“Using social empathy to frame community decision making such as social policies helps us understand our citizenship responsibilities. Especially in times of extreme political divisiveness, we need to be reminded of the consequences of a lack of social empathy—in our individual relationships, communities, and national discourse.”
~ Sarah Garlington, Ohio University
Although it’s been gaining traction in the news cycle lately, empathy is hopefully a concept that is already familiar to us all. The act of understanding and feeling what another person is experiencing is an integral part of a compassionate relationship. But what if empathy didn’t just take place between two people? What if entire groups of people could show empathy to one another, and what if this could create a more understanding and productive society? This is possible through social empathy, explains Elizabeth A. Segal. Segal is a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, author of Social Empathy: The Art of Understanding Others. In the post below, she discusses the distinction between personal empathy versus social empathy, and how practicing the latter can lead to the creation of public policy that is both competent and empathetic.
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News commentators, celebrities, politicians—just about everyone is mentioning empathy these days. Because I have been researching and writing about empathy for the past fifteen years, friends, family members, and colleagues send me all sorts of items talking about empathy, and the volume has really picked up recently. Just the other day a friend sent me a picture of a car’s license plate with “empathy” written on it; she had snapped the photo while out and about town.
What does all this attention on empathy mean? Is this good because we are becoming more empathic, or is it bad because it is a painful acknowledgment that we need more empathy? The answer is “yes” to both questions: we are becoming more aware of empathy through our growing awareness of others, and we need a lot more of that awareness.
“Part of the difficulty in discussing empathy is that there are numerous definitions of and misconceptions about it.”
But what do we mean by empathy? Part of the difficulty in discussing empathy is that there are numerous definitions of and misconceptions about it. The eminent social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, with more than thirty years of studying empathy, identified eight interrelated but different conceptualizations of empathy that can be found in psychology literature and research. Some of those conceptualizations are more accurately feelings like sympathy or compassion; others are constituent parts of empathy, like perspective taking or imagination. What they all agree on is that empathy involves understanding the state of another person.
Based on my work researching its psychological, neurological, and sociological aspects, empathy is the broad term for feeling and understanding the emotions and experiences of others. This comprises two parts: sharing the feelings of another person and understanding what those feelings mean to the other person. True empathy is not taking in feelings to the point of being overwhelmed; that is emotional contagion. Key to empathy is emotion regulation, the ability to share feelings but not let those feelings take over. It helps to maintain self-other awareness, another key aspect of empathy. I may share your feelings to help me better understand your experience, but those feelings are yours, not actually my own feelings.
“Social empathy asks us to do all that with larger groups, including contextualizing so that we can understand the historical experiences that membership in different groups can bring.”
The full experience encompasses both interpersonal and social empathy. Interpersonal empathy requires us to share physical reactions and lived experiences with another person while maintaining emotional balance and the awareness that we are distinctly different, and then to try and understand what those experiences mean to the other person. This differs from imagining what we might feel like in other circumstances. It is taking the deeper step of seeing the world through the eyes of another. Social empathy asks us to do all that with larger groups, including contextualizing so that we can understand the historical experiences that membership in different groups can bring. Together, personal and social empathic insights create the full array of empathy. This framework speaks to the complexity of empathy.
Being empathic takes work and practice. When we engage in empathy, we better understand other people and other groups. Empathy helps us see ourselves in others. It helps us develop familiarity, which can lead to comfort with others. What may start as strange or different, such as someone of a different race, ethnicity, or class background, becomes familiar. We connect. Familiarity and connection are buffers against fear and hate.
“Familiarity and connection are buffers against fear and hate.”
Most discussions of empathy speak to the interpersonal connections, which are important. However, in order to use empathy to better understand and relate to people who are different from ourselves, we need to take empathy into the larger arenas of our lives and communities, and that is social empathy.
We need social empathy because it bridges distance between groups. I am not an immigrant, but I grew up hearing the stories of my immigrant grandfathers and their arduous, long journeys to come to America. They came because life where they lived was dangerous for them and held a future of poverty. Leaving everything behind to travel to an unknown place with a different language and customs was worth the risk because what they were leaving was so much worse. I heard the stories, I felt their struggles, and I shared their joy of making it work. My life, my sister’s, and my brother’s are proof that my grandfathers successfully left dangerous places to create a safe and healthy life for their families and descendants.
“We need social empathy because it bridges distance between groups.”
Because of my family’s stories and my willingness to imagine what I would feel if those immigrants coming today were my grandfathers, I can better understand why a father from Honduras would make the dangerous trip north to America or why a teenage boy from Guatemala would set off alone to try and get to safety in America. They are my grandfathers; they are my journey into social empathy. I imagine what they are feeling, and I strive to understand the social, political, and economic context that they are trying so hard to leave.
With social empathy as my personal guide, I can step into the political realm, advocating to take in today’s refugees, just as was done for my grandfathers. Interpersonal empathy is important, but it is not enough. Social empathy takes us from the personal to the political with insights that can create just, sound, and caring public policies.