Empathy and compassion : natural inherent trait or human learned ability?

A kid showing compassion to another one

Too many poeple are showing a lack of empathic development nowadays, which often creates distress with others. But what is empathy really, and compassion ? Is it a natural innate feeling ? A behavioural emotion, like fear ? A human skill that can be learned, like intelligence ? Are we born with it or can we teach it through psychology to a person, be it an adult, a child or even a baby ? Many studies have been carried out and here are some answers to your questions.

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Just to clarify, we often speak as empathy and compassion as if it was the same thing. It is… almost true. Still, there is a slight difference between these two traits. « Compassion » comes from « passion », or « passio » in latin, which is « to suffer », and « com », which is « with ». Compassion is « to suffer with », that is to say that you feel others’ emotions and you let yourself affect by these emotions. If the feeling is positive, there is no actual downside to it. But if the feeling is negative, you might start a bad loop.

On the contrary, « empathy » is the ability to feel someone’s feelings, but without letting yourself being affected by it. If many people do actually have compassion – even if they do not show it all the time -, it is way more difficult to show genuine empathy. For exemple, when a friend of yours just lost a parent, showing compassion can be nice, but empathy would be even better, because you keep your good feelings and can share a better vibe.

By the way, did you know that French words for empathy and compassion are mixed up ? English « empathy » is French « compassion » and French « empathie » is English « compassion ». Funny, isn’t it ?

Empathy and compassion, natural inborn emotions or human learned skills?

Let’s get back to the point. Are empathy and compassion an innate trait or an acquired ability ? Well as we said, it is almost evident that compassion is inherent. It was proven by certain studies, for example, that newborn babies cry more to the sounds of other babies’ cries of distress than they do to equally loud sounds of other types or even to recordings of their own crying. Empathic distress throughout the first year of life seems indeed to be more contagious : upset in others simply triggers a baby’s own feelings of anxiety or fear.

Now, what about empathy ? Well, until recently, researchers believed that true empathy doesn’t emerge in children until the second year of life, after 12 months of age, when a more separate sense of self begins to be consolidated. But more recently, studies were carried out to prove that empathy can actually be shown in the first year of life. Indeed, when babies where shown their mother faking to hurt on a table for exemple, all children, whatever the age, were showing behavioural signs of genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways.

So… When do a baby learn empathic feelings for others?

As we explained before, to get from compassion to empathy, a person needs to differentiate and put a barrier between the hurt person’s emotions and his own feelings. As it was believed before, this usually happens during the second year of life. But the problem is, as Carolyn Zahn-Waxler explained in a TedX show, that parents often miss expressions of kindness in their babies and may start reinforcing achievement-related skills over helping behaviors in the preschool years.

Now… How can we develop empathic behaviour with children?

According to Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, teaching empathy and compassion must become a priority in modern education. It is not so much about teaching anew it, infact. It is more about actually supporting it more continuously from an early age. Children’s empathy seems inborn and naturally developped, depending on how we react to these earliest overtures. You can read more about her beliefs in her developmental psychology paper : The Development of Concern for Others in Children With Behavior Problems.

Can you teach empathy through psychology to adults showing a lack?

Supporting empathic development by children is becoming part of nowdays educational system, and that is definitely a good thing. But earlier generations did not always have this chance and many adults are still showing a huge lack of it. As for any skills, naturally or educationally learned, children will manage to develop it more quickly and easily. We often say that languages are easier lerned at an early age. Well, it is the same when it comes to empathy.

But like languages, even if learning to empathize with others at a later age may be more difficult, it is still possible. Actually, even corporate industries start to show interest in developping empathy inside companies. As an example, French car manufacturer Peugeot has its employees participating in « empathy at work » sessions.

As a conclusion, we could say that compassion is definitely an inherent human trait, even if adults do not see it all the time, as empathy must be learned, even is the process is usually natural. As for learning it later on if the development was not made properly at a young age, it can be done but may be more of an obstacle as for children.

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