The Roots of Empathy

June 1, 2010

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsI’ve written a great deal about what it means to be an empath, and luckily for all of us, empathy is a big topic right now.

I just discovered a study that seems to measure empathy.  The study is in the news right now because the researchers have concluded that students today are 40% less empathetic than they were in the 1970s. Hmmmmmm.

I’ve got a problem with the study because it’s based on self-responses to written questions, and those tend to follow trends in how people want to be seen, rather than telling the truth about how people actually behave. You can take the test here and see what I mean.

A real test of empathy would involve testing behavior in people who don’t realize they’re being tested (knowing that you’re being tested changes your behavior significantly). For instance, there’s a great deal of testing being done on infants and primates, and this helps us understand the roots of empathy in what we might call “naive” test subjects.  A baby and a chimp are not really aware of the social advantages of pretending to be more or less empathetic than they are, so they’re good subjects.

As it turns out, empathy is a natural primate behavior, and it is present in even very young human infants. It’s a part of our heritage to understand others, empathize with their situation, and attempt to help them.  You can’t have a healthy primate or human society if you don’t have empathy.

So this idea, that youth are less empathetic? I’m not seeing it in the young people I know. This is of course a self-selected and unscientific statement, but I’m still rooting for our youth.  Maybe they’re struggling as we all are, to balance taking care of themselves while people around them are troubled. Say, I know a great book they could read if they want to learn how to work with their emotions!

Cover of The Age of EmpathyI’m reading a wonderful book right now by primatologist Frans de Waal, and if you’re interested in empathy, you need to read it. de Wall is a wonderful writer and researcher who is at the cutting edge of animal research. It’s a great time for animal researchers, because it used to be unacceptable in scientific circles to assume that animals had emotions, empathy, or altruism, so researchers sort of kept their stories about empathetic and altruistic animals to themselves.

Now, that human-centric prejudice is being seen for what it is, and researchers are more free to explore empathy, emotion, altruism, and other allegedly human abilities in animals. The Age of Empathy focuses on primate research, but also refers to research done with birds and dogs. It’s a wonderful read, and a wonderful subject.

As I read, I was continually having conversations with de Waal in my head.  I think I’ll send him a copy of The Language of Emotions so that he’ll know that the age of empathy has a vocabulary primer!

After you take the empathy test, come back and post your score.  I got a 57 out of 70 because I waffled about how much I think about the problems of other people.  I just got yelled at about it, so I was pretending to be less caring than I am.  Do you see what I mean about self-report studies?  They’re kind of lame! But they’re still fun.


Simon June 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm

I got a 56 out of 70.

Janet Clark June 1, 2010 at 9:12 pm

58 out of 70- sometimes, when I think I’m right, I don’t care what anybody else thinks!

Karla June 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Hey, we’re right in the same ballpark. I’m gonna go take it again and tell the truth this time, and see what I get!

Karla June 1, 2010 at 11:30 pm

64 out of 70 when I tell the truth. Don’t tell!

edwin rutsch June 2, 2010 at 2:09 am

I had also voiced my skepticism with the college student study.. their questions were poorly written. The study says more about the lack of empathy by the researchers than the college students in my opinion. They seem to confuse empathy, sympathy and pity in their questions.

Below are many more resources about empathy.

The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy


Karla June 2, 2010 at 2:39 am

Edwin, thanks so much for the link to your site. How cool! I’m gonna read the heck out of it.

Karla June 2, 2010 at 2:48 am

I once spoke to a sociologist who wanted psychology and social psychology to be taken completely out of the social sciences and put into some sort of “art” category. Very much a crank, but he’s got a point.

This study only tells you what people’s opinions of themselves are. It doesn’t measure empathy; it only measures self-regard and that’s a feature of the moment, mood, and cultural mores. People can also lie, which makes the study sort of pointless.

Though he’s right about these sorts of opinion polls, I argued with the sociologist, “You mean, in your perfect work, Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Milgram’s authority experiments are gone? If so, I can’t agree with you.”

There are ass-kickingly good studies in social psychology. This just isn’t one of them!

edwin rutsch June 2, 2010 at 2:10 am

ps,, if you are reading Age of Empathy, you may find this web page with links and videos about Frans De Waal useful.

Lorelei June 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

68/70..I gotta say that sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming.

Karla June 2, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Lorelei, yow! I’m putting together a book with the working title The Complete Empath’s Toolkit, and I’ve got a special skill called How to Ignore People. Every empath needs to learn it!

Quick hint: Focus internally and make only minimal eye contact. You know, like insensitive people do! Haha, but actually, it helps to imagine yourself surrounded by a protective barrier, and to imagine others inside their own barriers as well. Soon, your brain may be able to make better separations, and you won’t be quite so overwhelmed.

I think I’ll post about it.

edwin rutsch June 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm

do you have any references to good studies in social psychology on empathy?

Karla June 2, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Edwin, here’s a link to one study I like, which refers to a great deal of historical work on empathy:

Here’s a neurological study of physical empathy:

Interesting study about empathy and its connection to violence:

Another study on empathy and reciprocity:

de Wall’s book covers a good number of studies on primates as well.

For fascinating studies that explore the lack of empathy, see Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and the classic study by Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority.

When I research, I like to look at the subject in as many ways as possible, including looking at its absence.

Happy reading!

JY June 2, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I got 52 out of 70, but I could have easily gotten way lower (or way higher). Your “special skill” called “How to Ignore People” is hilarious if serious business. I’ve learned some of those skills along the way to save myself from getting enmeshed & swept away at times in my family & friends’ enormous feelings, especially during crisis times. I’ve been thinking about the difference between “hard & unfeeling” vs. “sensitive & protective” actually means…

Wendy June 27, 2010 at 4:05 am

Well, I got a 62/70, but a few years ago it would have been alot higher. I’ve had a bad few years and lost myself along the way. I am so excited about reading your book. I’m amazed at the explainations you are giving for the emotions and how they effect us when dealt with properly or not. I have never been able to put into words exactly how I interpeted my emotions, but from what I’ve seen so far, you are right on the same lines. And as I said, a bad few years has really torn me down and I’ve forgotten so much of myself, I can’t wait for your book to arrive. I know it’s going to have a profound effect on me.

Karla June 28, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Thanks for checking in, Wendy! We empaths have to watch out for each other! I hope you enjoy the book.


edwin rutsch June 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm

thanks for the links.. I’m doing a lot of research on empathy as well and try to document and organize it on my website.

I like your approach, – I also like to look at the opposite of empathy. – psychopathy, sociopathy, autism spectrum, etc. can all add insights into the nature of empathy.

How are you organizing your research?

Karla June 28, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Hi Edwin, did you see the study that showed mirror neurons working normally in autistic people?

My experience with autistic youth and adults isn’t that they lack empathy, but rather that too much data comes at them in a painfully disorganized fashion.

Speaking of disorganized (but not painfully so)! Right now, I call myself an “al fresco academic,” and I’m studying everything I can get my hands on in regard to sociology, social psychology, neurology, primatology, and so forth. I’m hoping to get into a PhD program this year or next, but I haven’t found the right school yet. I think I’m ahead of the curve on this one. Let me know if you have any leads to programs that are working on empathy, compassion, altruism, and of course, the opposites, violence and conflict. I want a very rigorous academic program, and I’m not finding it.

edwin rutsch June 29, 2010 at 4:23 am

I see you are in the Bay Area. I’m in El Cerrito, Perhaps we could get together and talk about this.

see the links at the bottom of this page.
Academic Research Centers Studying Empathy and Compassion

I think the European – Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences is a good place for research and study.
I met Tania Singer (head of empathy research there) when she recently gave a presentation at Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education Stanford University – Stanford, CA.
She gave a talk on empathy, mentioned Autism could be a deficit in identifying and articulating your own feeling which can inhibit empathy for others.. the problem is called ‘alexithymia’ and they will be doing research on that.

here is a list of empathy conferences which gives a sense of who’s who in the field and what they are studying.


Karla July 1, 2010 at 4:20 am

Edwin, thanks so much for all the links. It’s nice to see that so many different people are coming at empathy in so many different ways. I’m really thinking now about how specifically I want to work, and with whom!

Karla July 1, 2010 at 4:29 am

Roland, I’m so glad you’ve been able to set such clear and concise boundaries with your housemates, and I love your “dead rat in the cupboard” analogy! I like your open way of dealing with the issues you’re facing.

I have to say, and perhaps it’s because I’m female, that I’ve only been able to set boundaries about other people’s feelings with a few close people in my life. My husband and I talk about psychological hygiene a great deal, but with most people, I just watch them and think, “hmmmm.”

It’s why I developed the capacity to ignore people, because in most cases, it’s not my business what other people feel, so I like to give them privacy. I can turn it on when I’m consulting with people, but off again when I’m out in the world. I’ll never be completely immune to the emotional currents around me, because it’s just how I’m built.

I do have to say that leaving the metaphysical community and my self-identification as a “psychic” really helped as well. Now that I can see my ability as normal (though unusual), I don’t feel driven to perform my empathy for everyone. Whew, that was exhausting.

Thanks for writing back and sharing a proactive way of dealing with your ability!

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