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Empathy is learned through positive experiences with strangers

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Posted December 24, 2015

There is no denying that some people are more empathic than others. We all have different features in terms of our personality and different empathy is one of them. However, a research from the University of Zurich shows that empathy can be learned. Positive experiences with people from other groups trigger learning behaviour and people start feeling empathic for strangers.

The conflicts between members of different groups usually stem from lack of empathy. Proving it can be learned means peaceful coexistence is possible through more positive experiences with people from other groups. Image credit: tOrange.us, CC BY 4.0

The conflicts between members of different groups usually stem from lack of empathy. Proving it can be learned means peaceful coexistence is possible through more positive experiences with people from other groups. Image credit: tOrange.us, CC BY 4.0

In fact, a few positive encounters are enough to learn empathy for strangers. This is a significant finding, not only because it is very interesting knowledge about human nature, but also because a lot of conflicts between people from different national or cultural groups stem from lack of empathy. Therefore, learning empathy for strangers may help for peaceful coexistence. The study that revealed that empathy can be learned was rather interesting in its methodology.

Team of scientists measures brain activation in participants who had had positive experiences with a member of their own group or another group. In experiments participants were told to expect a painful shock at the back of their hands. The only way for them to avoid the pain was for another person (whether member of their group or not) to pay them out. In order to see the actual reaction to another person’s pain, brain waves were recorded before and after these experiences.

The experiments showed that empathy for a stranger indeed can be learned. At the beginning of the study witnessing pain in strangers triggered weaker brain activation than seeing person from the same group suffer. But after several positive experiences with someone from the stranger’s group led to a significant increase in empathic brain responses. The stronger positive experiences were, the stronger empathy grew.

Scientists say that increasing empathy for people from different groups is driven by  a neuronal learning signal, which develops from unexpected positive experience with strangers. Grit Hein, one of the authors of the study, said: “These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them”.

Researches like this show how little we know about our own emotions. This means there is still plenty of things to discover and study, which may mean we will learn better ways of coexisting in the future.

Source: UZH

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