Why Empathy Must Be Taught

When speaking to high school students recently, I commented on the rising number of teens who experience high levels of stress and anxiety in our culture today. One very sharp senior raised her hand and said, “Wow!  I knew I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, but I didn’t know so many other students do as well.”

This is a picture of a reality today.

We have the capacity to be more connected yet disconnected in our world. Anxiety usually pulls people together under normal circumstances, but today, it seems to isolate us. Allow me to remind you of an experiment that was conducted in the 1950s. Approximately thirty female students at the University of Minnesota were asked to participate in a study by the medical school. These students had never met each other, and were introduced to Dr. Gregor Zilstein, from the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry. He claimed he planned to give each student an electric shock to see how they’d react to various levels of pain. In reality, the man was Stanley Schachter, a harmless professor of social psychology. He actually planned to study something else entirely.

Schachter wanted to see how people handle anxious situations. After he told the students about the painful shocks, he said he had to leave for ten minutes to pick up some more equipment. Then he added that there were plenty of rooms where they could wait for him. They could either have their own room or enter a room where they would be with each other, albeit as strangers. Interestingly, about two thirds of these students chose to be together, talking over their stress levels.

Another experiment was conducted by Dr. Schachter with another thirty female students where they’d be hooked up to machines that would give them a vibrating sensation but no pain at all. Again, he told them he had to pick up more equipment and let them know they could wait with each other or in their own room. This time, about two of every three chose to wait alone.

The bottom line?

Anxiety usually attracts people to each other. It makes us connect with each other. We tend to “feel” with each other when there is pain.

Moving From Selfish to Empathetic is Natural

Although babies are born naturally selfish, preoccupied with their own need for food, for a diaper change and to be nurtured by a parent, they learn to empathize with others rapidly. An experiment with six-month old infants demonstrates they begin to feel what others feel and want to connect with those who are kind and to avoid those who are unkind. It makes sense.

But as humans grow older, we begin to grasp toys claiming they are “mine” and we refuse to share them. We experience a strange paradox of selfishness and socialness. We want to put “me first” yet at the same time must navigate our need for others, requiring us to also consider their needs as well.

Hence, the need to learn empathy.

Today, however, we have moved away from natural empathetic feelings toward others and the ability to identify with others. Why? We’re not sure we need them.

Our world of smart, portable devices is causing us to unconsciously withdraw from assuming we need to compromise for the sake of others; to feel what others feel and to be generous with them. Consider for a moment the day we live in:

  • We can build our personal platform to feel better about ourselves.
  • We can create and sell a product without the need for a commercial help.
  • We can interact with others virtually without leaving the comfort of our sofa.
  • We can obtain answers from smart devices like Alexa or Siri, not people.
  • We can “ghost” or “un-friend” anyone we find unlikeable or challenging.

I’ve written before about “phubbing.” We do this, often without noticing it. We can be in a public, social setting and never talk to the people who are two feet away. We stand silently in an elevator staring at our phones (phone snubbing) instead of doing the “hard work” of introducing ourselves. (I say this tongue firmly planted in cheek.)

The Need of the Hour

Over a period of eight years, researchers discovered a 34 percent to 48 percent decline in college students’ ability to empathize—making it more essential than ever to teach them how to identify with others and actually demonstrate compassion for them. With a greater access to the needs of others around the world and in our own communities, students appear to be numb to others’ needs, and preoccupied with their own. It’s a vicious cycle: we feel we have to look out for ourselves since no one else is looking out for us, deepening our self-centered state. Our increasing anxiety—which one would assume would pull us closer—is driving us apart; teens feel alone or isolated; they fear admitting their stress.

We are like porcupines on a cold night. When we huddle close together to get warm, we tend to poke and hurt each other.

Last year, the head football coach at Olivet Middle School in Michigan chose to allow a special needs student named Keith, to play on the football team. The manner in which he interacted empathetically with Keith set an example for other players. Before the season’s end, that team of 13-year-old boys came up with a play to enable Keith to actually score a touchdown. They hug him; they sit with him in the lunchroom and display incredible inclusion for others like him. It started, however, by an educator who modeled the way. He taught them empathy.

Albert Einstein said it best: “Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: we are here for the sake of others.”

Let’s become intentional about teaching our students this truth.

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Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning helps middle and high school students:

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Why Empathy Must Be Taught