Ever felt dismay and a sense of hopelessness when you hear yet another story of animal abuse, domestic violence or teenage bullying? Why are people so cruel?
Many researchers studying aggression and violence find the answers to their questions consistently fall back to a failure of empathy.
What is empathy, how do we get it and why do we need it?
In order to feel empathy, a person must understand another’s behavior, be able to take the perspective of another and share another’s emotional state. The ability to feel empathy appears to vary from individual to individual, and children learn to regulate this emotion based on a variety of social and cultural factors.
Aggression and violence relate inversely to empathy. Those who abuse their children, for example, score low on measures of empathy. Many researchers believe violent individuals have empathy or perspective-taking deficits and that empathy training is a critical component of treatment programs, the idea being if perpetrators can stop long enough to imagine themselves in the shoes of the victims, the violence can be prevented.1 Empathy also relates to the degree of attachment people experience with their pets. Those who report strong bonds with their companion animals rate high on empathy scales2. Empathy is linked to a variety of pro-social behaviors (like being caring and helpful towards others) and even success in school and the workplace3.
So if empathy is the key, how do we teach empathy?
Is education about issues pertaining to animals, the environment or social justice enough? Will telling children about puppy mills lead to their sharing the emotional state of a puppy mill dog? For those with a high degree of empathy already, yes. But what about a boy in a classroom whose family fights dogs? He’s surely headed down a certain road. How do we turn him around? How do we help him to see and feel from the perspective of a dog?
Stories and perspective-taking play a critical role in the development of moral reasoning4. When we read or listen to a story, we imagine what the characters might be feeling—in essence we practice a key component of empathy. Some children do this naturally as they read, and as they take in hundreds of characters and share their moral dilemmas, they learn “what the good guys would do.” These narrative memories can be used when they have to make their own decisions about what is right or wrong.
Other children need to be prompted more—guided into how to delve into the perspectives of others. Questions designed to challenge students pre-existing knowledge and ideas, questions that elicit critical thinking; along with group-based discussions where they hear the thoughts and feelings of their peers, are required for students to truly understand another’s viewpoint and to learn empathy.
For example, those with a high degree of empathy may read the book Buddy Unchained, a story of a dog left alone on a chain, with tears in their eyes. Those without a high degree of empathy or even a basic knowledge of dogs will need to be asked, “How do you think Buddy feels in this picture?” How do you know?” and may even need to listen to his or her peer responses to begin the process of imagining what it might be like to be Buddy. And when children do imagine what it might be like to be Buddy and can share what Buddy might be feeling, that empathy opens up their world and makes our society more connected, more whole, more kind.
By the age of eight, most children have the ability to take the perspective of others and anticipate others’ reactions based on unique perspectives5, so this is a great age to work on their empathy development. However, most schools, hard-pressed to meet academic demands, rarely focus on a child’s social-emotional development. To add to this, there is a frightening decline in reading rates in the United States.6 There is a social-emotional learning (SEL) movement underway trying to underscore the key role SEL plays in academic success, which may be one way to encourage empathy development in schools. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Social and emotional learning is a process for helping children and even adults develop the fundamental skills for life effectiveness. These are the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically. These skills include recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically. They are the skills that allow children to calm themselves when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.”
Nonprofit organizations like the one I lead, RedRover, are also working to address this gap in education, and are seeing tremendous success on a small scale, but more recognition of the importance of empathy and the role it plays in social-emotional learning will need to come from leaders in education before we see any real change.
2. Daly, B. and Morton, L. (2006). An investigation of human-animal interactions and empathy as related to pet preference, ownership, attachment, and attitudes in children. Anthrozoos, 19(2), 113-127.
3. Swick, K. (2005). Preventing Violence through Empathy Development in Families. Earlv Childhood Education Journal, 33(1), 53-59. Eisenberg, N. and Fabes, R.A. (1990). Empathy: Conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior. Motivation and Emotion, 14(2), 131-149.
4. Vitz, P.C. (1990). The use of stories in moral development: New psychological reasons for an old education method. American Psychologist, 45(6), 709-720. Selman, R.L. (1971). The relation of role taking to the development of moral judgment in children. Child Development, 42, 79-91.
6. National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America.