is possible to learn positive empathy from others,” Hein concludes. “However, for empathy to thrive long-term, it requires an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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