Psychology of Social Connection

Open When Letters and Breakups: A Tale of Two Sides of Empathy

February 26th, 2021 · 4 Comments

[Lara]

“And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone

Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me

‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street” (Rodrigo, 2021, 1:25).

 

I’ve been obsessed with this song ever since it went viral on TikTok. But who isn’t? Who could not empathize with Olivia Rodrigo, take her perspective, or imagine how this relates to one’s own breakup(s)? That’s empathy at work: it operates when we share another’s emotions, mentalize, and monitor the origin of the other’s feelings and their situation (Perry, 2021). Observing another’s emotional state somewhat automatically causes us to activate similar brain regions like the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, therefore, in a sense, ‘match their energy.’ This intrinsic matching promotes altruistic behavior, which is rewarding in that it gives us an emotional stake in another’s well-being through the empathetic gesture (de Waal, 2008). So, empathy is crucial to “feel for” Olivia in this heartfelt breakup song and – more importantly – to maintain close relationships that are emotionally satisfying and healthy in our own lives.

 

Empathy gives us the chance to quickly connect and relate to others, which we need for coordination and cooperation in our social lives (de Waal, 2008). In building and maintaining intimate relationships, empathy is a “vital emotional force” that is, however, not always automatic (Zaki, 2014). We must tune into our significant others’ love languages and unique perspective to understand their emotional experience and expression.

From my personal repertoire, I can report back that it takes a long time to comprehend complex combos of words of affirmation, quality time, and gift giving to fully understand them. Here’s a great example of how you can go above and beyond to make sure that someone knows that you feel with/for them; open when letters were a great way for me to find the correct words and emotional state to match the feelings and needs of someone close to me, even from a distance (I wrote 18 in total, a little excessive):

Open when letters offer a pathway to express that you are tuned into another’s feelings. Such acts not only require empathy but also psychological factors like theory of mind and a lack of egocentrism (Zaki & Cikara, 2015). And so, we’ve learned that empathy can help us improve our own physiological state by engaging in prosocial behaviors, but also brighten someone else’s day and build a stronger connection.

Empathy is also needed during conflict situations and breakups, such as in Olivia’s hit-song and viral TikTok conversation-starter. In conflict-reduction interventions, the focus is on remedying empathic failures by encouraging adults and children to care about others’ feelings and respect diverging views (Zaki & Cikara, 2015). When we regulate our own emotional responses and truly put our differences aside, it can make it easier to rationalize someone else’s views and behaviors. Through teaching specific techniques, learning from those around us, and engaging in perspective-taking throughout development and later in life, it might be possible for that breakup song to hurt less and to, eventually, be okay now that the other person is gone.

 

[Yufeng]

In the classic sitcom The Big Bang Theory, besides our constant laughter, we may wonder how people can grow up with such different empathy abilities! While Penny can always infer correctly about others’ feelings and react sympathetically, those four super intelligent but socially awkward ‘nerds’ can hardly figure out what on earth is in girls’ heads. Even among the four, the differences are also significant, for Sheldon frequently finds it very hard to even predict his friends’ feelings.

However, these things are not coincidences, or designed for the plots. Instead, it often happens in our life too. For instance, we sometimes want to share our feelings with someone we care about. Then, unfortunately, instead of giving proper responses, they continuously misunderstand our situation. If we cannot get a sense of understanding or acceptance from a friend, we can simply reduce the interaction with him. However, what if this happens in our family? It can certainly cause lots of imbalances.

This brings me the question of what on earth causes the differences and how we can make up for it.

First, it’s attributed to inborn human brain structure. Empathy can be divided into two categories: cognitive empathy, the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking; affective empathy (emotional empathy), the ability to share the feelings of another person(Davis, 1980). Emotional empathy is supported by regions related to self-other mirroring and affective processing, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, somatosensory cortex, and inferior frontal gyrus, whereas cognitive empathy is supported by regions related to mentalizing and projecting, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and temporal pole (Abramson, Uzefovsky, Toccaceli, & Knafo-Noam, 2020) (a more vivid illustration can be found in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-Q_qU46YAI). It was found that individual differences in affective empathic abilities oriented towards another person were negatively correlated with grey matter volume in the precuneus, inferior frontal gyrus, and anterior cingulate (Banissy, Kanai, Walsh, & Rees, 2012). Additionally, cognitive empathy is shown to be reduced with age, which has been partially proved to be related to reduced brain activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex(Beadle & de la Vega, 2019). Additionally, candidate gene studies have found, for example, that genes that encode for receptors of oxytocin and vasopressin have different associations with measures of emotional and cognitive empathy (Abramson et al., 2020), though some contradictions can be found among these studies.

On top of that, environmental factors also play a role during the empathy formation and development. For instance, exposure to norms of emotional schemas or cultural beliefs about emotions can influence individuals’ emotional experiences. These factors of shared environment include domestic teaching behaviors, social media (Schapira, Anger Elfenbein, Amichay-Setter, Zahn-Waxler, & Knafo-Noam, 2019), specific trainings (Han & Pappas, 2018) etc. By using twin studies, it was found that environment contribute more to cognitive empathy (Abramson et al., 2020), for emotional empathy is derived largely from heritable temperament traits, such as emotional reactivity, regulation, and approach(Davis, Luce, & Kraus, 1994), while cognitive empathy develops more slowly and therefore relies more strongly on learning experiences and growing exposure to cultural nuances (Abramson et al., 2020).

Backing to The Big Bang Theory, we can possibly deduce that Sheldon’s low empathy might mostly result from his genetic background, though surrounded with such a loving family, while Leonard’s higher but still incomplete empathy might mostly result from his mother’s abnormal parenting methods. However, do not be so disappointed when you are born with low empathy, because your acquired training and lifestyle do play an equally great role in your empathic ability. You can get a clue directly from Sheldon’s example that, influenced by his intimate friends and Amy, Sheldon did grow a lot especially in his empathetic aspects.

 

[Tess]

Okay so we’ve learned a bit about love languages, breakups, and how empathic tendencies can change depending on your environment and upbringing, but is the amount of empathy we feel related to our own emotions? As we discussed in class, this idea of an “emotional battery” somewhat like a social battery kept popping up. If we are more emotionally distressed do we show less empathy to others? Do we have a limit on how much empathy we can feel? 

On first thought, my answer would be yes. We’ve all been there– you’re having a bummer day. Your coffee was cold, you got rejected from a job, and you just got off an emotionally draining phone call with your sibling. Nothing seems to be going your way, and you feel like you simply cannot handle one more thing. But can we? Does being in a worse mood actually make us more empathetic? 

The empathy amplification hypothesis predicts that positive emotion would be associated with greater empathy while the empathy attenuation hypothesis predicts the opposite; that positive emotion would be associated with lower empathy (Delvin et al. 2014). There seems to be a possibility in both hypotheses: it has been shown that positive emotions are linked to a broader thought-action repertoire that leads to building social resources, and increased positive emotions can increase helping others (Fredrickson, 1998). As Lara mentioned, empathy is a way to quickly connect with others and build our social relationships. However, on the flip side, it has been shown that theory-of-mind use was increased and facilitated by sadness as compared to happiness (Converse et al. 2008). This shows that when we feel happiness, we might actually be less likely to practice empathy (which requires theory-of-mind in being able to identify someone else’s mental state) than when we feel sad. 

Okay so which is it? Do negative emotions and sadness lead to less empathy or actually more? Delvin et al. found two interesting conclusions: one, that trait positive emotions (the tendency to experience positive emotions) was associated with lower levels of empathy towards someone experiencing negative emotions, and two, that trait positive emotion participants were more likely to detect increases in mood of others. Boiling this down shows that there might be a relationship between empathy and your current emotional state– if you are happy, empathizing with others who are happy could be easier than empathizing with others who are sad and vice versa. This seems to be the only study of its kind, so I do warn against taking it as the end all be all, but an interesting hypothesis to look deeper into. It does seem to make sense– if we are more to empathize with people similar to us, then it should make sense that empathy would be easier with emotionally similar others. When my roommate comes home in a great mood, I notice myself becoming instantly more happy — empathy impacts us all the time! 

One one hand, it may be easier for us to empathize with people who are feeling similar emotions to us, but it is possible for continued exposure to and use of empathy inducing situations can take a toll on our empathy battery. But on the other side of that, as Lara and Yufeng discussed, there are so many incredibly positive benefits to empathy. From forming and maintaining satisfying and healthy relationships, to positive interactions with others and conflict resolution, to in many cases, making the world a better place, empathy is a defining human characteristic. It’s why we are able to relate to Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License, feel joy for our loved ones when they are happy, and give support to those in need. 

 

Thanks for reading!

 

References

Abramson, L., Uzefovsky, F., Toccaceli, V., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2020). The genetic and environmental origins of emotional and cognitive empathy: Review and meta-analyses of twin studies. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 114, 113-133. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.03.023

Banissy, M. J., Kanai, R., Walsh, V., & Rees, G. (2012). Inter-individual differences in empathy are reflected in human brain structure. Neuroimage, 62(3), 2034-2039. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.05.081

Beadle, J. N., & de la Vega, C. E. (2019). Impact of Aging on Empathy: Review of Psychological and Neural Mechanisms. Front Psychiatry, 10, 331. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00331

Davis, M. H. (1980). Individual Differences in Empathy: A Multidimensional Approach. University of Texas at Austin

Davis, M. H., Luce, C., & Kraus, S. J. (1994). The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy. J Pers, 62(3), 369-391. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00302.x

Devlin HC, Zaki J, Ong DC, Gruber J (2014) Not As Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion

 Is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance. PLOS ONE 9(10): e110470. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110470

De Waal, F. B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279-300.

Fredrickson, Barbara L.  (1998). What Good Are Positive Emotions? Rev Gen Psychol. 1998 Sep; 2(3): 300–319. 

Han, J. L., & Pappas, T. N. (2018). A Review of Empathy, Its Importance, and Its Teaching in Surgical Training. J Surg Educ, 75(1), 88-94. doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2017.06.035

Perry, J. (2021, February 19). Lecturette 5: Empathy. In PSY1535 – Psychology of Social Connection and Belonging: Spring 2021 [Lecture video]. https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/85306/pages/week-5-module-empathy

Rodrigo, O. (2021). drivers license. On drivers license (single). Geffen Records, Interscope Records.

Schapira, R., Anger Elfenbein, H., Amichay-Setter, M., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2019). Shared Environment Effects on Children’s Emotion Recognition. Front Psychiatry, 10, 215. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00215

Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1608.

Zaki, J., & Cikara, M. (2015). Addressing empathic failures. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 471-476.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Arianna Romero // Feb 28th 2021 at 6:15 pm

    I love the idea of writing “open when…” letters! On my team, we write all of our teammates notes before big games to connect more with each other, which is definitely a step down from the “open when…” letters. But I do think the notes made a huge difference in our team-wide connection. I also haven’t had the experience of being on any team where we all live in a one-mile radius and have this structured way of remaining connected so that may a moderating factor when it comes to the connectedness and greater feelings of empathy.
    The idea that empathy is driven by both our genes and our environment shows that most people are capable of empathy but some may be more primed for it than others. I wonder if there is a critical period for environmentally-shaped empathy or if it’s more of a continuous process, as shown with Sheldon.
    The results from Devlin et al. makes sense intuitively. It’s always so much easier to be around people in a similar emotional state. I remember getting the news of campus shutting down and I just wanted to be with people who knew what it was like. When I was with others who were not in the same situation, I felt like I had to act a different way. But ultimately, I needed that in order to move on from my emotions surrounding leaving campus and empathy can be pivotal to that.
    -Ari

  • Ellie Harvie // Mar 1st 2021 at 9:50 pm

    Hi guys! This blog post was really enjoyable to read, and I loved having some new examples of how empathy is relevant out in the world to ponder over. Lara – I also wrote numerous “open when” letters for my friends/siblings growing up. After reading your thoughts, I’m wondering how writing “letters to your future self” would fit into these ideas. Do you think the empathy and emotion matching would play as big of a role when the other person is just a different version of yourself?? Yufeng – I love your discussion of the sort of “nature vs. nurture” aspect of empathy and how differences in empathy levels may have developed. I often think about this when I interact with people whose emotional responses differ from mine. Tess – The idea that we empathize better with others in similar emotional states as ourselves seems so simple but so accurate (and powerful)! Considering all of the times I find my mood altered by that of my roommates (for better or for worse…) it seems all too plausible that empathizing with them when I’m in the same (positive or negative) mood comes that much easier. -Ellie

  • Kara // Mar 2nd 2021 at 2:18 am

    I loved reading each of your different perspectives on the topic of the week! It is amazing how such an innate and intuitive experience like empathy can be so complex and nuanced at the same time. Lara, you really got me thinking about how we empathize through music so effortlessly. I personally have never experienced romantic heartbreak like Rodrigo, but if “sad heartbreak music” was a genre, I would be it’s top listener. It is interesting how emotional songs—or really, any song—evoke an empathetic response out of its listeners without them necessarily having experienced the situation firsthand. I also find myself applying the message of songs into some plot point of my life; this could be related to our class discussion on perspective taking. Yufeng, it is always important to drive causal conversations for psychological experiences back to the intersection of genes and environmental factors. I think back to my elementary school’s teaching of the “I-Message”—a conflict resolution strategy where we would share with a classmate how something they were doing made us feel. Structured emotional development like this is interesting to think about when discussing environmental-developmental factors and their effects on our emotional development. Tess, I really enjoyed what you had to say about the “emotional battery” that we discussed in class. It is always cool to see how a shared and seemingly intuitive human experience is tested within an experiment. I agree—I would be interested to see studies that focus on the negative end of emotion and its impact on our ability to engage in emotion-sharing and empathy.
    Great posts everyone! -Kara

  • Anonymous // Mar 2nd 2021 at 3:57 am

    First of all, yes to drivers license! Such a great song! It’s amazing that so many people can relate to the song even though we haven’t all been in that specific situation. It definitely shows the power of empathy! Lara, it’s interesting that you discuss “open when” letters as they relate to because I’ve tried to write them but always find it difficult. I think that difficulty stems from the fact that I’m struggling to understand and channel the feelings of a situation that isn’t happening in the moment, which relates to Tess’ point about it being easier to empathize with someone who is already feeling an emotion you are feeling. The twin study on empathy that Yufeng mentioned reminds me of our class discussion about whether empathy is an automatic or conscious process because the study can maybe help us understand what parts of empathy or more conscious or unconscious. The affective part of empathy might be more of a subconscious process because it is more due to genetics. Whereas the cognitive part might be more of a conscious process given that it can be learned and is influenced by environmental factors. -Tyler

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