empathy for one, empathy for all

A devoted reader sent me a link to an interesting article in the New York Times about the science of compassion: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html?_r=2&hp&

The article reported on a study that found that inducing a compassionate feeling for someone leads the person to feel compassion for others as well, even when they might not “deserve it.” Another study found that creating a feeling of commonality between people, even an artificially-created meaningless commonality (tapping in rhythm with another person) led people to feel more compassion and more of a desire to help the other person.

The author of the article, David DeSteno, who was also a researcher on the second study, concluded: “Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of
commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and
foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.”


So the question is, how do we foster more of a feeling of commonality among people in general, and people who specifically don’t feel that commonality with people of other groups?

One way would be to make it easier for people to discover commonalities. I think Facebook is useful in this way. When people become “friends” with people whom they really don’t know well, such as through a neighborhood page (my neighborhood has one on Facebook), they will easily discover commonalities. When they view profiles of people who are friends of their friends, but who seem quite different from themselves, they will likely discover commonalities.

Actual physical proximity helps. When you shop at a grocery store, and you see people of various cultures and ethnic groups, and you notice them reaching for the same cereal box you do, or you see them dealing with the same issues with their children (you can recognize a child whining for a treat in any language), you feel the commonality. Your empathy level increases.

Media helps. When you see Cam and Mitchell, the popular gay couple on the TV show “Modern Family”, squabbling about little things, just like you do with your spouse, your feeling of commonality increases. Your empathy level increases.

I think it’s interesting that the study found that even trivial commonalities increase compassion. This leads me to believe that humans are innately driven to seek and find what they have in common with each other–not just people of their own group, but all people. The drive to empathize is inherent in our make-up. Empathizing with one another is good for human survival.

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