The use of the term “empathy” has been expanding in recent years, from workplaces to prison systems to conversations about gun control. Research into mirror neurons in the 1980s and 1990s brought sharper focus to the notion of empathy, but it has since acquired numerous dimensions, according to Cris Beam, a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and the author of a new book titled, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. Empathy is ingrained in the psyche from birth, although sociopaths and psychopaths may be born with a “disability” — that of missing empathy. Empathy skills also can be enhanced. Beam explored the various facets of empathy in an interview on the Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)
Following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why has empathy become such an important topic?
Cris Beam: There are a couple of reasons. One is, in the 1990s, there was the surge of interest in mirror neurons. While [the theories around] mirror neurons themselves have been largely debunked, they gave us a way to think about empathy. A researcher named Giacomo Rizzolatti in Italy led a team that discovered these neurons, which essentially were motor neurons firing in monkeys when monkeys didn’t move a muscle. It spawned an avalanche of interest in all things empathy. At the same time, corporations have been driving the idea for empathy. As they are looking to market things to us — one-to-one — as opposed to the mass-media commercials, they’re calling that empathy, which may be a bastardization of the term.
Knowledge at Wharton: We have seen certain areas of science getting incorporated into the business world, and into society in general. Seemingly, this is the latest. And it feels like businesses understand that empathy in the workplace is important, both in terms of working with their employees and for bottom-line benefits.
Beam: Yes. Many publications have said that empathy helps your bottom line, strategy and entrepreneurship, and fosters a culture of innovation. They’re pushing for empathy to be taught in the business schools. I question it. It’s not necessarily like, “Let’s feel good to feel good.” I think it’s a way to make money.
“[Empathy] should be modeled and learned for its own sake. It shouldn’t be something that should be acquired and graded.” –Cris Beam
Knowledge at Wharton: Is empathy important to a wide range of people now?
Beam: Yes. We’re seeing empathy as a term surging in many ways. Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book about empathy and said that right now we’re in an empathy era. I’ve found that every hundred years or so, we enter a new surge in all things empathy. The term “empathy” is only 100 years old. So it’s hard to look back further than that. But 200 years ago, [Adam] Smith and [David] Hume were talking about sympathy in much the same ways that we talk about empathy. So we seem to go through these patterns of getting a real interest in connectivity and empathy about every 100 years, and saying that we are as a species interconnected, and that matters. Then we go back into the idea that we’re actually individualistic, and that’s what matters. And then we go back toward empathy. We swing.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that people in general have an understanding of what empathy is and how it can impact their lives?
Beam: Pre-theory, we think of empathy as standing in another’s shoes. But it’s much more complicated than that. When we’re born, we have a baseline empathy, which is mirroring. When a baby cries, another baby will cry. When a baby yawns, another baby will yawn. But then as we develop, we get much more complex understandings of empathy and deeper abilities for different levels of empathy.
Even the idea of standing in another’s shoes is more complex than it seems on the surface. There’s the idea of me imagining you experiencing your experience. And then there’s the idea of me imagining me experiencing your experience. Both of those are complicated because if I imagine you experiencing your experience, I’m sort of taking away your agency. And if I imagine me experiencing your experience, I’m also sort of colonizing you. It’s tricky.
Knowledge at Wharton: But we’ve seen growing awareness of the concept of empathy to a degree over the last 30-40 years — whether or not people take the time to understand what the other person is feeling.
Beam: Yes. We saw that in the elections, where empathy was being weaponized, and people were saying, “I’m not going to have empathy for the other side because they don’t have empathy for me.” As though it’s something that is chosen — where we can decide, “I’m not going to feel something.” When we talk about that low-level empathy, it’s instinctive. It’s immediate. The idea that we can turn it off as a way to harm another person is a really interesting notion.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the greatest benefits today with the mindset and the use of empathy in our society today?
Beam: There are so many benefits to empathy. We’re seeing it being used in courtrooms that used to be called the drug courts or the domestic violence courts. We’re now seeing it — in New York at least — in prostitution courts or human trafficking intervention courts, where, rather than getting [prison] time, people are getting services. [However,] they’re still criminalized and still brought in as criminals, which is unfortunate.
Rather than thinking that you have to be reasonable and judgment-free as a judge or a jury, you’re thinking that you have to question and check your own biases, which is really good. [The debate over Supreme Court judge Sonia] Sotomayor questioning empathy in the courtroom made a lot of people question the role of empathy in courtrooms.
Knowledge at Wharton: What about within our children? We see some changes within school systems now of trying to teach empathy.
Beam: There’s a big push for teaching empathy. Part of that is in the anti-bullying curriculum. But as a lot of schools are teaching empathy, there’s a big split as to how to do it. Some people think that it should be skills-based. Is empathy a skill? Is it something that you can learn? Is it something that you can teach like playing the piano?
I argue that it shouldn’t be skills-based. We live in an acquisitional culture where we acquire things. Something that can be numeritized and graded takes away the inherent value of empathy. I think that it should be modeled, and learned for its own sake. It shouldn’t be something that should be acquired and graded.
Knowledge at Wharton: I wonder if we are born with a certain level of empathy.
“I don’t think that there’s a finite amount [of empathy] that you’re given at birth. But I do think that there are people that are born with a disability.” –Cris Beam
Beam: There’s some research that suggests that, when we look at sociopaths and psychopaths who are supposedly born without it. It’s hard to make that overarching judgment that some people are born with it and some people are born without it. I do think that it can grow. If it’s modeled for you, you can learn empathy. You can absorb it. You can become a more empathetic person if you are treated empathically. So, I don’t think that there’s a finite amount [of empathy] that you’re given at birth. But I do think that there are people that are born with a disability [of not having it].
Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned how empathy is playing a role in courts. I guess the use of empathy is to be able to give the person an opportunity to try and get back into normal society as quickly as they can.
Beam: It’s a way in the court system to make sure that they’re given an even playing field. There’s a lot of research that shows that when we’re on juries, we have more empathy for people who look like us or act like us. That’s really a dangerous precedent. What we want to do is make sure that we’re able to expand our empathy circle as it were, and feel [for] and understand people who may not be the same as we are.
Ironically, while they say that empathy might have no place in the courtroom because it introduces bias, I argue that actually it has an enormous place in the courtroom because you have to expand your level of understanding for other people in order to not have bias.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would guess that when people think about empathy, they always think of it as a positive.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is it always a positive?
Beam: No. I don’t think that it’s either positive or negative. Empathy is not a feeling. It’s just a mode. It’s just a way of experiencing what another person experiences. That’s all it is. So it’s a precursor to citizenship or to forgiveness, or to a more “positive” step. But it’s only a step. It’s just a way of feeling or experiencing another person — good, or bad or neutral.
Knowledge at Wharton: But now that it is perceived as this very important entity, if it’s neither a positive nor a negative, are we trying to make it into more than it is?
Beam: People think that you can get empathy fatigue. There are people that feel too much. There’s the idea of the highly sensitive person who absorbs too much. I do think that there are people that experience empathy at a higher frequency than others. And they may have to learn how to protect themselves from feeling too much.
But I don’t think that it’s either positive or negative. I think it’s very useful to understand one another. There are different definitions of empathy. [As for the meaning of] “standing in another’s shoes,” the philosopher Nel Noddings describes that as a particularly Western, masculine conceptualization of empathy. She says that that very notion of projection is dangerous. She says empathy is receptivity, and that one way of conceptualizing it is just mutual vulnerability. That’s all that we have to do – just be mutually vulnerable to one another.
Another definition that I really like is the idea of empathy as an interruption of power. I learned that when I was writing about empathy in South Africa and looking at post-apartheid trauma. I was looking at a man who had been released from prison. His name is Eugene de Kock and he was an architect of apartheid. He was being released on parole, which is something that we never, ever do in the U.S. We tend to demonize our convicts and keep them in for a long time. And there, because he had shown remorse, he was being released. The idea was that in prison, he was the repository for everybody’s anger. And outside, everybody could be more culpable for their own [role] in apartheid. So it was interesting – the idea of empathy as a sort of interruption of his power.
Knowledge at Wharton: You mention places like South Africa which went through unbelievable shifts over the last 30 to 40 years. There are other places, too, where there have been unbelievable levels of strife in the last 50 years or so. The mindset surrounding empathy is a global one. Is it not?
“We seem to go through these patterns of getting a real interest in connectivity and empathy about every 100 years and saying that we are as a species interconnected, and that matters.” –Cris Beam
Beam: I think so. There’s an organization named Ashoka [in Arlington, Va.], and its messianic mission is to teach empathy around the globe. I find that surprising because I do think that culturally, most people have some notion of empathy. It may be expressed differently, but I do think it’s a basic human impulse, because we start right out of the womb with the basic mirroring empathy. And then it builds from that.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is your expectation of how we will see empathy continue be a part of our society in the U.S. and around the globe? How will it continue to develop — whether it be as a function of work, or as a function of how we treat people that have been in jail and are coming out of jail?
Beam: We’re at a really interesting cultural time. It depends on how you see us [in the U.S.]. It’s hard to get a meta-grip on things. If you see us as a top-down culture, we look less empathic because we’ve got an administration now that is not very empathic; it looks very tough. And if you look at us from a bottom-up cultural viewpoint, we’ve got these kids — say, the Parkland kids, who are doing some really beautiful work. [They] are very connected and are about building connection and challenging the status quo in a very empathic way. So it’s hard to tell where we’re going culturally. It looks like we’re at a crossroads, or we’ve got two different forces going on at the same time.
Knowledge at Wharton: Could you maybe follow it generationally? You mentioned the Parkland students and what they’re doing there [advocating gun control]. Are millennials and Gen Z leading this push even further, in comparison to the baby boomer generation?
Beam: I don’t know. It’s hard to make these sweeping generalizations. But I do think that the online generation is used to being empathized with in a particular way that’s both dangerous and helpful. In one way, they’re being empathized “with” because they’re so used to buying dog food online and then having a chartical about Purina [dog food] next to them [on their social media pages] in the next moment. While those of us in the older generation would find that an experience of surveillance, they find that comforting. They find that empathic. They find that they like they’re being seen and understood and witnessed. They try to replicate that empathic witnessing. So it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen in the next 20 years as these kids grow up.
Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve changed our communication styles so much in the digital world in that we rarely write letters anymore. Our conversations tend to be on email and text where sometimes certain things can be taken out of context, [compared to] going down the street to your friend’s house [for a conversation]. It makes it an interesting dynamic about how this idea of empathy will continue to play out.
Beam: Jeremy Rifkin says that we are more empathic because we’re more global. Our circle has widened. We have a broader understanding of who our fellow citizens on this earth are. And so we’re constantly thinking about who we might be impacting as we go about our daily lives.