Adults can still learn empathy too


The ability to empathize is not fixed from childhood – it can be developed. © tomozina/ iStock

From an early age, we learn by observing others. A study now shows that we can become more or less empathetic in this way even in adulthood. In experiments, test subjects were able to empathize more strongly with other people's pain if they had previously seen reviews of others who stated that they clearly felt sympathetic. Conversely, they empathized less if they had previously seen reviews from less empathetic people. MRI scans revealed that the altered empathic responses were also evident in the brain - suggesting that more or less empathy can actually be learned through observation.

Empathy allows us to share the feelings and thoughts of others and respond accordingly. Some people who find it easy to empathize with others are considered particularly empathetic, while others who have little sense of the feelings of those around them are considered to be less empathetic. On the other hand, it has been shown that the social environment has an important influence on how empathetic we are. An atmosphere in which people pay attention to one another can make even seemingly unempathetic contemporaries compassionate.

Empathy in the test

A team led by Yuqing Zhou from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing has now systematically recorded this effect for the first time. To do this, the researchers first recorded videos of people receiving more or less painful electric shocks on their hands. They showed these videos to their test subjects, who were then asked to indicate how they felt when watching the recordings and how strongly they felt the pain. In addition, Zhou and her team recorded the subjects' brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

To eliminate gender bias, both the people in the videos and the test subjects were all female. After the participants had given their own rating, they watched the videos again and learned about the supposed ratings of other participants. However, the researchers manipulated these so that they were either consistently higher or lower than those of the respective test person. The test subjects were then asked to watch a few videos again and describe their feelings, with brain activity also recorded using fMRI.

social learning

In fact, there were indications of social learning: “Depending on whether empathic or non-empathic reactions were observed, the empathy ratings increased or decreased,” reports co-author Grit Hein from the University of Würzburg. The test subjects were therefore unconsciously influenced by how those around them reacted to the videos. However, the effect was much less pronounced when the researchers told the test subjects that the ratings shown did not come from real participants but were computer-generated.

“Interestingly, the neural response to the other person’s pain also changed,” says Hein. Among other things, the connectivity of the anterior insula, a brain region that is associated with empathy, changed. From the researchers' perspective, this suggests that the test subjects actually learned from the empathic or unempathetic reactions of others - and did not just adjust their answers out of social desirability. Although the results come from an experimentally constructed context, the researchers suspect that similar effects exist in real social situations.

Empathy remains malleable

“The good news from our study is that we have opportunities to shape empathy in adults through appropriate measures in both directions,” says Grit Hein. “It is possible to learn positive empathy from others. In order to thrive in the long term, empathy needs a climate of mutual respect. You can respect someone without having empathy for that person, but it is hard to develop empathy if the other person is not respected as a human being or disrespect is accepted in society.”

Source: Yuqing Zhou (Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China) et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.2313073121

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