Can empathy be learned?

Written by brucewilsonwriter.com on May 5th, 2011

This morning, I received a tweet about a new book written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist and psychiatrist who studies empathy. His book is Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.

Baron-Cohen says that our view of cruel people as “evil” is misguided and rooted in obsolete, theological notions of morality. In an interview with the Guardian, he explains that people who are cruel have a low capacity for empathy because of genetic makeup and early childhood experiences. Cruel people tend to have had an insecure attachment in infancy, now recognized as a critical factor in the human development of empathy.

Most interesting is that empathy is related to our sense of self in relationship to others. Cruel people literally cannot feel what they are doing to others. Their sense of “other” is missing. That lack of sensitivity is not in itself sufficient to lead to cruelty, but a necessary condition, he says.

Baron-Cohen also says we should view cruel people as disabled, much like people with autism, which he also studies. Rather that meting out eye-for-an-eye justice, we should be finding ways to treat them with the very capacity they lack – empathy.

Research clearly shows that empathy is an inborn trait, a key feature of human nature, and evident even in our closest primate relatives.  But our capacity for empathy is largely dependent upon the love and attention we receive during childhood. If your childhood was extremely abusive or barren of love, you may end up having “zero degrees of empathy,” which Baron-Cohen describes as follows:

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Pretty sad, but I think most of us know someone like that, even in positions of power – perhaps especially in positions of power.

But my question is: can empathy be learned? Can someone with heavy trauma in childhood learn to become empathic?

Empathy is the basis for most psychotherapy these days. To be a good therapist, you must be empathic. This especially applies to regressive psychotherapies such as primal therapy, where one must be acutely sensitive to the feelings of your client. But can one learn to become empathic through psychotherapy alone? Developing empathy—or compassion—is one of the aims of Buddhist meditation and by all reports, years of meditation develops one’s sense of compassion.

Several psychological scales are now available to measure empathy, including the Empathy Quotient, a self-report questionnaire. Try it yourself and see how you do.

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