by Grace Sargent, April 22, 2022
Humans as a species are empathetic by nature, though modern society seems to hinder its widespread development. Surrounded by technological advancements and automated machines, we have become immersed in a robotic world that fails to illustrate the countless emotions we experience daily. This is quite prevalent among children, who are incredibly susceptible to the mindless behaviors associated with technology. It is extremely common for parents to immediately produce an electronic tablet for their crying child instead of taking more lasting measures. In this digital age, it is increasingly important for children to maintain a healthy relationship with books, as they provide an authentic way to facilitate empathy and to ensure that such important characteristics are nurtured instead of lost or forgotten.
What is empathy?
In order to argue for the value of empathy to individuals and society, a definition of empathy itself must first be understood. American cognitive scientist and author J.D. Trout explains that “empathy is the capacity to accurately understand the other’s position, the feeling that ‘this could happen to me’” (Pohoată 9). As humans, we have a multitude of emotions that we are subject to, not only throughout our lives but fluctuating during our days as well. However, the fascinating thing about these emotions is that we all experience them, whether it be at the same time over the same things, or at different times over different things. It is through these experiences that we can come together and empathize with each other; we know what it feels like to be sad, happy, anxious, or excited, and so we are, consequently, able to gather a general idea of what someone else is currently feeling. Another crucial part of the definition of empathy is the involvement of cognitive comprehension and emotional reactions. To be fully empathetic, both of these characteristics must be developed for long periods of time (Good 1).
Why is empathy important?
Following the comprehension of empathy as a concept, we need to also understand its importance, which has been illustrated through a study conducted by Ph.D. student of Psychology Greg Depow. This study involved questioning 246 participants from the United States seven times a day for one week regarding their levels of happiness, sense of purpose, and overall well-being. The purpose of the study was to track the frequency of participation in situations where empathy could be called upon, whether that meant offering or receiving it. Once the study was completed and the collected data was analyzed, encouraging conclusions were drawn. Firstly, the study found that we empathize often in our everyday lives, as we frequently find ourselves in situations that could benefit from it. On average, over a span of twelve hours, people found nine opportunities to empathize and six opportunities to receive empathy. More notably, the analysis concluded that those who recognized more empathy opportunities and empathized more reported greater happiness and well-being. It is important to remember that empathy does not need to always involve the experience of negative emotions. In fact, according to Depow, we experience positive emotions three times more often than negative ones, which could contribute to why participants reported empathizing more with positive emotions during the study. Relating to the study, Depow reported that at the times when people in the study experienced more empathy, they practiced more kindness towards others (“How Small Moments”). This study demonstrates empathy’s cyclical nature: the more empathetic we are, the better we feel, and the more we want to be empathetic towards others. If we as a society can maintain this healthy cycle, the empathy we share is central to our humanity and can allow us to live in a decent society, characterized by citizens that willingly and voluntarily understand and take care of each other (Pohoată 15).
The development of empathy
One last important note about empathy is that although it is an innate characteristic of humans, it can be improved upon through education about what it is made up of and how those parts relate to one another. Empathy heavily relies on the parts of our brains that deal with an emotional connection with others (“Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution”). We experience arousal in our pain pathways when witnessing someone else in pain. Psychiatrist Helen Reiss explains that our neurological systems allow us to observe the hurting of others while also giving us a fraction of that pain as motivation to help them out (“Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution”). However, empathy also involves a level of concern, which complicates its effectiveness in each individual; while we are all “programmed” to empathize with others, not all of us will necessarily empathize to the same extent. Thus, the behavior of people directly correlates with education and self-education (Pohoată 11). It is important to recognize that empathy has multiple parts, and, therefore, it develops over time rather than all at once. Additionally, it is during our adolescent years that our empathy develops the most, given our impressionability. It is understood that children as young as two-years-old can comprehend and talk about specific emotions along with the actions that accompany them (Good 2). This is why attempts at facilitating empathy in children must be made as early as possible and with lots of consideration and thought.
How to effectively cultivate empathy in children
One of the most important parts of teaching children empathy is firstly emphasizing understanding the emotions they and those around them can face, as well as explaining the actions that accompany them. Fortunately, a common thread throughout children’s literature is the discussion of emotions and the ways they are displayed (Berliner). A wonderful way to foster these ideas is to allocate reading time during school, thereby encouraging storytime as a method of enhancing empathy in children.
Another useful aspect of literature involves the characters that make up the stories. Characters provide a space for emotions to be felt and displayed for children to digest while reading. A useful technique for teachers is to first explicitly explain the events of the story and then circle back to the children themselves. For example, teachers can ask questions in the following format: “This child was angry when his toy was taken away from him. How do you feel when someone takes your toy?” (Berliner). The value of this question lies in how it encompasses multiple important learning points. The child who was asked this question can now understand what anger is, associate it with a certain situation, and even identify that emotion within their own life. This example relates to psychiatrist Helen Reiss’s explanation that better perception of others’ emotions is associated with a strengthened sense of empathy (“Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution”). They can then take this newfound knowledge and apply it to situations that may arise, ultimately allowing them to be more empathetic.
These kinds of techniques have proven very effective within a classroom setting, and teachers have shared their approaches and experiences in incorporating them into their curriculums. High school English teacher Jennifer Ansbach discusses how she brought these kinds of methods into her classroom in an attempt to combat bullying and its harmful, long-lasting effects. She called upon the collection of personal essays called “Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories.” The essays come from the perspective of bullies, victims, and even witnesses to bullying. All of them are written in the first person, which is important because first-person writing allows for the explicit expression of specific emotions and feelings during relatable situations. Following the conclusion of these readings, Ansbach asked her students if, before the essays, they would recognize the discussed situations as bullying. Only a handful raised their hands. She then inquired if they now understood those actions as bullying and reported that every student raised their hand. Ansbach continued speaking about this over a few weeks, and by the end, there were positive results seen in the actions of students. After the conclusion of this teaching plan, she explains that it successfully raised awareness on the matter, created empathy in the students, and created “a desire to change their own behavior” (Ansbach 92). Ansbach noticed her students discussing ideas of damage control for bullying victims more often, as well as how they can play a part in ameliorating this ongoing issue. This simple exercise alone demonstrates the empathetic nature of first-person narrative stories and how it can challenge preconceived notions of students.
Emotional transportation and how it relates to empathy
Another idea surrounding the importance of characters in stories deals with empathy facilitation, and it is called emotional transportation. Emotional transportation involves the reader of a story and allows their emotions to truly dive into a story and, therefore, form a more thoughtful connection with the content they are consuming (Bal). When an individual reads a story, their emotions are triggered in a way that can be reflected upon. One of the best ways to relate this reflection to empathy is through emotional transportation, which works most efficiently with relatable characters. When a reader indulges in a story and can identify with a character, they can take it a step further and vicariously experience the events in the story as if they were happening to them in real life. The valuable takeaway of these processes is that the reader practices empathy through reading a story (Bal). The reason emotional transportation carries such importance is because of the individual benefits: the higher the emotional transportation into a story is, the higher the probability of personal change is (Bal).
As previously mentioned, the best way to encourage emotional transportation is by creating relatable characters. This sense of familiarity allows readers to venture into unfamiliar situations with greater ease and ultimately helps improve their empathetic capabilities. A 2013 study by Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp was conducted at Erasmus University Rotterdam where students read stories in their free time for a few hours each week and subsequently answered questions about their emotional transportation and empathetic measure. Following the completion of the study, the conclusions supported the idea that emotional transportation plays a valuable role in facilitating empathy. The main verdict of the experiment was that highly transported individuals had increased empathy over the weeks, and those who reported low transportation experienced a decrease in empathy (Bal). This is because low transportation is associated with “defamiliarization,” which is when a reader fails to connect emotionally with a story and its characters, and therefore is unable to relate to the people and situations presented to them. This not only prevents transportation, but it inhibits their ability to empathize (Junker). Thus, children need to have access to books that not only offer situations that pertain to their lives but books that also contain relatable characters.
In closing, empathy and the way it is brought into the lives of children is invaluable. Our society seems to be straying away from the colorful emotions we have to offer and is instead creating a more monotonous lifestyle ridden by the robotic automation of the digital age. It is up to us, however, to ensure that these innate, important characteristics we share don’t disappear. Empathy is central to our humanity and maintains the power to cultivate a healthier, more humane world (Pohoată 10). It is therefore important to instill these ideals into the minds of children and begin intervention as early as possible. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize the most effective method: reading. Through the consumption of novels and narratives, children gain helpful insight into not only what emotions are, but what they look and feel like. Education on these topics early in childhood can be carried into adulthood, and consequently spread throughout our society.
Ansbach, Jennifer. “Long-Term Effects of Bullying: Promoting Empathy with Nonfiction.” The English Journal, vol. 101, no. 6, National Council of Teachers of English, 2012, pp. 87–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23269416.
Bal, Matthijs and Martijn Veltkamp. “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2013, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0055341.
Berliner, Rebecca and Tracy Loye Masterson. “Review of Research: Promoting Empathy Development in the Early Childhood and Elementary Classroom.” Taylor & Francis, 2015, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00094056.2015.1001675.
Good, Jasmine S., et al. Fostering the Development of Empathy in the Classroom. https://research.avondale.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context= teach.
Junker, Christine R. and Stephen J. Jaquemin. “How Does Literature Affect Empathy in Students?” Taylor & Francis, 2017, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/87567555.2016.1255583?scroll=top&needAcces s=true.
Pohoată, Gabriela and Iulia Waniek. “Do We Need Empathy Today?” Euromentor Journal, vol. 8, no. 3, 2017, pp. 7-16, http://proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journ als / do-we-need-empathy-today/docview/1986130844/se-2?accountid=14172.
Suttie, Jill. “How Small Moments of Empathy Affect Your Life.” Greater Good, 2021, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_small_moments_of_empathy_affect_y o u r_life.
Suttie, Jill. “Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution.” Greater Good, 2019, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/%E2%80%8Bitem/why_the_world_needs_an_e mpathy _revolution.