What would you do if you see a person struggling to lift a big suitcase off the luggage belt at an airport? The answer to this question depends on many variables including, but definitely not limited to, your level of distraction (Are you focused on spotting your own suitcase and worried about lifting it?) or your physical ability (Maybe you have a really bad back and should not lift heavy items.). One element, however, that invariably determines whether one will help the struggling individual or not is the capacity to feel empathy.
Empathy has been defined as the ability to feel another person’s frustrations, experiences, and emotions. In addition, if individuals are able to grasp the frustration of the person in front of them, they will be more likely to assist him/her as they can understand the suffering (or, to use the above example, they can understand the frustration of trying to lift a heavy suitcase off a moving belt). The idea is that you will not analyze the situation strictly from your point of view, but rather, you are able to consider the feelings of the person in front of you.
In his book The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen discusses the idea of empathy and proposes that all humans are on a continuum and fall anywhere between having no empathy and having a lot of it. What I find even more fascinating is the idea that where a person places along the continuum depends on a host of environmental, social, and cultural contexts. As such, only very few people have zero empathy or too much empathy. Most people fall in the middle and their behavior is not necessarily consistent across situations. A good example, of course, is the one of the doctors in Nazi Germany who, despite the commitment to caring for others, performed experiments on a certain fraction of the population which hurt, tortured and, in many cases, killed them. Baron-Cohen further examines the idea of empathy erosion or the process by which a person could lose his or her empathy.
Personally, I believe that a person’s ability to observe the world from different perspectives is increased as the person becomes culturally educated, i.e. she or he becomes familiar with and understands diverse cultures and a spate of points of views. For the record, becoming familiar with an idea does not imply acceptance of that idea, but it does lead to better understanding of the person with that idea. The importance of culture learning (not sure if this is a term but I am using it!) will be discussed in an upcoming post so look forward to it.
What is your opinion on empathy or do you even care?:)