Psychology of Social Connection

Empathy Blog Post

March 4th, 2022 · 21 Comments

Tom’s Blog: Importance of Empathy in Social Connection

Empathy plays an important role in human’s ability to form and maintain meaningful social bonds. Being empathetic means being able to understand the emotions of another person, especially when these emotions are not outwardly expressed. In most cases, empathy means being able to put oneself into someone else’s perspective to figure out what emotions or thoughts they may be experiencing. Trying to decipher another person’s inner emotions comes from being attentive to little things such as their tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, or other verbal and non-verbal social cues. Being attentive to these aspects of communication can help one be more selfless and altruistic which is supported by the Pickett et al. (2004) study. The experimenters state in their introduction, “Empathy is motivated by our desire to connect with others, and when we experience it, it can lead us to be kind, compassionate, and altruistic.” In their study, they address the question of whether someone’s need to belong affects how empathetic that person is in social situations. Through their three experiments, they found that when someone is in a situation where they have a social pressure to belong or fit in, they are more attentive to social cues, specifically tone of voice and facial expressions. 

I personally noticed that this was evident during the beginning of Freshman year at Harvard. During the days of orientation, everyone was very social and tried to form lasting social bonds. The pressure of finding a friend group is something that makes everyone at least a little bit anxious. I remember during these nerve-wracking times, everyone was very attentive and engaged in individual conversations, more so than usual. I personally remember being obsessed with thinking of what others think of me when having conversations with new people. While meeting new people early Freshman year, I found myself looking for small details in people’s social cues. For instance, if someone looked away while I was talking with them, I would think that they may not be interested in the conversation. Conversely, if someone was laughing/smiling and holding eye contact while talking, I would be focused on the fact that they are interested. I also experienced a similar situation when first meeting my football teammates during the pre-season of Freshman year. Even though myself and my 30 other Freshman teammates have some similarities, it was still slightly nerve-wracking to form social bonds with them Freshman year. Especially since we are teammates, there is a pressure to get along and be friends with everyone. Because of this, I was also very focused on small social cues when talking with my fellow teammates. In accordance with the Prickett et al. study, I believe that since I and everyone else during Freshman year had a pressure to belong or fit in, that people were very attentive to social cues and had an increased sense of social empathy. 

In addition to the study by Pricket et al., Chow et al. studied if an increased sense of empathy helps adolescents and young adults form long-lasting social connections and have an increased sense of “interpersonal competence”. They found that when someone has empathy and can share another’s feelings, they are more likely to have a strong sense of interpersonal competence which promotes healthier relationships. Personally, I have noticed that when I am able to think of how others are feeling, it is easier to form social relationships. Specifically, I noticed this was the case when trying to form a bond with my girlfriend’s brother named Mike. Mike is 17 and has high-functioning autism. He struggles with communication and has a limited vocabulary, so it is often difficult for him to tell others what exactly he is feeling. Because of this, it was difficult to originally form a connection with him, and I really had to focus on his tone of voice, pace of speaking, eye contact, and facial expressions when interpreting what he is feeling. Mike has a great sense of empathy and often only tells people what they want to hear in response to people’s questions, for example, he will never say anything negative about anyone or anything even if he did have an unpleasant experience. After meeting him a few times and paying closer attention to his social cues, I was able to form a good relationship with him and have more meaningful conversations. Trying to put myself in his perspective and see how he may be feeling definitely helped me communicate and form a bond with him.

Patrick’s Blog: Is Empathy Always Good?

When thinking back on strong emotions that I’ve felt through empathy, one moment in particular from my childhood stands out. I was in eighth grade, and was cheering for my brother with my family as he raced in the finals of the 1600 meter track and field event. It was one of the most important races of the season for him, as the top 3 finishers would qualify for the California State Track meet. The race started off promisingly, and after the first two laps of the race, my brother was among the lead pack, comfortably slotted into second place. However, as he rounded the curve to start the third lap, I heard a shout of despair from my dad. As I looked back onto the track, I realized that my brother’s legs had gotten tangled with another runner, and he had tumbled to the ground in a heap. A few crucial seconds passed before he was able to recover, leap to his feet, and rejoin the race. Miraculously, he was able to catch up to the lead pack and regain his position. But he had lost too much time and exerted too much energy trying to recover, and I watched excruciatingly, as runners eventually began to pass him as he slowly faded out of contention for a top three finish.

After the race had ended, my family drove to Chick-Fil-A, a post-meet tradition of ours. But instead of the usual post-meet celebration I had grown accustomed to, I instead watched as my brother sobbed in disappointment from across the table, with my parents trying, but failing to console him. Unable to find any words to comfort him, I sat in silence, feeling his disappointment and sadness, before realizing that tears were also running down my face. 

Empathy gives us the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Through empathy, we can feel both the positive and negative emotions of other beings. Crucially though, we care most about people who are similar to us, in attitude, language, appearance. While this ability to feel the emotions of others is useful in helping us to form and maintain connections with close friends and family, using empathy to guide decision-making can be problematic. 

One way in which empathy can prove to be an issue is when looking at altruistic acts. Frans de Wall posits that humans have evolved to develop altruistic motivations through an empathic mechanism (De Wall, 2008). Yet, we can see inconsistencies in the results of exercising this empathic mechanism. As an experiment, C. Daniel Batson and his colleagues conducted an experiment where they told subjects about Sheri Summers, a ten-year-old girl who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment to relieve her pain (Batson, 1995). Participants were told that they could move her to the front of the line, at the cost of another child not getting treatment. When only given details of the situation, most participants said Sheri should wait her turn. However, when first asked to imagine Sheri’s pain, they tended to move Sheri up in line. Thus, this is a case where empathy overcame our sense of fairness, and increased the suffering for others. While this hypothetical situation may seem unrealistic, it’s not hard to imagine replacing Sheri with a sibling or a close friend, and seeing how feeling the pain of those close to us would influence us to make irrational decisions.

Paul Bloom additionally argues that empathy is particularly insensitive when applied on a statistical level, rather than an individual one (Bloom, 2018). He gives an example by highlighting the Make-a-Wish foundation, an organization that grants the wishes of critically ill children. Bloom states that it costs an average of $7000 to grant a wish. Yet, he counters by saying that using the same amount of money to purchase malaria nets could, on average, save the lives of 3 children. Upon hearing the emotionally affecting story of a Make-a-Wish recipient, we are more inclined to publicize and donate to the foundation, eschewing the opportunity to save the lives of a greater number of people. 

While being labeled as an empathetic person is seen as a virtue, it is important to understand the biases that can come with solely relying on empathic impulses to make decisions. Only through empathy, am I able to cheer for my brother’s successes and support him and cry with him through his hardships. However, through that same emotional pathway, I am more prone to be emotionally influenced into making irrational choices. Realizing that relying on empathy can have both positive and negative outcomes is crucial in helping us to form stronger social connections, and become altruistic in a virtuous and unbiased way.

References

Batson, C. D., Klein, T. R., Highberger, L., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1042–1054

Bloom, Paul (2018) Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Vintage.

Chow, C. M., Ruhl, H., & Buhrmester, D. (2013). The mediating role of interpersonal competence between adolescents’ empathy and friendship quality: A dyadic approach. Journal of Adolescence, 36(1), 191–200.

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

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a cue: The need to belong and enhanced sensitivity to social cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1095 – 1107. 

Tags: Uncategorized

21 responses so far ↓

  • Georgia Steigerwald // Mar 5th 2022 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you Tom and Patrick! This was great!

    I really liked the points both of you made about perspective-taking. Tom, you talked about how you try to take the perspective of your girlfriend’s brother to better understand how he’s feeling, especially when there are barriers to communication and how this helps you to better connect.

    Patrick, you brought up two examples of perspective-taking influencing our decision-making processes: with Make-a-Wish donations and with Sheri Summers moving up the line for treatment. In moral psychology, there’s a growing body of literature that shows *how* we think about situations affects the way we judge behavior. For example, if we engage in “Evaluative Simulation” and put ourselves in another persons’ shoes versus concerning ourselves exclusively with the outcome of an action, our moral judgements may differ. Likewise, imagining Sheri’s pain versus considering the outcome of moving her up (that another child will not receive treatment) changes the way we consider that dilemma.

    Empathy is clearly a powerful tool both in connecting with others and in making difficult decisions. Thank you both again!

  • Summer Cai // Mar 6th 2022 at 12:11 am

    Thank you Tom and Patrick for a very powerful post!

    Tom, I am really touched by your story of empathizing and forming a bond with your girlfriend’s brother. I think it highlights how much communication about our emotional states are actually non-verbal. Even though Mike’s vocabulary is limited, he can still communicate through tone, pace, eye contact, and facial expressions. Since we communicate our feelings through speech all the time, it is easy to forget and neglect the importance of non-verbal clues. Thanks for reminding us of them with Mike’s example!

    Patrick, I believe you’ve shown us beautifully both sides of empathy. I was especially struck by the Make-A-Wish examples. I think empathy and perspective taking really influence our decisions in moral dilemmas (Who to save?). In those cases, as Paul Bloom argued, empathy might be a poor guide to moral reasoning. Yet, I think empathy can be beneficial in answering the question of “Do we help?” Since most of us might agree that we don’t have the moral obligation to donate $7,000 to charity, empathy with the recipient might push us to donate rather than not. Empathy might effectively increase the resources devoted to charity even though it’s not a good guide in how to distribute it.

  • Sierra Agarwal // Mar 6th 2022 at 2:23 pm

    Tom, I very much understand your points about the social pressures of Freshman year. I, too, recall being much more active, involved and interested in conversations I was having with others compared to how I usually am. I did so because I felt that I needed to make a good first impression with others around me, and ultimately, find my friends. With this said, my actions definitely reflect Picket et al.’s (2004) findings where they saw how social pressure can influence an individual’s empathetic responses.

    Patrick, I really enjoyed reading your points about Bloom’s findings with empathy sensitivity levels when looking on both a statistical level and an individual one. After reading the example about the Make-A-Play Foundation, this highlighted to me that often times, I find myself more willing to give something or feel higher levels of empathy when something is presented to me on the basis of statistical numbers rather than on a metric that I may otherwise not fully understand. Part of me believes this is the case because the metric puts the situation into greater perspective, whereas when looking at something on an individual level, it is more difficulty to grasp the impact I could have, thus affecting my empathy levels. One thing I am curious about is how does the industry or specific situation impact this insensitivity?

    Awesome post!

  • Kara Xie // Mar 6th 2022 at 5:48 pm

    Tom and Patrick – thank you for sharing those stories of empathy at Harvard as well as in family! I really connected with both and enjoyed reading

    Tom: I really liked reading the story of you connecting with Mike, despite the hurdles of a limited vocabulary/communication. This shows that empathy is possible from those who are different with us, and it is not always easy. I relate to your experiences in freshmen orientation. It was so daunting to meet so many people, especially so diverse, and try to fit in and find a crowd. I was sometimes overly putting myself in others shoes, for example after an interaction, I would put myself in the other person’s shoes and second guess if they liked me or if I could have done anything different. As time goes on and I grew to be more confident, I no longer have that over-analysis with people I meet now, which makes me feel a lot more comfortable.

    Patrick: Empathizing with a family member is one of the most common and relatable forms of empathy for me, so your post struck a chord. Crying with your brother when he was crying is something I find myself doing when a family member is upset. You just know them so well and spent so much time with them, that anything that upsets them will inevitably affect you because you care for them. I have a twin sister and I feel so connected to her, that her worries are mine and vice versa. But contrasting that, her victories and happiness are also mine. We love celebrating each other, especially if it is mutual. For example in senior year of high school, I got into Harvard but she did not hear back from her school yet, so I was not fully happy and not ready to celebrate. I felt like I could not celebrate until I knew things were going to be okay for her too. A couple days later, she got into her dream school and I felt like we could both rejoice and be happy together. Such a phenomenal feeling, which is the opposite of mutual sadness/empathy but thought it was related on the topic of empathy within families.

  • Sofie // Mar 7th 2022 at 10:09 am

    Tom – I really liked how you talked about freshman year and meeting new people at Harvard and how empathy relates to this setting. I remember my own freshman year experience and being really anxious in big social groups. A lot of my friends have told me in the past that I’m a pretty empathetic person, but I feel like it’s personally actually really difficult to make connections and “be empathetic” in big groups of people. I’ve noticed that I can be understanding, connect better and overall more empathetic when I’m in one-on-one situations or smaller groups. A teacher once told me that he thought I was an “introverted extrovert” because of this. I do like socializing and connecting with others but it’s a lot more meaningful for me in small group situations or just with one other person – I think it may be because it allows both people to focus on one person and empathize better.

    Patrick: I’m really glad you brought up crying when your brother was crying because it was extremely relatable for me. To me, being empathetic means being sensitive to other people’s emotions and what they’re feeling and feeling it yourself. One of the ways that I figured out I was a sensitive and probably empathetic person is that I cannot NOT cry when someone else is crying. I immediately tear up watching another person cry, even a stranger. So when someone I know and care about cries, that’s when I end up crying a lot. It happens even in movies. I don’t usually cry at sad movies…unless there is an actor/actress crying as well – then I just can’t hold it in. I’m not sure what the science behind this is and why some people do this and others don’t, but I wonder if people crying when others cry is indeed an aspect of being empathetic or whether it is just being sensitive and emotional?

  • Stephanie // Mar 7th 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Great post Tom and Patrick! I feel like I related to a lot of the things you both wrote about as well as learned a few new things.

    Tom- I like how you wrote about your experience at the beginning of freshman year. I can also relate to meeting so many new people and trying to have engaging conversations with everyone in order to form a connection. However, I also found that it was hard to to maintain those crucial aspects of empathy at some point. After many conversations, it was hard to always maintain eye contact, read social cues and decipher their inner emotions. Many of the conversations were the exact same and it was only until a couple weeks in that I really started to feel genuine connections with people.

    Patrick- I liked how you talked about how using empathy to guide decision-making can be problematic in some instances. As we talked about in class the role of empathy in altruism is an interesting and complicated one. I like the example that you provided in showing how empathy is more insensitive when applied on a statistical level, rather than an individual one. That can be something to explore when we look at the most effective way to utilize people’s altruism.

  • Gayoung Choi // Mar 7th 2022 at 4:21 pm

    Tom, thanks for sharing your experiences; I have a close family friend who is autistic and so I understand the challenges you faced when trying to connect with Mike. I haven’t thought to keep in mind his nonverbal social cues so this is something I want to try doing when I meet him next. I wonder, though, whether empathy is a required component of a close relationship (do we need to know what the other person’s thinking 100% to be close with them?).

    Patrick, I like that you mentioned Batson’s study about Sheri. It reminds me of how we kept talking about how we might feel more empathy towards something bad happening to one person compared to a hundred. It reminds me that it really is about the quality of our knowledge about each person’s situation that makes us more empathetic; knowing about Sheri and her struggles resonates stronger than unknown faces of hundreds of children that undoubtedly face the same struggles of Sheri.

  • Jessica Lee // Mar 7th 2022 at 5:07 pm

    Thank you both for writing up such an interesting blog post! I learned a lot and really value both of your perspectives.

    Tom, I also remember being attentive, and even hyper-aware, of social cues and interactions around me during freshman year. Not having established friendships or a sense of place, role, or identity in a new environment definitely puts so much pressure on incoming freshman. I’m wondering if there have been any studies done on the ideal level or amount of empathy one should have in social interactions to be the most successful. Is there a certain cutoff of attentiveness to social cues where the social gain plateaus or declines? I also wonder if empathy is even a domain worth quantifying or possible to quantify.

    Patrick, it was really interesting to read about how having too much empathy can bias us towards making irrational decisions. Being able to connect well with others seems intuitively like a good thing, and before reading your post, I struggled to come up with examples where it would not be. However, the Make-a-Wish foundation case you brought up illuminated other examples in my mind where organizations, businesses, and campaigns will specifically target human empathy in order to influence their decision-making. For example, studies show that it is easier to empathize with one person or an identifiable victim, over a mass of victimized people.

  • Jonathan Yuan // Mar 7th 2022 at 8:00 pm

    Thank you, Tom and Patrick, for this amazing blog post!

    Tom, I really resonate with your experience from the first few weeks of school. I remember feeling really attentive and reading into social cues so much more during those first few weeks, and then slowly seeing people start to become less socially engaged as groups starting forming and relationships began to develop. I’m really curious about how that social pressure works and at what points it can be sated or not sated.

    Patrick, your story about your brother was really moving. I’ve had similar experiences with my sister, where we constantly are in tune with each other’s emotions and feel a lot of empathy for each other. I also really see your point about empathy perhaps allowing us to justify irrational choices. I wonder how the effect of individualization can be better utilized to encourage empathy with those who are different from us, and if that even has the same effect with other biases that we maintain.

    Thank you again!

  • Do Kim // Mar 7th 2022 at 8:02 pm

    Tom, thanks for providing your insight through this post! Your example of the first year of college being a time when the need to belong is heightened, making us become more attentive to social cues, felt so spot on and really resonated with me. You discuss that this “increased sense of empathy,” and the pressure of finding a friend group, led to some anxiety. This made me think about the point that was brought up in class about how empathy is so important for social connections, but if it were constant, it would be debilitating. What do you think the implications are of being in a situation like the first few weeks of college, where one is likely trying to make connections, and doing an increased amount of empathizing and being particularly attentive to social cues, for an extended period of time?

    Hi Patrick, thanks for sharing your thoughts on empathy, and the example you gave about how the results of your brother’s race made you feel seemed like such a great one. It was also interesting to hear about another side of empathy, where empathy as the guide to decision-making lead to some biases in our decision making. Your examples really reminded me of the discussion we had in class about how humans are rarely completely rational, and the ways that empathy can contribute to our divergence from complete “rationality.” In response to your last statement, I am curious about what you think realizing both the “positive and negative” outcomes of empathy will look like when it comes to helping people become “altruistic in a virtuous and unbiased way.” Given the things that your article has discussed about empathy, and our class discussion about altruism, what do you think altruism looks like without personal biases influencing our actions?

  • Mitchell Saron // Mar 7th 2022 at 8:19 pm

    Great blog post guys.

    Tom, I definitely relate to your description of freshman year. There was a huge pressure to form as many connections as possible in a short amount of time. I remember constantly getting concerned at the number of names I had forgotten even within an introductory conversation with a new person. Ironically, I think freshman year puts that pressure on all of us yet creates an environment that makes it impossible to form a lot of deep, long-lasting relationships because of how busy everyone is as an incoming student. Nevertheless, these social pressures were forcing my social habits to function at higher rates. I was constantly trying to determine the character of others and if they considered me to be a friend or just another person in their long list of forgotten names.

    Patrick, I thought your example with the Make-a-Wish foundation was extremely interesting. I took a class freshman year called Rationality that illustrated how groups of people would answer survey questions that asked them about sacrificing human life. The questions and answers were composed of saving a certain amount of human lives in certain situations. Despite that each question and answer involved saving the same magnitude of lives, the surveyed groups would answer differently depending on how the situation was illustrated in the survey. In particular, the different wording of each scenario and choice would involve or avoid playing with respondents’ empathy. As a result, sometimes participants would choose to save fewer lives depending on how the answers manipulated their emotions. Ultimately, it is fascinating and scary to see how our emotions can make us choose objectively incorrect decisions.

  • Nia Fernandes // Mar 7th 2022 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you Tom and Patrick! Great post!

    Tom, I really loved the emphasis you placed on how the emotions we try to emulate when we empathize are often the emotions someone does not outwardly express. When you cited the Pickett et al study, it reminded me about how attentive we need to be to these sometimes subliminal signals. I have found that a “signal communication” (?) barrier can often exist between cultures. Growing up with parents who were raised in a different country challenged my ability to empathize with them and hindered their ability to notice my own emotional needs. This never affected our closeness, but as I grew older, I started to connect this bridge not with lack of care or empathy, but with a difference in perspective. From intonation and accents to different cultural norms, like American slang, I have realized that interpersonal connection is dependent on effort. It is about choosing to care and pick up on another person’s quirk rather than give up because of cultural barriers.

    Patrick, your anecdote was relatable and touching. In the De Wall study, we learnt that empathy is often prompted by altruism, but this motivation can sometimes speak too much to virtue. For example, when we talked in class about what motivates us to help a homeless person, it was said that it can make ourselves feel better. The jury is still out on whether that counts as true altruism and also whether that even matters if it improves social utility within a community. I am curious what you all think on this topic! Happy to discuss more in class, especially in connection to the readings we had this past week!

  • Helena Jiang // Mar 7th 2022 at 10:29 pm

    Tom – thank you so much for such an insightful post; it’s so important to recognize how impactful being empathetic is, especially in a team dynamic. Thank you for telling your story about getting to know everyone on your team; I can definitely see how hard it can be, especially with having to get to know 30 different freshmen, and that isn’t even considering the rest of the team! Again, thank you so much for sharing your experience with Mike; something like that can be so hard to navigate through, and it’s so amazing to hear how one can learn so much from every path of life, whether similar or different.

    Patrick – you bring up an extremely interesting point, especially as empathy has such a positive connotation. Whenever empathy is brought up, the immediate thought process is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to sympathize with them and understand their thought processes further; it’s so intriguing that this can be taken almost immediately the opposite way, and actually influence negative decision making processes, overall providing a harmful effect as opposed to a beneficial effect. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with your brother, and thank you for providing this other side of empathy that is often times left in the dust when thinking about empathy as a whole.

    You two also bring up such a cool dichotomy of empathy, and it’s both so interesting and so important to recognize how the two sides of empathy work together to create this large overarching meaning.

  • Lake // Mar 7th 2022 at 10:56 pm

    Tom, I love your story with Mike – It is heartwarming and also very relatable for me. My best friend growing up has a younger sister, who just like Mike has high-functioning autism. Over the many years that I spent around her I have definitely developed a relationship with her that is brother-like. I quickly learned too, like you with Mike, that putting myself into her shoes and thinking of her feelings helped her and I have more meaningful conversations and interactions. This was seen especially when I went to Schlitterbahn (Water park in Texas) with their family. As she was young and struggled with communication, there were times she felt very anxious on a ride or the lazy river. Putting myself into her feelings and what she might be worried specifically about helped me provide assurance by specific explanation of her worry. This helped our relationship so much as she began to trust me more.

    Patrick, your point on Bloom’s statement that we have an underlying empathetic impulse is great. I love how you use this piece by Bloom and the counter (purchasing malaria nets thus saving more lives). I think it’s incredible that we are more inclined to publicize and donate rather than save more lives if given the opportunity; a prime example of non-altruistic behavior.

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank y’all for the post!

  • Maya Dubin // Mar 8th 2022 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you all for this insightful blog post on empathy.

    Tom –
    I too remember freshman year and the nerve-wracking times those first months trying to make connections. I think you made an insightful comment about how everyone is extremely attentive and engaged in individual conversations, perhaps more so than usual. I also enjoyed reading about your personal experience with Mike and how you were able to provide some insights on the way empathy works in someone with high-functioning autism.

    Patrick –
    I really enjoyed your opening segment about the emotional pain you felt for your brother. I also liked the points you highlighted from the readings such as the example of Sheri’s pain and how people moved her up in line when they IMAGINED her pain. Lastly, the point of making irrational choices, and drawing on the Make-a-Wish versus malaria nets example, is extremely relevant. I think the fact that we as humans are more “prone to be emotionally influenced into making irrational choices” is a reality that we do not always investigate but is a very true statement.

  • Julia Prior // Mar 8th 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Thank you both for this great post!

    Tom, I really enjoyed how you used the beginning of freshman year as an example of a time when the desire to belong and fit in is high, and therefore people are more attentive to social cues and may be more likely to empathize with others. As a senior, I’ve noticed that I may not pay as much attention to these small social cues that I would have before, likely because I am less concerned with fitting in to every new group of people I meet. Although this has helped me feel more comfortable in social settings, I wonder if it has limited the amount of healthy relationships I have been able to form, because as you mentioned, this increased sense of interpersonal competence and empathy promotes healthier relationships.

    Patrick, I enjoyed your perspective and examples on how empathy may not always be a good thing. Your example of replacing Sheri with a sibling or close friend would suggest that our feelings of empathy for those who we understand and are close with would likely lead to actions where we justify letting others suffer for the sake of those we empathize with. We value hearing the stories of others to allow us to empathize but upon learning these stories, we may make biased decisions. It is interesting predicament, as the human mind is limited in all the people we can know and perhaps empathize with, but there seems to be a certain amount of empathy required for altruistic action.

  • Spencer Carter // Mar 10th 2022 at 6:58 pm

    Tommy,

    I really enjoyed your piece. I can totally relate to the experience of having lots of conversations with new people freshman year in which I was very attentive to the other person’s body language, level of eye contact, tone of voice, and other cues as I tried to determine whether they were actually interested in talking to me or not. During this period of time, I think that many of us feel quite socially vulnerable and so our brains work extremely hard to gain as much information as possible about the people around us. Although the ability to pick up on and interpret tons of small social cues may have left me feeling a bit overwhelmed during freshman year, it sounds like you utilized these tools for a good purpose with Mike. I hope that your relationship with him continues to grow stronger.

    Patrick,

    Really well done. Your piece did such a good job of portraying the tension that exists between the benefits and drawbacks of empathy. Much like our class discussion last week, your piece was a good reminder that we should think critically about who we tend to feel empathy toward and what is making us feel that sense of empathy. Oftentimes, engaging in that thought process will help us recognize our biases and potentially change our behavior for the better.

  • Patrick Walsh // Mar 22nd 2022 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks Tom for your very insightful post. I really liked how you talked about perspective taking when trying to make new friends within your class at school and also with your girlfriend’s brother. I can definitely relate to your experiences during freshman year orientation as I think most of us went through the same thing without even realizing it. When I first arrived on campus every single conversation I had with someone new felt like a chore, trying to figure them out and trying to figure out if they had any genuine interest in speaking with me. After a few weeks as I started to mold out a friend group this process seemed to become much easier as I was coming into contact with people of similar backgrounds and interests. This made it much easier to talk to people and know what they were thinking when I was speaking to them.

    Patrick, thank you for your post, I really enjoyed reading it. The experience you shared about your brother at his track meet really resonates with me as I felt the same thing in high school when my brother lost his baseball game in the “Super 8” tournament. This is an all-state tournament hosted for the top 8 teams within the state. They were playing the number one team in the state and they were down by one with two outs and my brother was up to bat. He had an opportunity to tie the game up, but instead he stuck out and was completely destroyed on the way home. As you had mentioned in your situation, I was at a loss for words and didn’t know how to console him and ended up just feeling sad myself even though this game had no real effect on me. I believe it is interesting how extreme emotions from people closest to us can develop in us as well even if we had nothing to do with the situation. For example being extremely sad when someone else is grieving or being extremely happy if one of our loved ones is overjoyed.

  • Michael Pankowski // Apr 12th 2022 at 11:21 pm

    Thanks for your post, Tom and Patrick! Tom, I definitely agree that freshman year was a stressful time for making friends. I feel the same way about how you said you paid a lot of attention those days to people’s response when you were talking to them to see if they were interested in what you were saying — I felt the same way. I’m sure there’s some happy medium between not caring at all if the other person is interested, and caring far too much. Interesting post! And Patrick, you bring up some interesting points of where empathy’s benefit can be limited — when sometimes our empathy clashes with what we know logically. I wonder if many people know how often empathy is weaponized against us, and if they did, how people would possibly change their behavior. Great post!

  • Arlo Sims // May 5th 2022 at 12:40 am

    Hi Tom, great post. In regards to Pickett’s finding about having more empathy in social situations where you want to belong, I started thinking about how I might be more attentive or notice social clues in certain settings more than others. If I’m talking to someone I have a crush on, I generally have a much higher level of this attentiveness, versus if I’m talking to a random acquaintance at school. This makes me think about whether this is a problem. Should I try to maintain the same level of attentiveness and focus in every interaction? Or is it ok to sometimes be more engaged with certain people than others. Sometimes I get annoyed at myself because I think that maybe I’m coming across as not very interested in talking to someone when I genuinely want to talk to them.
    Your discussion of empathy made me think about how I experience empathy when I’m with someone versus not with someone. I think in general I’m much better at an immediate sense of empathy; understanding how a person is that I’m right next to. With empathy towards someone I’m not next to, I feel like I have to work a little harder to really understand how that person is feeling.

  • Esther Xiang // May 14th 2022 at 9:57 pm

    Tom and Patrick! Thank you so much for your blog post! Despite the global connectedness of society today, there is a disconnect. People have stopped empathizing. People have stopped caring. The greatest challenge is looking past our perspectives to develop a greater sense of empathy. This post made me think about Jamil Zaki’s “The War for Kindness,” where he explores the importance of empathy by looking at political divides, education, healthcare, and the internet. While describing empathy’s role and its lack in our world today, he ultimately shows us how it can be learned as a skill. Along the way, he unpacks his argument by sharing stories from important contexts, such as a former neo-Nazi moving past his hatred and nurses finetuning their empathy to not burnout.
    Empathy is described as the ability to share and understand what others are feeling and experiencing. Zaki describes empathy’s most crucial role as inspiring kindness. Maybe we’re not doomed after all. While empathy is what makes us human, research shows that it is on the decline. Despite this, there is a wide range of research showing how empathy is like a muscle where some experiences allow our empathy to atrophy or grow. It is a skill we can build upon through courage and reflection. Our experiences show how much we empathize. I am still hopeful for the future. One thing I was thinking more about while reading this post is how sometimes people ignore empathy’s problem as a solution to oppression. This problem is that the approach requires the oppressed to teach oppressors about their oppression. Marginalized groups are living in oppression. They are also not obligated to be there guiding others on this journey. It puts undue emotional labor on these individuals. I believe that we need to stop asking for the emotional labor from those who are simply trying to make it day after day. While some people benefit from turning up their empathy, some may take on everyone else’s feelings all the time. In this case, there are potential negative implications of empathy. At times, we could always use more empathy; however, too much may be debilitating.

Leave a Comment