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Experience and Empathy

Experience and Empathy

Can you recall the first time you showed someone empathy? What about the first time someone showed it to you? This is likely a difficult task, maybe even impossible, because we are hard-wired to show empathy as young as twelve months old. Although it is a neurobiological competency, our experiences, interactions, and relationships also shape our capacity for empathy. When we understand the social contexts in which empathy can thrive, we are positioned to foster deeper, more meaningful social and emotional growth in each and every student.

Some major components of our experiences that influence how we show empathy are gender, culture, and socioeconomic status. Because gender comes with social norms and expectations surrounding how we express emotion and interact with others, boys and girls tend to show empathy differently. For example, in a study of children between five and nine years old who were shown videos of hospital patients with injuries from a car accident, girls reported higher levels of empathy than boys. This finding held in older children as well, as girls aged ten to thirteen exhibited a more skillful understanding of the feelings and intentions of characters in the books they were reading (Christov-Moore, 2014). Girls' tendency to show empathy is socially reinforced because, as a society, we tend to value when girls are nurturing (Love, 2020).

Culture influences how we express empathy because it shapes the way we interpret and express emotions. Whether a student comes from an individualistic or collectivist culture impacts their socialization. Different parenting styles and whether children are encouraged to focus more on their own emotions or others’ emotions will impact how they internalize feelings and their capacity to show helping behaviors. In cultures where prosocial, outward-facing behaviors are explicitly encouraged, individuals are likely to display more overtly empathic tendencies, versus a society where emotions are strictly regulated and one is expected to self-regulate without assistance from others (Chung et al., 2010).

Experience and Empathy

Socioeconomic status and life experience also play a role in our expression of empathy. Some studies suggest that individuals from the upper and lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum tend to score higher on empathy measures than those in the middle (Love, 2020), and others suggest that individuals from a lower socioeconomic class display more empathy than those of higher socioeconomic classes (Nefdt, 2013). Researchers believe that these differences can be explained by examining the social connections present within and across these social structures. As the necessity for community and social connection changes, how we are socialized to provide support and care also changes (Love, 2020).

There are many other factors believed to influence empathy, including our age (older people tend to be more empathetic than younger), whether or not we have siblings (Simon-Thomas, 2017), and even if we read fiction (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013). The fact that empathy is as much a social competency as it is a brain-based one is good news--it means we can take intentional action to grow empathy in ourselves and our students. When we understand the way gender, culture, and socioeconomic status, among other factors, influence empathy, we can ensure that we are teaching responsively. We can meet students where they are and provide opportunities for social and emotional growth that leverage students’ strengths and cultural competencies, setting them up to be empathetic individuals for life.

Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLOS ONE, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341

Christov-Moore, L., Simpson, E. A., Coudé, G., Grigaityte, K., Iacoboni, M., & Ferrari, P. F. (2014). Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 46(4), 604-627. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.09.001

Chung, W., Chan, S., & Cassels, T. (2010). The role of culture in affective empathy: Cultural and bicultural differences. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10(3-4). https://doi.org/10.1163/156853710X531203

Love, S. (2020). The impact of socio-economic status, life history, and biological sex on affective empathy in adults. Master’s Theses. 3156. https://scholars.fhsu.edu/theses/3156

Nefdt, K. (2013). Empathy across socioeconomic status and its association with aggressive behaviour in Western Cape children. http://www.psychology.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/117/Kirsty.Nefdt_.pdf

Simon-Thomas, E. (2017). Which factors shape our empathy? Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/which_factors_shape_our_empathy


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