Posted by: Dirk | December 11, 2012

Sympathy for the deficit – or better empathy?

In the European Monetary Union, some countries are experiencing a depression while other countries are not. While the word solidarity has often been used, a recent article in the NYT points out the difference between sympathy and empathy for children:

Nancy Eisenberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, is an expert on the development in children of prosocial behavior, “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another.” Such behavior is often examined through the child’s ability to perceive and react to someone else’s distress. Attempts at concern and reassurance can be seen in children as young as 1.

Dr. Eisenberg draws a distinction between empathy and sympathy: “Empathy, at least the way I break it out, is experiencing the same emotion or highly similar emotion to what the other person is feeling,” she said. “Sympathy is feeling concern or sorrow for the other person.” While that may be based in part on empathy, she said, or on memory, “it’s not feeling the same emotion.”

By itself, intense empathy — really feeling someone else’s pain — can backfire, causing so much personal distress that the end result is a desire to avoid the source of the pain, researchers have found. The ingredients of prosocial behavior, from kindness to philanthropy, are more complex and varied.

They include the ability to perceive others’ distress, the sense of self that helps sort out your own identity and feelings, the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping.

There seems to be sympathy with the crisis countries. However, empathy is needed to solve the problems of indebted sovereigns and banks. The article continues:

What would the experts say about fostering prosocial behavior in children, from kindness on to charity?

Parental modeling is important, of course; sympathy and compassion should be part of children’s experience long before they know the words.

“Explain how other people feel,” Dr. Eisenberg said. “Reflect the child’s feelings, but also point out, look, you hurt Johnny’s feelings.”

Don’t offer material rewards for prosocial behavior, but do offer opportunities to do good — opportunities that the child will see as voluntary. And help children see themselves and frame their own behavior as generous, kind, helpful, as the mother in my exam room did.

It seems that prosocial behavior is acquired, not hardwired into the genes. If that is so, the recent failure of empathy in the European Monetary Union has much deeper roots than financial problems. Perhaps antisocial behavior was rewarded too much in the past, with taxes falling for the wealthier part of Europeans, tax flight being more and more common and financial crimes were decriminalized. The Washington Post reports on the recently found ability of rats showing empathy:

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy — and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.

I wonder how Europe can return to a state of empathy. In China they have a year of the rat in 2020/21. Europe should have one before.



  1. Excellent post.
    It precisely described why there is a lack of empathy: rewarding antisocial behavior too much for long time which institusionalized antisocial behavior.
    My interest lays in why it rewarded antisocial behavior for long time after having similarly long time of rewarding positive social behaviour and then it turned to rewarding antisocial behaviour. What is the reason for the swich?
    Wouldn’t logic imply that rewarding social behaviour would cement process to keep doing that? Is it positive feedback loop or isn’t?

    I would say that switch occured by deciders (politicians) of whom to reward, by being in social circles limited to only rich and powerfull. By politicians who value royalty status of rich and powerfull, or politicians that became rich and powerfull and kept value of being only in similar social circles, then still doing reward of social behaviour but limited it only to such social circles they are surrounded with. Politicians are still encouraging social behaviour that only benefit already rich and powerfull.
    This is enabled by political process that allows better acces to politicians by rich and succesfull then by those that really need help.
    I see government as a mean to ballance the economy by supporting lagging industries, but if success of lobying depends on succes of industry they loby for, then the succesfull industry will get even more access to benefits then unsuccesfull industry that really needs help by government.
    Same with personal succes in lobying.

  2. –One treat for the captive — this animal empathy has added to my knowledge. Does it mean that humans need more of animalism!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: