Warren Bull
Bio: Warren Bull is an award-winning author with three novels and more than 100 stories published.

Aug 15,2017


Pity and sympathy involve feeling sorry for someone else’s distress. Empathy involves imagining ourselves in the situation of the disturbed person. Empathic people experience some level strain as if we were in the situation ourselves.

Like many other aspects of behavior, the capacity for empathy has a biological component. Without claws, fangs or blinding speed, we humans had to band together to survive. If you watch how people (especially women) react to a baby, you will see how a helpless creature evokes attention and caring necessary for survival. Infants also show something akin to empathy. They become upset when observing another infant’s distress.

Of course, just having the capacity does not automatically guarantee that we will develop the skill. Parents can help a child develop empathy by

-      modeling empathic behavior

-      encouraging children to label and express their emotions

-      expressing their own emotions

-      asking how another child felt in a particular situation

-      asking how the child would feel if he or she experienced what another person did

-      teaching recognition of non-verbal cues

-      teaching basic politeness

-      validating the child’s emotions

There is no connect the dots instruction manual on how to teach someone to become sensitive to the experience of another person but being around people who can absorb the emotions of others makes learning more likely. As educator Mary Gordon put it, “Empathy can’t be taught but it can be caught.”

I believe we are most in harmony with human nature when we are empathic. Empathy enhances the quality of human interaction. It is beneficial to the empathic individual. We know that people with higher empathy tend to have more satisfying lives, greater happiness with their partners, and better relationships with others.

In times of war authorities set out to counter our natural empathy by de-personalizing the enemy. Demeaning and often racist terms are adopted to emphasize the difference between us and them. Acts of barbarism and war crimes committed by the enemy are emphasized while similar acts by “the good guys” are downplayed or ignored.

Encouraging empathy in our competitive and relatively isolating society is not easy. There are more people who live alone now that at any other time in US history. While the internet offers a great opportunity to find people with common interests, the interaction is relatively impersonal. People can develop an online mask to hide behind. Online interaction does not teach how to read another person’s facial expression or their body language. In fact increased involvement with social media is associated with decreased interest and involvement in the real world

So much in our society is seen as a zero sum game, i.e. I can improve my status only by taking resources away from someone else. Believing there is a limited amount of (fill in the blank) leads to thinking I need to get mine and defend it vigorously so another person cannot gain by making me lose. In reality, your success deprives me of nothing at all. I may be able to learn from your example. Working as partners and helping others achieve their goals can teach me about how to meet mine. Together we have more joint knowledge and experience than any single individual.

I believe that the single factor most responsible for societal problems is a lack of empathy. If we truly believe in the humanness of others we would work against systematic extreme inequality of wealth, disproportionate advantage in education, housing and health care, religious bigotry as well as racist, sexist and xenophobic practices.

Many of us are, in fact, working toward a more just and equitable world. Working together and practicing empathy we can help others catch empathy too. 


Other articles by this author