Psychology of Social Connection

To Empathize, or Not to Empathize

March 4th, 2022 · 23 Comments

Andrea: Friends

“fyi i know we got lunch yesterday so i wanted to lyk [let you know] i tested positive today”

“Did y’all know [friend] tested positive too?”

“yoooo it finally happened i tested positive too :/”

In the last week, as COVID cases around Harvard rise, the texts I receive directly or in group chats with friends have looked like some variation of the above. Yet after an initial expression of concern, it seems that getting sick has become a bonding moment, a shared experience as my sick friends make their own group chats (with names such as “covid cuties”)  and talk about what they’re up to in quarantine. In times of stress, it is fascinating how “suffering together” can actually inspire joy amongst friends—a phenomenon we have thanks to empathy.

When we think of empathy, the first thing that often comes to mind is an elementary-school definition of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. As simple as this is, however, it provides a helpful heuristic on what it actually refers to: “the capacity to be (a) affected by the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective” (De Waal, 2008). While this may sound complicated, the underlying idea is the same—we empathize when we consider the situations those around us are facing and feel the same emotional impact that they do.

Thinking back to our lecture that broke down empathy into mentalization, imitation, and origin monitoring, it’s likely to no one’s surprise that empathy seems much easier to practice when it’s with our friends. After all, these are people we want to like anyway, and by that logic, that would entail we try our best to engage in these sorts of pro-social behavior. Mentalizing comes much easier when we have an idea of how our friends think, or what they think about, and imitation is more natural given that it is also more practiced with the friends we spend time with.

It is interesting to note, then, that when it comes to our friends, it may seem like we’re already “in”—but it is the times when we feel left out that our empathy-attuned behavior shines through. This pattern is remarkable in the context of friends: given that these are people you care about, you have a point of contrast for what being “in” the group shouldn’t feel like. Motivated by this, you’d have a higher desire for social connection, and this is exactly what is shown in the studies by Pickett et al. (2004): one key finding was that individual differences in the need to belong was positively correlated with accuracy in detecting vocal tone and facial emotion, both of which are critical for understanding other human beings and thus establishing a real bond.

Students at Harvard can unite over many shared experiences: the stress of blocking and nerves of Housing Day, the joy of winning at Harvard-Yale, the sadness when we were asked to leave campus in March 2020. It is with our friends in particular, however, that we want to put in the extra effort to figure out what they are feeling and then in turn, feel with them. It is part of our natural instinct to preserve these relationships and our sense of belonging within social groups. More personally, it is thanks to empathic friends that I always have someone to celebrate with, rant to, or cry on their shoulder. Empathy makes friendship a truly beautiful thing.

Georgia: Strangers

While it may seem natural that we have an abundance of empathy for our friends and even readily meet acquaintances with empathy, how do strangers fit in?

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine still raging, many of us have been feeling deep empathy for Ukrainians watching their homes burnt to the ground, family members go off to battle, and loved ones flee their nation. Seeing videos and reading articles about devastation thousands of miles away from us makes us feel deep sorrow, pain, or even anger on behalf of Ukrainians. But, while it certainly serves us to feel empathy for those close to us, with whom we feel a stronger need to belong and interact with regularly (Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles, 2004), why should we feel this way towards total strangers? Moreover, some research indicates that we may have developed a mechanism for schadenfreude, a feeling of pleasure in the misfortunes of others, particularly when they are a member of a rival-outgroup (Cikara, Botvinick, & Fiske, 2011).

De Waal (2008) argues that this form of empathy may be the evolutionary mechanism for altruism, a selfless concern for others and their well-being. Intuitively, this makes sense. For us to be able to work together in larger groups, we need to be able to cooperate with people who we might not know well, and empathy serves as a bridge allowing us to better understand others. Even today, empathizing with people you will never meet helps inspire donations to hurricane relief, humanitarian aid, and food pantry donations, collective efforts that help make our society better by uplifting people that could not be accomplished without empathy motivating individual actions. Moreover, we do not expect these acts of goodwill to ever directly benefit us. 

But if it serves humankind to feel empathy for strangers then why don’t we feel empathetic all the time? For one, we have a finite amount of cognitive resources, and feeling empathetic for each starving child in the world all the time would absolutely overwhelm us to the extent that we would never be able to get anything done. Thus, we often protect ourselves from those overwhelmingly negative feelings by either refusing to engage with bad news behalling other people altogether (much like closing your eyes when someone’s about to be stabbed in a movie) or even by engaging in dehumanization. And as the number of people a tragedy affects gets larger, the amount of empathy we have for the people affected dwindles. It doesn’t make us horrible people to not be downtrodden about all the horrible things going on around the world all the time, it’s just our way of protecting ourselves from a kind of empathy burnout. 

Politicians and journalists surely know this, which is why they bring our attention to individuals rather than statistics. Presented with the story of one Californian who lost everything in the wildfires last year we may be inspired to donate or feel compelled to lobby for better preventative measures. Presented with massive statistics, we’ll often change the channel.

Julia: Fictional characters

Can we feel empathy for fictional characters? I recall a time quite recently where I decided to watch the newest version of Little Women on a flight and upon reaching a certain scene in the film (I won’t give any spoilers) had to control the urge to sob, but nonetheless I was crying. After getting some concerned looks from the stranger next to me, I tried to remind myself that it was just a movie, however I could not help but feel the loss that all these fictional characters were feeling. This example and the countless other times I have felt embarrassed for a character in a TV show or felt happy for a character in a book have made me curious about whether these instances are examples of empathy.

Despite fictional characters essentially being made up strangers with no relation to us, we perceive these characters to be real human beings and likely can still experience their state as our own. Zaki (2014) breaks down the components of empathy into: experience sharing which can describe our tendency to take on the affective state of another, mentalizing which describes our ability to infer how another person would think or feel in a certain situation, and mind perception. If we can “turn up” or “turn down” these empathetic processes, we may be more inclined to mentalize while watching a film or reading a book because we want to understand the internal state of the characters (Zaki, 2014). We discuss our ability to empathize with others and whether or not this is something we have control over. De Waal (2008) suggests that humans have such little control over empathic activation, and that is why one would shut their eyes during a movie when you anticipate that something bad is about to happen. We do not want to feel the terror that character is feeling, despite knowing that it is a fictional depiction.

In this week’s lecturette, we learned that social group membership is a reason we may be motivated to feel more or less empathy for an individual. The intergroup empathy bias would suggest that we would empathize more with in-group members compared to out-group members (Cikara et al., 2o14). In a fictional world there still remain in-groups and out-groups. One may be more likely to empathize with a character that they share similarities with. Think of the most hated evil characters, like Joffrey from Game of Thrones or Voldemort from Harry Potter. Those are characters that we are likely to perceive as out-group and we typically experience pleasure from their pain. However, some villains become more complex when writers attempt to humanize these characters by giving backstory to explain where their actions and beliefs come from. It seems that writers have the power to decide who the audience will empathize with by the amount that you are able to mentalize a character and the amount of emotion sharing a character portrays, in addition to whether this character is considered in-group or out-group.

Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool to unite us with friends, strangers, and even fictional characters. It motivates us to contribute to the common good and inspires us to treat others with more kindness than we otherwise might. However, empathy is not ubiquitous, as wonderfully automatic as it may be our minds often protect us from fully empathizing with everyone else. It’s up to us to tread the line between too much empathy and not enough as we try to be the best versions of ourselves we can.



Cikara, M., Botvinick, M. M., & Fiske, S. T. (2011). Us versus them: Social identity shapes neural responses to intergroup competition and harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306-313.

Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., Van Bavel, J. J., & Saxe, R. (2014). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 110–125. 

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

Gerwig, G., et al. (2020). Little women. [Blu-ray edition] Culver City, California: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Martin, George R. R. (1996). A game of thrones. New York :Bantam Books.

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.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone. Scholastic.

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


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23 responses so far ↓

  • Patrick S // Mar 5th 2022 at 10:08 am

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I loved the perspective of explaining empathy through “friends”, “strangers”, and “fictional characters”, as I thought that it offered a unique way of examining the multifacetedness of empathy. Andrea, you did a beautiful job of explaining how empathy plays a role in forming and maintaining the close relationships we have with friends. Contrastingly, I loved the perspective that Georgia took in showing how in some cases, we are able to feel lots of empathy, even for those who we do not know. You also highlighted how empathy works better on an individual level rather than a statistical level. If we are to move towards becoming a more altruistic society, I think that this is a good thing to understand about empathy. Finally, I loved the final view on fictional characters, as it showed how our ability to develop an emotional connection to characters in stories almost cements empathy as an instinctual muscle.

  • Summer Cai // Mar 6th 2022 at 12:58 am

    Andrea, Georgia and Julia, thank you all for an amazing post! You brought up really interesting points about our empathy (or lack of it) with friends, strangers and fictional characters.

    Andrea, I like your point that we seem to empathize more with friends both because we want to (they are the people we want to like) and are more capable to mentalize with (we know how they think). I think a lot of times the effect we put into empathizing really makes a difference (yet, this is often overlooked).

    Georgia, I really liked your discussion about the evolutionary significance of empathy. In a sense, we needed to emphasize with other people so we can work with them better. I wonder if this need to emphasize is also related to whether we see them as potential friends, acquaintances, teammates? In past weeks, we read about how social connection enables dehumanization. By extension, we might also expect social connections and being “an insider” to diminish empathy for strangers.

    Julia, I really liked your point about how “in-groups” and “out-groups” also exist in fiction. I agree that much of this group division can be influenced by how the author chooses to portray their characters. Yet, I believe we also bring part of ourselves when we decide who we see as “in-group”. When I was reading HP, I, like many people, identified with Hermione (she’s a main character and smart!), but I also found myself identifying with Cho Chang because she’s one of the few characters that looks like me (an East Asian girl). Also, some times fans would identify with a character the author never intended them to empathize with: for example, JK Rowling said she never expected so many people to like Draco Malfoy (perhaps many of us can empathize with the confused “dark” phase in teenage years?)

  • Sierra Agarwal // Mar 6th 2022 at 2:48 pm

    Andrea, Georgia and Julia, this is a great post!

    Andrea, your points about empathy in relation to friendship really put into perspective how much of an impact is has. Specifically, I really enjoyed reading your point about how feelings of being in versus out with friends can affect empathy and how it is demonstrated. One question I have for you is what are your thoughts on the duration of a friendship and how it relates to empathy levels? I have been thinking about this a lot in the sense that are friendships that have been established for a longer period of time more likely to cause someone to have higher empathy levels, and vice versa?

    Georgia, I like your point about how feeling empathy for strangers constantly is limited by the number of cognitive resources we hold and “empathy burnout.” I have never thought about empathy in this perspective, but it made me think about how trying to connect on an empathic level with individuals of all ages and in multiple different scenarios of life would almost leave me feeling disconnected because I would be consumed with trying to fix everything that is wrong and so I would be doing nothing that is right.

    Julia, your perspective about empathy in relation to fictional characters was such a unique idea! This had me thinking about all of the times when I become attached to certain characters of TV shows or movies that everything that affects them affects me.

  • Kara Xie // Mar 6th 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Andrea, Julia, Georgia- this is an awesome post that draws in a bunch of diverse examples of empathy in real life and fiction.

    Andrea: I loved the point about how the feeling of being left out is when our empathy attuned behavior shines through, especially in the context of friends- you have a point of contrast for what being “in” the group shouldn’t feel like. This was similar to the mimicry paper about social connection and how the desire for connection enhances mimicry. The COVID texts were so relatable – as we see undergraduate cases soar to 40+ every single day. I think we students at this university, we have so many shared experiences that it makes it easier to empathize with each other and I hope that gives way to a kinder campus community.

    Georgia: You highlighted such a big case of empathy now with Ukraine and the example you gave about being empathetic all the time depleting our finite resources of ability is so true. It reminds me of the lecturette with the quote “One death is a tragedy, more is a statistic” or something along the lines of that. Focusing in on victim gives them more attention/funding/resources whereas a bigger group can sometimes be overwhelming on where to even begin to help. Being more empathetic towards groups and large numbers of people being targeted today is crucial and I hope this quote about tragedy/statistic gets disproven in the coming days by more and more people empathizing for Ukrainians.

    Julia: Your analysis of empathy with fictional characters is such an interesting topic! Sometimes when I watch shows and I find myself empathizing with a villain, I feel like it creates cognitive dissonance. They are doing evil things but the circumstances of their upbringing or life are the cause (which does not justify evil things but does give a feeling of empathy to the viewers). This somewhat translates to villains in real life. How much slack do we cut a criminal depending on if they suffer from mental illness, had a rough upbringing, come from abuse, etc? How do we quantify these levels of empathy? Do we even go easier on them if the crime they commit was bad in the first place? So much fruitful discussion to be had on this.

  • Iris // Mar 6th 2022 at 9:52 pm

    Thank you guys so much for such a thoughtful post! I’m especially intrigued by Julia’s discussion of fictional characters—I already wrote about empathy & art on Summer’s blog post (thanks Summer!), and I think it’s an extra interesting sub-category of empathy at large. I cried at the “Little Women” movie too, Julia. Greta Gerwig is so talented. But I wonder if the same forces are at work while, say, relating to a close friend and sobbing alongside a fictional character. When you empathize with fictional characters, you’re mentalizing something that isn’t a mind. We talked about our capacity to humanize/anthropomorphize in mind perception week… but, like, couldn’t you construe our willingness to project onto anything as kind of damning for the whole “empathy is related to compassion” thing? The idea of projection-as-empathy admits the extent to which we’re guessing what other people are thinking, often based on our own needs. In fiction, those characters’ thoughts aren’t real outside the page. Characters don’t actually have emotions. Why did I cry at “Little Women”? In no small part because, on some level, I was thinking about myself. Paul Bloom has a point that this type of projecting isn’t a particularly good basis for compassion. But I’m also not convinced, as a starting premise, that reacting to art and empathizing with a real person are the same experience.

    Anyway! Thank you all so much for your time and care with this post—it was fascinating!

  • Orion // Mar 7th 2022 at 11:43 am

    Hello Andrea, Julia, and Georgia,

    Thank you so much for this engaging post! Like others here, I really enjoyed the creative perspective of addressing empathy from the lens of friends, strangers, and fictional characters. This certainly had me thinking of the times that each one of these kinds of people (or characters) have tugged on my heart strings.

    Andrea, I certainly know what you mean about empathy and shared struggle being sometimes key in forming strong bonds and friendships. I too watched several of my friends test-positive this week, and I noticed that my empathy was triggered in a few ways – in thinking that I was feeling ill myself after reading groupchat messages about fevers and body aches, and in feeling a compassionate squeeze for my friends who had to miss events they were looking forward to but could not attend due to being in isolation. I also noticed, though, that I found myself struggling to empathize at points, and perhaps even downright envious of the covid bonding you described watching some people be able to bond so closely over this – which sounds horrible! I am of course very grateful I did not get sick – but as you elude to in your post the need to belong can lead to interesting heightened or maybe even misdirected heightened awareness sometimes.

    Julia, I very much resonated with your thoughts about empathy and the situation in Ukraine. I find myself compulsively listening to the news this week and last when I had admittedly not been keeping up with the news before. I am very glad to hear stories of people from all over the world lending a hand, and I once again feel that compassionate squeeze for the stories of the people going through this atrocity, and I also find myself wondering what it is about this situation that has gotten my attention when there are times when other countries are invaded and I do not have this massive emotional response. Is it because Ukraine is a western country? I hope not. I would hope that I would give this attention to everyone in this situation, but unfortunately I am not sure that has been the case.

    Georgia, I too have cried on airplanes before over fictional characters! Perhaps there is something about trying to suppress that response that can make it more intense. Of course I think there are likely other factors that allow us to empathize with some characters more than others. I find that I seek out these narratives and would prefer to be immersed in this way, even if it means feeling grief or sadness, which suggests to me that there might be something enjoyable about empathy, even when it is with someone experiencing grief. What do you think?

    Thank you all again for these wonderful posts!

  • Jessica Lee // Mar 7th 2022 at 5:19 pm

    Andrea, I related a lot to the example you brought up about empathizing over COVID. I’ve also been a part of a “COVID gang” group chat, and even renamed my best friend’s contact to “COVID sister.” I never thought of friendships as a relationship where one is more motivated to achieve social connection compared to other relationships, but it makes a lot of sense in the way you put it. Given how adverse we are to not belonging and not having strong social connections, of course our friendships are some of the relationships that we would put the most effort in to maintain and exhibit empathy.

    Georgia, one question I had after reading your section on strangers is whether or not empathy is truly a “selfless concern for others and their well-being” if it is driven by an evolutionary drive. It seems that oftentimes, evolutionary mechanisms ultimately work to benefit the individual (e.g. cooperating with others so that they might help you back with support or resources). So, I’m wondering whether or not evolutionary mechanisms can be truly selfless and represent pure altruism?

    Julia, I resonated with your experience empathizing with literary characters a lot. Whether in books or movies, I find myself often connecting with specific characters and feeling emotions alongside them in the narrative. Authors and narrators of any. kind have so much power in dictating who we do and don’t feel empathy for. Even in our daily lives, the way we tell stories to our friends and families can also humanize those in the in-group and dehumanize those in the out-group

  • Jonathan Yuan // Mar 7th 2022 at 7:48 pm

    Andrea, Georgia, and Julia, thank you for a great blog post!

    Andrea, I find what you say about empathy within friendships to be really relatable. I find that similarity really is one of the biggest things that allows for greater empathy and compassion for others, and friendships are a perfect example of how that is the case. I also like what you say about how knowing what it feels like to be left out makes us want to include others more when we are close to them. That really allows us to form strong connections and look out for each other in a way that pure sympathy could not.

    Georgia, I find what you say about empathy burnout to be really compelling. We’ve discussed the difference between an individual and a statistic many times in this class thus far, but it still is sometimes surprising how larger groups make mentalizing and humanizing more strenuous and difficult. I think that ties into the whole discussion about whether the bias in empathy should play a role in complex decision making and policy in our world, which I still am not completely certain about.

    Julia, your perspective on empathy with fictional characters is really interesting. I think it’s really interesting because in a movie, building up a character always makes us more understanding and empathetic towards them, particularly if they face difficult situations or environments that we ourselves are familiar with. I wonder if using those same techniques in the real world would help alleviate some of the difficulty we have in empathy in our lives too!

    Thank you all again!

  • Lake // Mar 7th 2022 at 8:48 pm

    Thank y’all for this great post.

    Andrea, I found it very interesting that when you mention how we have a point of contrast for what being “in” the group shouldn’t feel like. I definitely see this now that you brought it to our attention. I liked how you emphasized empathizing more with friends because they are people we want to like. Having empathetic friends definitely makes friendship an awesome thing!!

    Georgia, I love how you brought up De Waal and empathy being the evolutionary mechanism for altruism. The first thing that popped into my head when reading about working in large groups was this amazing video of altruism I saw on instagram. A lady from the top of the stadium stair case dropped her hat to which someone near the bottom floor caught it. Next and unexpectedly, everyone began to work together – tossing the hat up one floor at a time to the next person until it reached the owner. I haven’t seen this ever happen and was truly shook with a smile on my face of the capabilities we are able to achieve when we work together with those we do not even know. Additionally, your point on protecting ourselves from a kind of empathy burnout is such a fantastic way to put it.

    Julia, how you bring attention to fictional characters and empathy is eye opening. I couldn’t have related more when I watched Marley & Me / A Star is Born. Both of these had me pouring tears out, especially Marley & Me. Although it was based on a true story – I found myself empathizing for Marley’s family and would have regardless of it being based on a true story. On the other hand, scary murder movies where the main character is getting chased/hunted (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween) and has to make all these ‘game-time’ decisions is where I tend to yell out things like “No, don’t go left – oh my goshhhh *goes silent*” or “WHY would you do that?” or “RUN!!!” lol. Would like to hear if you experience(d) similar reactions!

  • Nia Fernandes // Mar 7th 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Great post Andrea, Georgia, and Julia. Love how you guys divided it by empathy with different groups of people.

    Andrea, I LOVED your covid example! This is such a great way to think about how we try to practice empathy in our everyday lives, even when we don’t realize it. The De Waal example seems very relevant here because while we try to imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes when we may be positive, we feel quite different. Some people feel more guilty while some feel less. Your example made me think about how the level of empathy we choose to express to those around us is often more out of our control than we think. This is why mentalizing can help use anticipate our involuntary emotions because of the familiarity we have with our friends and how they would react in social-stressor situations.

    Georgia, the Ukrainian example was touching and helped me conceptualize how strong human empathy can be to strangers. Seeing videos of strangers on our phone can evoke the same level of empathy and sadness to what we may feel if it was happening in our own country. De Waal says this reaction is due to altruism from an evolutionary perspective, but I liked how you questioned this claim. I wonder why we are not overflowing with empathy at all times with the amount of suffering going on in the world? How are our brains able to compartmentalize when we should feel empathy towards strangers and when we shouldn’t? Does our reaction go down if the hardship is more common or has been exposed to us at an earlier age?

    Julia, super cool perspective on fictional characters. It made me think whether our ability to empathize with such characters increases or decreases based on the level at which we are able to relate to such a character. For example, do we express higher levels of empathy when we watch a college student struggling in a movie compared to an alien struggling on a foreign planet?

    Would love to hear everyone else’s opinions!

  • Olivia Zhang // Mar 7th 2022 at 9:48 pm

    Andrea, Georgia, Julia, you all touched on some powerful points, which had an even stronger impact as they flowed naturally through the insightful friends-strangers-fictional characters framework.

    Andrea, your concluding sentence is stunning. “Empathy makes friendship a truly beautiful thing.” It really does, doesn’t it? Indeed, with friends in particular we want to put in that extra effort, and that effort pays off remarkably and beautifully. I want to remember this facet of friendship and treasure it every day.

    Georgia, your poignant nod to to the role and impact of political agendas on fundamental human nature – e.g. our biological and social ability to empathize is so apt and has important implications. What is the interplay between our own biologies and psychologies with greater societal dynamics and structures? What are problems that arise and how do any of these answer affect real actions for change?

    Julia, your dive into considering our emotional connections with fictional characters, as well as your succinct summary of the blog post tying key ideas together, made for an insightful and inspiring read. I fully relate to feeling strong emotions while watching movies and experiencing other fictional stories. It’s crazy to me how sometimes I can empathize more strongly with a fictional character than real people. I enjoyed reading your exploration of this topic through your own perspective as well as the research we discussed in class.

    ~ Olivia

  • Helena Jiang // Mar 7th 2022 at 10:28 pm

    Andrea – I definitely feel you with the COVID cases, and to expand on the point you brought up, it’s so incredibly interesting to see how the COVID pandemic as a whole has brought people together, as you see people hand in hand working together to get through these troubling times, and it’s so interesting to see the micro effects person by person, even on the Harvard campus. It’s also interesting to see how this has driven people apart.

    Georgia – It’s so interesting to hear about the other side of empathy, one that you don’t typically think of when you hear the word empathy. It’s also so incredibly relevant to tie in what is going on in Ukraine; empathy is so important when it comes to addressing and solving issues like these. I like how you consider every aspect of empathy in strangers, whether it’s the fact that it is so incredibly important and beneficial, or that it unfortunately is a limited resource that we as humans have to navigate through allocating.

    Julia – What you mention is so true, and I like how you applied it to the real world; the exercise that we did in class individually showed directly how each and every one of us perceive characters, even shapes, as real human beings that are able to move, speak, and feel emotions. This is so relevant in the real world, whether it’s doing the same with strangers and fictional characters, or empathizing with group members. It’s also so interesting to delve into why there exists stories and movies that display the perspective of the villain, and how that truly humanizes them.

    Each and every one of you bring up such an important point and a different aspect of empathy, showing that it is ultimately something that can be applied to any individual or situation.

  • Maya Dubin // Mar 8th 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Andrea –
    I really liked your breakdown of the definition of empathy concluding with – “we empathize when we consider the situations those around us are facing and feel the same emotional impact that they do.” Your blurb was laid out very nicely and I thought you drew on many key concepts from class and the readings – beginning with defining empathy.

    Georgia –
    I thought the way you tied in what is going on in the world right now with Ukraine and emphasizing the tragic moment we are currently living through was very well done. While many of us feel a great sense of empathy towards the citizens of Ukraine in this moment in time, we do not always exude the same type of emotional connection and bond. The point of us having a finite amount of cognitive resources and us protecting ourselves from a kind of empathy burnout is so critical to fully understanding how we as humans operate and care for others.

    Julia –
    Building off of Georgia’s point on our empathy burnout. Julia highlighted some of the ways in which we can either “turn up” or “turn down” our empathetic processes. Specifically, one way we may turn up these processes is with a character who we want to know more about their internal state. The turn up and turn down process that you outlined gave me a much clearer picture of the ways in which empathy can be a fluid process.

  • Anthony Nelson // Mar 9th 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Andrea, I loved the points in your post about empathy between in and out groups of friends. It was very insightful to see how empathy plays a crucial role in creating and then bolstering already formed relationships. Georgia I was interested in the point you made about empathy burnout when presenting the point about trying to be empathetic to strangers as much as possible. This reminds me of the idea of statistics taking away from the gravity of death and suffering. This is because if one tries to give 100% empathy for all people then sooner or later you will be burnt out and become somewhat jaded to things because you have nothing left to give. Julia, I liked your point when referring to fictional characters and the empathy we feel for them, especially in shows we grow attached to.

  • Spencer Carter // Mar 10th 2022 at 8:08 pm


    Your post did a great job of breaking down empathy into its component parts and demonstrating how friends on campus experience empathy for each other. One part of your post that I found especially illuminating was your comment that with our friends, we have an inherent sense for what belonging shouldn’t feel like. That’s so true and definitely something I’ll keep in mind when things feel off with my friends.


    Your piece was very compelling. As you mentioned, the idea that empathy was the evolutionary mechanism that allowed altruism to develop makes a lot of sense intuitively. It also helps to resolve confusion I’ve always had about how a trait like altruism, which confers no survival or reproductive advantage to an individual, could evolve. But if empathy, which likely does benefit individuals by situating them in more reciprocally beneficial relationships and groups, is what was being selected for by natural selection, it makes sense that altruism could develop as a by-product of that process.


    I really liked your piece — I thought it was great that you brought fictional characters into the conversation about empathy because there are certain characters that most of us can relate to either hating or loving. When you brought up Harry Potter, it reminded me of a very relevant quote from David Yates, the director of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. When describing his directorial goals for Draco Malfoy’s character (who was typically a villain) in the movie, Yates said something to the effect of his goal was to humanize Malfoy enough that the audience could feel even 1% of empathy for Malfoy and the difficult situations he’d been put into by his family. Just as you described, Yates accomplished this by giving Malfoy more backstory and portraying how difficult his life had been in certain ways.

  • Do Kim // Apr 9th 2022 at 4:12 pm

    Andrea, Georgia, and Julia, thanks so much for this interesting post! Julia, I totally related to your anecdote about Little Women. While I would not characterize myself as someone who cries often, it is not rare to find me crying over a book, so I am also accustomed to the concerned looks from friends and family when they find me crying, but for me, it is often while reading. Your point about the control the author has in how much we mentalize an evil/bad character through the backstory/details about the character was so great! I had never thought about these dynamics in the context of mind perception, but it actually seems like such a great way to explain the process. I think this process, of humanizing character according to what the author tells us about them and their backstory, makes me wonder what this could mean in the context of people, instead of fictional characters. Do you think that given enough back story or information about someone’s motivations, any person could be humanized and empathized with to the same extent that we could with a character that is a “villain” or member of the “out-group?” What do you think the differences would be?

  • Michael Pankowski // Apr 12th 2022 at 11:31 pm

    Thank you for your insightful post, Andrea, Georgia, and Julia. Andrea, I really liked what you said about how people can get some good out of a clearly bad moment (like getting Covid) when others are in the same boat and thus can empathize. I think that’s so important for bouncing back after something bad happens — having others that may have gone through similar things and can empathize and provide support. And even if they haven’t gone through something too similar, still being able to empathize and build us back up. And Georgia, I think it’s interesting how you bring up how we can’t possibly help everyone we have empathy for, with all the bad things that happen every day in the world. I think this is one part of why social media has such a negative effect on us — we are exposed to all of the bad things that happen in the world, in rapid-fire succession, every single day. This definitely takes a toll on people’s empathy. And Julia, I find it interesting how we can feel great empathy for fictional characters, and yet sometimes we struggle to feel empathy for real people. I think this is because in movies and TV shows we get an up-close view of a person and everything they go through, and so it’s easy to feel like we “know” them. While with strangers, we may know little about their story. Thank you all for your post!

  • Stephanie // Apr 18th 2022 at 4:51 pm

    Andrea, Georgia and Julia- great blog post!!

    Andrea- I loved how you talked about how much empathy can affect and strengthen a relationship. It was a great reminder of how important empathy is in friendships and how much they can bond and make people feel happier.

    Georgia- I thought it was super interesting how you brought up how we do not empathize with absolutely everybody because that would just be too much. You brought up how sometimes we block out the bad news and how news sources target the individuals instead of the statistic to target our empathetic sides. I thought that was super interesting because the way that we hear a certain narrative can change how we perceive it.

  • Sofie Fella // Apr 19th 2022 at 3:39 pm

    Great blog post!

    Julia – I loved your part about feeling empathy for fictional characters because this has come up a lot for me. I’ve had experiences the same as you where I just feel so in tune with someone else’s pain and so when an actor/character is crying, I start crying immediately as well. I remember when I watched “A Star is Born,” I truly bawled my eyes out because it felt like I was feeling the character’s heartache. I remember I was able to empathize with this movie character by thinking about what if I lost someone the same way she did (sorry! spoiler). This was the most literal way I “put myself in someone’s shoes” and shows that even when its a movie and a fictional character, we are able to take our own relationships and experiences to be able to empathize.

    I feel like the majority of human beings have this skill of empathy because it is a connection tool. At the end of the day, it’s a very lonely experience being a person in this world and we feel happy and connected when we have shared experiences. Being empathetic isn’t exactly sharing an experience with someone but putting yourself in their shoes and imagining what they’re going through as your own experience definitely still contributes to connection and helps us feel slightly less alone.

  • Patrick Walsh // May 1st 2022 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you Andrea, Georgia, and Julia for your post. I found it very interesting to read about how people can empathize with others in different situations. I personally find it easiest to empathize with the people closest to me, especially on the smaller stuff. This may be in part because we have very similar life experiences so I better understand what they are dealing with and how it actually affects them. Julia, I also found your post about empathizing with fictional characters very interesting. Your points about the “in groups” and “out groups” make a lot of sense when trying to figure out why we empathize with fictional characters. This makes me wonder to what extent are people able to empathize with non-human animals, such as dogs or cats?

  • Arlo Sims // May 5th 2022 at 4:48 pm

    Georgia! Your writing about strangers made me think about feeling empathy for strangers in various contexts. It is interesting to think about how the amount of context you have on a stranger’s experience largely determines the empathy that you feel. For example if you are told that someone far away just lost they mother and have no home, you would probably feel a degree of empathy for that person. Yet if you were sitting next to them, witnessing their emotions directly in front of you, you would of course feel much more empathy. The question I’m curious about is should the goal be to practice empathy to the point where you’re able to feel a similar degree of empathy depending on the closeness to the situation? With altruism, the goal seems to be this. Is the way to work towards this to imagine the context in a deeper way in our heads? It is hard to know the right approach to this.

  • Esther Xiang // May 14th 2022 at 4:48 pm

    Thank you so much, Andrea, Georgia, and Julia, for such a lovely post! @Julia, I wanted to touch a bit more about what you wrote about fictional characters! Personally, I’m fascinated by experience-taking and how we subconsciously adopt our favorite characters’ features, attitudes, and behaviors. Our favorites (problematic or not) are frequently those with which we closely identify. I remember reading about a past study about how participants have a harder time with “perspective-taking” when in front of a mirror, most likely because they were continually reminded of their own self-concept. As a result, “experience-taking” can only occur when a person is able to repress their own identity and “lose themselves” in a book or film. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is more “perspective-taking,” as we discussed previously, is not the same as “experience-taking.” I can relate so deeply to your experiences about crying while watching Little Women.

    The act of taking on experience, traits, or attributes is very powerful; since it happens on an unconscious level, over time, positive change can develop for the individual: increased confidence, motivation, and a greater level of comfort socially, for one.

    What we search for in personalities to connect with fictional characteristics isn’t always the same as what we respect about them. In reality, when it comes to determining what makes us adore a character, it’s not so much that we see them as our fictional counterparts as it is that we wish we could be friends with them. Our attraction to fictitious characters may stem from the fact that we love spending time with them rather than because we identify with them. We’re immersed in their world for a few hours, whether it’s in the pages of a book, a new season of TV, or a feature-length film. Perhaps the mark of a truly unforgettable fictional character is how often we bring them back to reality with us.

  • طراحی سایت مشهد // Jun 16th 2022 at 7:45 am

    Thank you so much, Andrea, Georgia, and Julia, for such an amazing and educational post!
    I loved reading it and Learned a lot from it. you have a great perspective.
    What really makes a fictional character unforgettable is how much we can relate to them and bring them out to our own reality.

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