What is empathy? Well, the true definition depends on what type of empathy you’re defining. Surprisingly, there are two types of empathy: the first is affective empathy which is the similar inner feelings that arise when we see someone else show emotion. In other words, it is a slight mirroring effect that our brains use. The second type is cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand why people display certain emotions and what those emotions mean.
So, why is empathy important? Empathy can bring people together despite their differences and Empathy can reduce aggression and bullying. A study by Roots of Empathy showed a reduction in aggressive behaviors in kids between the ages 5 and 8 after the organization taught classes trying to increase empathy, compared to an increase of aggressive behaviors in control classrooms. This study also showed a clear increase in both types of empathies to go along with the lowered aggression. If we then translate these results onto adults and teens, increased empathy could go a long way, reducing mass murders, domestic abuse, and assault in general.
Empathy has not only been shown to reduce aggression, but it has also been shown to reduce racial prejudice. In a study conducted in 2011, a group of individuals were asked to take the perspective of Glen, a black man who is discriminated against, and then analyze the situation in which he discriminated against. This group showed far less racial bias than a group who were told to be totally objective. This increased empathy should be used in law enforcement and by judges as a way to combat racial prejudices. And yes, law enforcement deals with high-stress situations in which taking a second to step into the other person’s shoes is far from the most pressing issue, but if they increase their empathy overall, their unconscious racial prejudices might not have such a large impact on the outcome of high-stress situations.
The same study also showed that increased cognitive empathy can make daily interaction far more pleasant. One group was shown a picture of a black man and then told to write about his daily life from his perspective. A second group was shown the same picture and told to write about his daily life from an objective standpoint. A third group was shown the same picture and given no instructions other than to write about his daily life. Then all three groups interacted with a black woman who rated their interactions. She found the interactions with the group told to write from a black man’s perspective the more enjoyable and more positive than the other two groups. There have been studies that show empathy has increased racial bias when interacting with groups of different races. However, in one such study, the topic for discussion was set as racial biases about one of the races in the room. This topic clearly set up the conversation with unrealistic tensions that don’t normally exist in day to day interaction.
After all of this you may be wondering how you can increase your empathy and the empathy of those around you. Roman Krznaric,the author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, suggests that you should consciously try to take the perspective of others on a regular basis to increase your empathy. Other ways to increase empathy can be as simple as discovering commonalities between you and strangers or just being curious about the lives other people live. Increasing empathy in the next generation can be even easier than increasing it within ourselves. Encouraging positive acts and helping to guide the moral compass of little kids can heighten their empathy. Even just telling stories that force you to get inside the minds of characters can increase empathy. And last of all, simply viewing others that you may not know personally as human can help increase your empathy for them.