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New interventions may help people open up rather than shutting down when confronted with others’ needs

Empathy — the ability to look at the world from another person’s perspective — has long been recognized as vital for human cooperation and for the development of related virtues like compassion. The ability to extend empathy in both thought and action is an important skill for social and interpersonal thriving — but is it also a limited resource, something that you can over-extend or run out of? Recent studies have shown that people’s tendency to be empathetic can drop off in response to natural disasters and other calamities. It appears that imagining the experiences of so many suffering victims can make empathy feel overly costly, leading people to view the sufferers as “other” or even “not fully human.” But can our stores of empathy actually be extended to help people reach out rather than shutting down when confronted with others’ needs?

In a new set of experiments led by Penn State psychology professor C. Daryl Cameron, a set of simple tests will examine what factors influence how much empathy people feel they have to offer — and how much empathy they actually extend. The project is being developed by Cameron with the assistance of noted social emotion expert David DeSteno of Northeastern University and is funded with a $234,800 grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

ENCOURAGING EMPATHETIC SKILL

One of the key insights driving the new project is Cameron and his colleagues’ earlier experimental finding that people’s willingness to empathize is a function of whether they feel they will be successful or “skilled” at it. Cameron’s hypothesis is that people become more willing to invest the emotional and imaginative effort in trying to empathize with others if they think they will actually arrive at correct insights about the other person’s mental state. In an experimental setting, this perceived efficacy will be nudged by giving people small empathetic challenges (such as guessing what people in certain situations might be thinking) and then indicating that they scored well on them. The experiments will then give participants and control group members various opportunities to demonstrate spontaneous empathy through actions, such as by assisting a fellow “participant” who says he or she is feeling ill.

Since research tends to show that people are more likely to extend empathy to members of their “in-group” than to people they conceive of as outside their social circle, Cameron’s experiments will also use the in-group/out-group factor as a variable. They will test whether subjects primed to believe they are skilled empathizers will be more willing to empathize with those in their “out-group.”

Three of Cameron’s studies will be conducted in the lab or using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. A fourth will pilot a multi-week intervention using daily smartphone surveys. The ultimate hope is to understand more about people’s capacity for empathy and to pilot scalable interventions that help people view empathy with a growth mindset — that is, as a skill that they can improve with effort, that they can strengthen to minimize the fear of depletion or collapse.

“Empathy and growth mindset are two aspects of a person’s character that we’re seeing as increasingly linked to both personal success and societal good,” says Sarah Clement, the John Templeton Foundation’s director for Character Virtue Development. “Daryl Cameron is still early in his career, but he’s already published significant findings that touch on both of those areas. We are excited to see his work expanding our understanding of empathy — and what can be done to encourage its growth.”

STILL CURIOUS?

Learn more about project leaders C. Daryl Cameron and David DeSteno.