Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.
Alfred Adler, Austrian medical doctor and psychotherapist
Social psychology differentiates between two types of empathy: emotional (or affective) empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy occurs when an individual feels or experiences the emotional response of someone else as a reaction to witnessing that person's emotion. For example, when we see someone else smiling and feeling joyful, we can smile and feel joyful as a result or, conversely, we may feel anxiety when we see someone else who is experiencing fear or stress.
Cognitive empathy is our capacity for perspective-taking, and for identifying and understanding the feeling of another. For example, when we see someone smiling and joyful, we can identify that they are feeling joyful and we can understand the reason they feel that way. Empathy is an invaluable part of our ability to have positive relationships because it enables us to understand the perspective, needs, and intentions of others.
According to the University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, we can experience affective empathy in our infancy, and we have the capacity for cognitive empathy by three or four years of age. However, researchers also believe that the ability to practice empathy can be taught, and that when it is taught we can foster a greater expression of empathy than we might otherwise experience.1
The Greater Good in Action website shares resources on four specific science-based methods for cultivating empathy.2
1. The first is encouraging “active listening,” or giving youth an opportunity to really listen to what someone else is saying and to let them know that they have been heard.
2. The second is building a “shared identity” by understanding what we have in common with someone who seems very different from ourselves.
3. The third is to “put a...face to suffering,” or to personalize suffering, by seeing or picturing an individual who has been through hardship.
4. Finally, the fourth is “eliciting altruism” by showing how we are connected to others.
Additional suggestions for nurturing empathy include such activities as: looking at facial expressions, reading literature, and meditating (with a focus on the feelings of another).
How can we apply this knowledge to our humane education work? Utilize these same strategies when teaching about other species as a means of fostering empathy for both people and animals.
For example, you can:
If you are already providing humane education programs, you are probably already cultivating empathy within the youth you teach. However, with these evidence-based strategies, you can more explicitly work to address empathy as a key component of your programs. The more we practice empathy, the more likely we are to act in compassionate ways toward others.
1 Empathy Defined: What is Empathy?, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition. Greater Good Magazine. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 2019.
2 Empathy Defined: How Do I Cultivate It?, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition#how-cultivate-empathy. Greater Good Magazine. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 2019.
Developing Empathy Through Observation
Young people see animals throughout their lives, but may not have the opportunity to think about the animal’s perspective and the motivation for their actions. Observing animals with the intention of understanding them is one way to help young people build curiosity and empathy for animals. Hopefully, students will continue to take the time to think about the emotions of people and animals in their lives, and how it motivates their actions.
Lessons - Grades 3-5
A Day in the Life
Youth read a story about an animal’s life and discuss the situation from that animal’s point of view. Then they write a letter from their animal’s perspective, describing a day in the animal’s life and how the animal feels.
Youth read about some of the most common reasons empathy becomes “blocked” and learn through stories how those blockers influence the way people treat others. They will consider how our relationships with people and animals change when we feel empathy for them.
This HEART webinar provides activities and tools that will help young people to better understand themselves, other people, animals, and their connection to the global community and the natural world.
Discover activities that promote students’ emotional intelligence and the humane treatment of people and animals.
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