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Steps to improve the empathy of someone who needs it



I think more than anything, for this post, I am curious about if you think this would work. I will state something that researchers are trying to do. I have my opinions on it too, but, I do want to hear from you.


Do you think you can increase your empathy? And do you think you can increase it through a smartphone app? And, one last question, would you use it if it were available to you?


I will walk through a 3-week intervention that would happen to you if you were a participant (and perhaps if this becomes something in the mainstream that you can just buy off the App Store or Google Play). Maybe you also don’t want to imagine yourself doing through this because you are already a perfect empathizer and even the mere suggestion that you could be interested in learning more about empathy is insulting. That is fair. Imagine someone you know that you wish was more empathic.


Ok, so, you or someone you know wants to do this. What happens?


Week 1: You’ll be introduced to 2 different types of activities to increase either how well you can take someone else’s perspective or to increase how much empathic concern you have.


To increase perspective taking this is what you would do: You will see a story and be asked to take the perspective of a person in the story. If not that, you may be asked to think of someone who you know that you have been talking to recently to try and take their perspective.


Example: Julian and Shakti were talking one day. They started talking about their childhoods. Julian talks about how his parents never supported him and actively were emotionally abusive. He thought he would get support from Shakti. Instead, Shakti replies, “Well, that isn’t so bad. Indian women have it way worse than you. You shouldn’t be complaining.” What do you think Julian is feeling and thinking right now? How concerned for him are you?


To increase empathic concern this is what you would do: The researchers believe that by increasing self-awareness, you can start to become more aware of situations and also how others may be feeling. This leads to more concern because you are aware of what you would feel in that situation. All you would do is answer questions about yourself such as what were you just doing, how are you feeling, what are you thinking, etc.


In this first week, you can expect to do 2-3 of either of these 2 skills a day. Throughout the week, you’ll have done 10 of each. Each of these should last no longer than 8 minutes, so they are relatively quick to complete.


Week 2: In the second week, you’ll be asked to do something similar to the first week. The researchers will add 1 more type of skill to increase. They’ll want to increase empathic accuracy, or being able to accurately say what someone is feeling. Here you will be shown pictures and be asked to label what that person is feeling. You’ll receive immediate feedback (if you were right or wrong) and then also why you were right or wrong. They will show you what parts of the face would indicate one emotion over another (e.g., furrowed eyebrows could mean that someone is angered or frustrated or sad and tension in the lips could be worry or irritation).


Actually, you can do this part for free online whenever you want if you go to greatergood.berkeley.edu. They have an interactive game there for emotional intelligence, which is exactly the same as I have described above.


Much like week 1, you will be asked to do 2 of these (between perspective taking, empathic concern, and now also empathic accuracy) per day. By the end of the week, you should have done each of the 3 somewhere between 5-10 times.


Week 3: This week is similar to the previous 2 weeks, but the researchers will add just 1 more skill to learn. That is how to act empathically and altruistically. For this task, you will be asked to first take another’s perspective, and then you will be asked, “why is it important to help the person.” Once you do that, you will make a list of ways to help this person. Finally, after a couple of days, you will be asked to actually do something from your list! Great.


Example: You are asked to take the perspective of someone you have been interacting with recently. Maybe Sonya is a friend you have seen who came to you for some support. In taking her perspective, you realize that she is disappointed in her cousin who constantly chooses to work over hanging out with her.


Then, you can explore why it is important to help Sonya (e.g., she is your friend and she is in emotional pain). And then, you can make a list of things to do that could help. In a couple of days, you are asked to do something for Sonya. In this case, maybe an item on your list was to validate her feelings of disappointment. You have now acted on your empathy!


Just like the previous weeks, you’ll be asked to do 2 of the now 4 skills per day: perspective taking, empathic concern, empathic accuracy game, and acting empathically and altruistically. By the end of the week, you will have done 5-10 of each skill.


Awesome! Not too bad right? So, do you think it works and would you do it? It’s still an open question about how well it actually works and for whom it works for!


The last point I want to make is about how to go about increasing empathy. The researchers want to do this through a smartphone app. I think this is great for many reasons (it’s accessible, you can do it on your own time, convenient, you don’t have to do anything other than the task at hand, easy to reinforce). However, there is no reason you can’t incorporate this into in-person interactions.


If you teach a class, are a parent, are a friend, or just want to make change, you can definitely try this out. You don’t have to do it in any orderly way. In fact, researchers don’t even know the order in which to go about this (yet). Of course, there are many other considerations we need to make, and I will address them in the next post. However, if you are motivated and wanting this, it is worth a shot today.


Until next time.

-Alex


Citation: Fry, B. N., & Runyan, J. D. (2018). Teaching empathic concern and altruism in the smartphone age. Journal of Moral Education, 47(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2017.1374932

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