Posted by & filed under Altruism Prosocial Behaviour, Child Development, Intergroup Relations, Moral Development, Neuroscience.

Description: Within Western society, we typically view the basic psychological unit of analysis to be an autonomous self-interested individual person. This basic unit of analysis gives rise to problems only consider concepts like empathy or prosocial behaviour where individuals act apparently against their self-interest by helping others. So if we are self-interested why would we ever care about strangers? The study discussed in this article looks at this question directly. What kinds of experiences do you think might be necessary for individuals to begin to show signs of caring empathically for a stranger?

Source: Study Shows Empathy for Strangers Can Be Learned, Janice Wood, Psych Central

Date: December 21, 2015


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Empathy is a problematic construct when viewed from within a Western psychological framework that focuses upon autonomous self-interested individuals is the basic unit of psychological analysis. If empathy and prosocial behaviour involve caring for someone in ways that lead want to put someone else’s interests ahead of one’s own it becomes hard to understand why individuals would feel this way towards others to whom they are not related or otherwise strategically connected. And yet, it is clear that people behave empathically not only towards direct relatives but also occasionally towards complete strangers. If we want to increase the level of caring particularly amongst people who don’t know one another very well it is important to focus on the kinds of interactions and behaviours that can give rise to and support empathic responses to others particularly when those others are strangers. The study described in this article looked specifically at the question of whether a relatively small number of positive interactions between individuals who did not know one another would have an impact on the areas of the brain that are typically activated when one is experiencing empathic emotions. The findings were encouraging in that they suggested that a relatively small number of positive interactions among strangers were sufficient to significantly increase the brain based neural activities associated with empathic responses.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why it might it be that Western psychological theories struggle with the concept of empathy?
  2. What brain-based responses does the research discussed in this article look at as markers of empathic responding?
  3. What kinds of parental or school-based experiences might be worth considering if we wanted to increase the level of general empathic responding in children being raised within Western cultures?

References (Read Further):

Hein, G., Engelmann, J. B., Vollberg, M. C., & Tobler, P. N. (2015). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201514539.