Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else – doesn’t come naturally to everyone in every situation. While we might flinch if we see someone get slapped – our mirror neurons reacting as if we had been hit – that’s not the same as feeling what they feel. And it turns out that true empathy might even be repressed if the person who is affected is a stranger to us.
A new study out of McGill University demonstrates that the social stress of being around strangers restricts our ability to feel and express empathy for them. Participants were subjected to a painful experience (plunging their arms into ice water) alone, with a friend or with a stranger. The level of pain reported was the same when people were alone or with strangers, but increased when the experience was shared with a friend. Empathizing with the friend’s pain actually increased the amount of pain the participants felt, but they did not have the same reaction when the person across from them was a stranger.
We know that empathy has benefits for society. The Greater Good Science Center lists studies showing that people with empathy are more likely to help others and to be heroic; empathy reduces prejudice, racism and bullying; it increases intimacy in relationships; and it helps managers to foster happier workplaces.
At Psychology Today, Guy Winch writes that to build empathy, we have to direct our mind “to a place it does not go of its own accord” — the other person’s perspective. We have to mindfully “paint the landscape” of that person’s situation in detail, so that we can feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes, look through their eyes. That takes intention and plenty of practice.
The Dalai Lama has said, “On the basis of [shared humanity], you then can learn how to empathize with others beyond your boundaries.” In the McGill study, it took surprisingly little for participants to overcome the boundary of social stress. When the participants spent just 15 minutes playing a video game (Rock Band) together before the experiment, they were able to feel and express empathy for each other during the cold water plunge. Those 15 minutes of shared experience turned strangers into friends, or at least made them familiar enough to lower stress.
Diplomatic efforts and peace talks between countries and factions are often an effort to build familiarity and empathy between people. Sometimes they are successful, like the Camp David Accords, but often they are not. Maybe we need to start smaller and sooner to building familiarity, trust and empathy in order to avoid the kinds of conflict that are so prevalent in the world today.
Jeff Brantley has a practice called “Look deeply at another” that helps alleviate feelings of separation and isolation from others. It starts with mindful breathing, and then selecting an image of someone to focus on. The next steps are:
See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.
Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.
See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety and peace.
If we look for common values and recognize that most of us want the same basic things from life, we can strengthen our capacity for empathy. Even if we start with something as simple as playing a game together, or saying hello in an elevator, we’re on the right path. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”