Psychology of Social Connection

The (empa)TEA on Empathy

October 2nd, 2020 · 8 Comments

When you were younger, did you ever slip your feet into shoes that weren’t yours? Maybe you tramped around the house in a parent’s slippers that dwarfed your own, wondering what it would be like to have such big feet. Or maybe you’ve squeezed your toes into someone’s miniscule flip flops, exclaiming to their owner, “Awww you have such small feet!” as you shuffle across the floor, heels hanging out in all their glory. Maybe you did this yesterday, we won’t judge (I might– Gaby). But even if not, we’re willing to bet that you’ve recently put yourself in someone else’s shoes, ~metaphorically~. This is what we call empathy. Empathy involves adopting and feeling the experiences and emotions of another person as your own. Putting yourself in their shoes, you see life from their perspective, and in doing so, you’re able to more easily create new social bonds and strengthen old ones because you’re vibing on the same wavelength. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, for us, yes. In fact, it’s practically second nature. But empathy is an incredibly complex capacity which most earthly creatures don’t have, and even the cases of empathy that have been recorded in non-human animals are limited in both frequency and extent. So… what’s so special about empathy in humans and what does it do for us? Who do we show empathy to, and is it easier or harder to do depending on the situation? Buckle up. We’re going to spill the (empa)TEA on empathy.

– • – • – • –

What’s the big idea with empathy in humans? How is it helpful to us? -Gaby

-AYOO, leave your human exceptionalism at the door check: while I do believe that the study of our social-cognitive capacities are fascinating given that we as humans are ULTRA-social beings, I think it’s important to recognize that 1) just because such capacities haven’t been observed in other species doesn’t mean they don’t exist and 2) if they don’t exist it’s just because they don’t NEED it to survive and be the cool and unique animals they are-

Alright. Y’all KNOW we can’t talk about human empathy without getting into videos of babies. So here. Meet Addison and Nathan: Baby Empathy

You might be asking yourself, what just happened? Why did baby Addison just randomly (?) start crying right after baby Nathan did (both of whom have probably spent a year MAX in this world)? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not random at all! Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, would call it “emotional contagion”, where one party (baby Addison) is affected by another’s (baby Nathan) emotional/arousal state (de Waal, 2008). Many believe this to be the lowest level of empathic processes shared by all animals (humans, non-human primates, rats and mice, pigeons, oh my!) who are capable of exhibiting some extent of empathy. For humans in particular, though, it’s insane to me that already as wee babs we have this innate tendency to recognize others and their emotions and respond in certain ways. And it only gets better! Literally!

Ok Gaby, really cool, but what’s the use for it? Other animals might not need it to survive, but why do we?

Well. If you think about what we look like vs. what we think like, it actually makes a lot of sense. From a long long long long time ago (~7 million years ago to be kinda ish exact) when the human lineage diverged from bonobos and chimpanzees up to now, we’ve lost A LOT of survival perks along the way. We lost the impressive ability to swing from trees (also known as brachiation,,, can you tell I’m an evolutionary bio major yet?), we started walking on two legs and became slower, we lost muscle definition, we lost our sharp teeth…………………… 

BUT, we gained a whole lot in the process, too. In particular, we started working together in groups, and our brains started to grow and allow for us to use our environment to our advantage through tool-use and other forms of culture. We work better in groups and therefore face a greater chance of survival if we help each other out, and what better way to make sure we help each other out than having systems in our brain that easily allow for us to feel and care for others in pain or distress? Boom. Empathy.

Obviously, it’s not a perfect system, and we’ve all had our tough times with empathy (more on this to come from Julie). Just last week, I tried to approach a problem that one of my closest friends was facing from his perspective, and ended up giving him absolutely atrocious advice (HEYO alliteration) because I was still unconsciously assuming what I would do in that situation even though we are radically different people. Eh, you win some you lose some. That dude for sure isn’t asking for my help any time soon, but HEY, we’re just talking about the fact that I could even TRY to look at something from his perspective and how that’s still heckin’ awesome. What a neat and quirky trait of ours, you feel what I’m saying? (haha, get it, feel because empathy haha)


Why empathy isn’t always easy -Julie

So now that Gaby, with her badass human evolutionary biology expertise, has given us the lowdown, it’s time to dive a little deeper into the nooks and crannies of when you and I display empathy. 

Just because babies can empathize with others doesn’t mean that empathy always comes easily. As with most things in life, there are caveats, and balance is key. 

First of all, it’s difficult to try on someone else’s shoes when you’re struggling to tie your own. Maybe you lost your temper with your sibling who ate the last donut you were craving. Maybe you’ve found yourself silently cursing the unbearably slow walker in your path before an important meeting. It’s tough to live, laugh, love in trying times. If you’re reading this in 2020, we’re literally living through a global pandemic, if you’re not feeling like a ray of sunshine, don’t sweat it. It’s ok to not be ok sometimes. Like actually though. 

~ Queue Human” by Christina Perri. ~

If you’re reading this after the pandemic… hi king/queen/anything in between, stop reading this right now and go rage with as many people as possible. 

My point is, sometimes when your own basic needs aren’t met, it can be tough to empathize with others. We learned in our class lecture that empathy takes energy, and so does everything else we do, our energy isn’t limitless, but it can be recharged with self-care.

One need, however, that can increase our ability to empathize with others is the need to belong. Picket et al. (2004) demonstrated that people who feel a higher need to belong become more aware of and sensitive to both positive and negative social cues and are better at inferring another’s state of mind. This is helpful when you’re not feeling socially connected because empathizing with others, as you know by now, can be a stepping stone to forming connections and bonds. 

On the other hand, when you’re feeling socially secure things get tricky. This brings us to ingroups and outgroups. When you feel like you’re part of a group, your ability to empathize with others that are not in the group, in an outgroup, can be subpar. Cikara et al. (2011) found that structures in the brain related to punishment, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, are engaged when your group fails and a rival group succeeds. They also found that a part of the brain associated with rewards, the ventral striatum, is activated when your group succeeds and the rival group fails, and this was also correlated with an increase in willingness to harm a rival. Feeling pleasure from another’s pain sounds messed up, yet it happens often enough to have a fancy name, schadenfreude. But if your eyes began glazing at all that science, just know that we often empathize more with people we are similar to (ingroups, like friends, family, race, socioeconomic status). As mentioned above and in our class lecture, empathy takes energy, so we have to be discerning in who we invest it in, and those similar to us are our first choices because we trust them.

I think many people express empathy when it’s fitting and possible to do so. Perhaps it’s a switch that can be both automatically and manually turned on. But first other switches have to be turned on. For example, if you’re mentally and physically exhausted, your energy switch is off, so it’s going to be a lot harder to empathize with others. It might also take an extra switch to empathize with someone different from you. I believe you can shift your thoughts and make changes to your physical body (i.e. focus on the present and take deep breaths to recalibrate yourself) to manually turn back on that empathy switch, but only if you really want to. 

For others, the empathy switch is always on, shining its light. In essence, this sounds great, but it definitely takes work to keep the light on without burning out. If this is you, just make sure you’re taking care of yourself! Empathy is important, but self-care and balance is key.

– • – • – • –

I think for me (Gaby), what’s crazy about empathy is that it’s everywhere and happens all the time. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how old you are, what you look like, think like, act like– you’re gonna experience empathy in some way or another. It makes me think about how even in a world where there is currently so much division and hate, there is still capacity for so much love and caring about others and this can’t be taken away no matter how hard people try (granted, there should be more love and empathy but that’s a rant for another day). So yeah. It’s everywhere. It’s so straightforward and ingrained into our human nature but so incredibly complicated and difficult to navigate at times, and yet, we can’t get (and give) enough. And when it does happen to be complicated and difficult, I (Julie) think the best thing you can do is to acknowledge it, because recognizing a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Then from there, remind yourself that whoever you’re interacting with is a human, too, with thoughts, goals, dreams, and feelings. People can tell when you’re truly listening to what they have to say and when you truly care. Plus, empathy is amazing in that it allows you to experience something that isn’t happening to you; I think that sounds pretty magical. So, even if someone’s shoes don’t quite fit your feet, still take that time to try them on and look at life from a different perspective, feeling their emotions. And hey, maybe you’ll have a Cinderella moment, and the shoes will be the perfect fit. We’d love that for you 😉

And that’s the (empa)tea on that.



Gaby + Julie


Amaral, J. (2014, December 14). Baby Empathy [Video]. YouTube. Cikara, M., Botvinick, M., Fiske, S. (2011). Us Versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306–313.

de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300

Picket, C., Gardner, W., Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a Cue: The Need to Belong and Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095-1107.

Vertudaches, L. (2015). Sad Best Friends. [GIF]. GIPHY.

Tags: Uncategorized

8 responses so far ↓

  • christinelee // Oct 4th 2020 at 12:54 am

    I loved your blog post – the style and voice of it and fun videos/links.

    The introduction with the video of baby empathy was really interesting to watch, especially after our discussion last week about whether empathy and altruism are innate or something that is often brought on by society and nurturing. After the evolutionary explanation it makes sense that empathy is primal, but I started to think about whether or not we have a lot of control over our empathy (Addison and Nathan didn’t).

    One empathy study called “Turning off the empathy switch: Lower empathic concern for the victim leads to utilitarian choices of action” by Reina Takamatsu. In the study, participants were read scenarios with victims, asked to rate their self empathy vs others-oriented empathy, and then to perform an action on the victim. When people were not focusing on being empathetic towards the victims in the situations, they came to more utilitarian outcomes. This study suggests that when given dilemmas, humans can actually control their empathy. While there are limitations based on the context of the study and the hypotheticals, the ability to rationalize our empathy to change outcomes is an interesting concept.

    Takamatsu R. (2018). Turning off the empathy switch: Lower empathic concern for the victim leads to utilitarian choices of action. PloS one, 13(9), e0203826.

  • rachelrey // Oct 4th 2020 at 9:28 pm

    Hey Gaby & Julie!

    Loved the blog post!! It was genuinely super enjoyable to read, and was helpful in reflecting more on empathy from our discussions this week.

    There were two main points from your post that stuck out to me as being a really great addition to our previous conversations. In Julie’s paragraph, you mentioned that “Perhaps it’s a switch that can be both automatically and manually turned on. But first other switches have to be turned on.” I thought this point added some interesting nuance to our previous conversation on the mechanisms of empathy. Even if it is as simple as just turning a switch on and off, there isn’t just “one switch” in our brain! So much of what happens in our brains (and then what is translated into our real-world behavior) is interconnected – none of it is truly just acting on its own. The title of this unit is, after all, the “building blocks” of social connection; each of them work together to form the foundation of how we establish and experience social connection with others. Our idea of social connection wouldn’t quite be the same if all we had was imitation to go off of, for example.

    I also appreciated the evolutionary context that Gaby brought in (we love an ~evolutionary bio gal~). It can be very easy to fall into this mindset of humans just being Like This without actually considering how these behaviors came to develop! Taking a step back and considering what in our evolutionary history actually made us ridiculously social & emotional beings (even if we did lose that climbing trees skill, rip) helps make phenomenons like empathy make a whole lot more sense beyond just “here is a thing that happens in our brains.”

  • suyeonlee // Oct 6th 2020 at 12:11 am

    Hey Gaby and Julie!

    This is an awesome blog post! I really loved how you guys took turns writing, and it felt like we were really having a casual conversation about empathy together.

    I agree with Gaby that empathy has been developed evolutionarily since humans work better in groups and there is a greater chance of survival if we cooperate and understand each other. I loved watching the baby video, which serves as an evidence that shows empathy is an innate ability of humans. However, I do believe the level of empathy could vary for each individual. I think empathy could develop across the lifetime as one builds more social connection with others.

    Additionally, as Julie mentioned, it is reasonable to think that people empathize with others in order to affiliate with others. Therefore, people who lack the desire to affiliate with others may feel there is no need to develop empathy.

    Ironically, the motivations behind empathy seem to be focused on selfishness unlike the word “empathy” sounds like; we engage in empathetic behaviors because we survive better or we desire to get along with others. However, we need empathy! We strengthen our relationship with others through empathizing and get relieved and feel happy as we feel there are people who are willing to share our feelings. Regardless of the motivations–whether we have selfish motivation or not–we will continue empathizing with others since and love those who could empathize with us.

  • gracerotondo // Oct 6th 2020 at 2:47 am

    First, I love the title and concept of “spilling the empaTEA on empathy” as well as the flow of your whole post 🙂

    The concept of “emotional contagion” that you mention (Gaby) is so real, and it’s so interesting how we as humans engage in it at such an early age. The aspect that really interests me abut emotional contagion is how it helps explain automatic processes such as yawning after seeing someone else yaw or crying/tearing up after seeing someone else cry. I wonder, because some of these processes are automatic and occur without thought, how do we know they’re occurring out of empathy and not just imitation (without the intention of showing empathy)? This is just a thought I’m wrestling with…

    Another point that especially interested me was (Julie’s) take on the opposite of empathy, schadenfreude. Feeling pleasure from another’s pain is an interesting concept. Does this feeling of pleasure only apply in situations where we are socially compared to the outgrip, and thus, the outgroup’s failure is our ingroup’s gain? Or, does this pleasure extend to situations where our in-group really has no stake in the game? For example, if you’re a Patriots fan, and you happened to watch the Raven’s-Washington Football Team game (whose result has really no bearing on the Patriots’ season) this weekend, would you gain pleasure in Washington’s loss? Of course, there are other factors that can influence a person’s reaction (e.g. if they have a particular hatred for a player on the Washington Team or a distant tie to the Ravens, etc.), but still, how strong is schadenfreude in these situations? I would imagine it is not strong because the personal connection to the other personwho experiences pain is what most likely drives schadenfreude…

    In short, this was an extremely interesting blog post and it got me thinking…so thank you!

  • kat // Oct 7th 2020 at 6:04 am

    Y’all are awesome! And *snaps* for Christina Perri 🙌

    But seriously, what really got me thinking was “it’s difficult to try on someone else’s shoes when you’re struggling to tie your own.” I wonder in what kind of difficult situations are one more inclined to feel empathy towards others and in what situations are the opposite true. Of course empathy takes energy and dealing with our own problems can be tiring.

    I’ve vaguely studied helping others, and noticed that people will claim helping others makes them feel better. In particular, some say that a bad day is made better with volunteering. It’s hard to distinguish between empathizing and helping, but I wonder if there are situations when empathy comes easier than self-care… Anecdotally, I know sometimes when I’m struggling, it makes me more empathetic to my friends struggling? I don’t know… Thank you for the food for thought!

  • gracethawley // Oct 7th 2020 at 8:55 pm

    Gaby and Julie,

    This post was incredible. I laughed (Gaby – you had me laughing out loud), and cried (Julie – I relate to your sentiment about post-pandemic raging on a spiritual level). Overall, great job. I read this multiple times! People heard me laughing from across the room and they asked what I was laughing about and I said “Empathy!” (Probably not a good look to have said that…)

    I think Gaby’s integration of HEB is fascinating. Like her, when considering the ‘why’ question of a lot of the traits and behaviors we discuss in this class, my instinct is to think about the evolutionary perspective. It really gets me curious about a question that expands on your post, as well as some of the discussions that we have had in class about empathy.

    We talked a lot about how we can recall from our own experiences in order to empathize with others, but I’m wondering if (from an evolutionary standpoint) we have mechanisms built in us over time to use social cues (like emotions of another person) in order to empathize. I bring this up because I don’t necessarily believe that we have to have experienced all the emotions on the emotion spectrum to be able to empathize with people feeling different emotions. Is there something innate in us that allows us to recognize and empathize emotions, without initially or thoroughly knowing what they feel like? I guess a similar question would be, what (specifically) allows us to activate our empathy in ourselves? And can we form meaningful relationships without it?

  • hannahpearce // Oct 8th 2020 at 12:33 am

    Hey Gaby and Julie 🙂 I loved this blog post! It was so fun to read about the tea on empathy 🙂

    The video of Addison and Nathan really got me thinking about these videos on social media of parents pretend to be sad in front of their children or they lie in their children’s lap to see how they respond and it’s amazing to see how children understand others emotions and seem to just know how to respond in an appropriate way – which is most likely learnt through imitation but it is still impressive to see. I really enjoyed reading the evolutionary side that Gaby explains. It makes a lot of sense when we actually think about how much we have evolved and much we gained in order to survive.

    Its pretty crazy to think about how powerful that feeling of belonging is and how that can really effect the way we behavior towards others that don’t belong (outgroup). Like in the Schandefreude study where people find pleasure in another person’s pain and almost show zero empathy towards them. What I think about is that surely having so much dislike for an outgroup member that you would go out of your way to hurt them or find pleasure in their pain could require just as much energy has it would to show empathy towards that person.

  • jenniferperry // Oct 9th 2020 at 8:18 pm

    @christinelee yes!! Thank you for adding that great reference. Super relevant and adds evidence to the theory that people can strategically employ their empathic concern to fulfill their goals. Would love to hear what economists would say?

    @rachelrey “there isn’t just “one switch” in our brain”—- THIS. Yes, exactly. This is what resonated with me too re: Julie’s take on the mechanisms of empathy discussion. Agreed– that is the whole point of this unit, and that link wasn’t even made in my mind until you just said it!

    @suyeonlee I totally understand the paradox you mention between the motivated selfishness of empathy and the fact that we NEED it. I agree, so what if it’s selfish or not, as long as it leads to good, then that is a win in my book.

    @gracerotondo “how do we know they’re occurring out of empathy and not just imitation (without the intention of showing empathy)?” that is a *fascinating* question. This is part of what keeps me wondering about the mechanisms of empathy. Yes, we can turn it up and down, but are there situations where it is downright automatic, without intention? Also great questions re: the ingroup/ougroup aspect of empathy & schadenfreude! We can def talk more about that in Groups week, but competition is very often a necessary ingredient to feel schadenfreude (though not always…), but is competition always a necessary ingredient to simply not feel empathy (vs. feeling pleasure at someone’s pain)?

    @kat Totally– the link between helping and wellbeing is definitely a thing, and part of the debate behind the whole selfish altruism idea! And YES I really resonate with the whole “empathy might come easier than self-care” idea. If you are like me, you might find it easier to show & feel compassion for others than for yourself. Ever beat yourself up over something that you would otherwise tell a friend is “no big deal”?

    @gracethawley “People heard me laughing from across the room and they asked what I was laughing about and I said “Empathy!” (Probably not a good look to have said that…)” — same thing just happened to me reading this! Your question about the spectrum of emotions is a *fascinating* one. I’m not sure we know the answer to this question! My initial thoughts are that we do have evidence of the universality of emotion across cultures. So the idea that we are innately equipped to recognize emotion follows. But this is a good thought experiment. Can you think of any emotions that you, or others, may have never experienced– can you empathize with that emotion?

    @hannahpearce “surely having so much dislike for an outgroup member that you would go out of your way to hurt them or find pleasure in their pain could require just as much energy has it would to show empathy towards that person.” YES, this is such a great insight. Right?? It almost definitely takes just as much, if not more, of our energy. What it definitely does is takes our attention away from more “productive” activities. We can talk more about this in Groups week, but isn’t that an unbelievable characteristic we possess? That are willing to expend a great deal of our precious time and energy to feeling pleasure at others’ misfortunes? What do we get out of it?

Leave a Comment