In an earlier post about Emotional Intelligence and marshmallows I referred to the findings of a Demos think-tank report which reported on an increase in social mobility between the end of WW2 and the 1970s followed by a period of stagnation up to 2000.
Amongst the three traits that were most important for children to improve their social lot was empathy – the ability to be sensitive to other people, to read their emotions and understand non-verbal communication.
This is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence. Unless you are a sociopath everyone is capable of being empathic. There is even some research evidence that we possess a mirror neurone which plays a part in empathy and learning by imitation.
It may also explain the phenomenon of postural echo where two people in rapport with each other may unconsciously synchronise their movements.
There is also other evidence that may be a genetic component to empathy. Researchers in the US have discovered that people who inherit a particular version of oxytocin receptor, the bonding hormone, score significantly higher on tests of empathy, and react less strongly to stressful stimuli.
They point out that people who score lower can still be caring and empathetic individuals, and people can learn to develop more empathy. For example, people who read well-written novels are able to put themselves in the shoes of the characters and that helps them to understand others’ perspectives.
And researchers at Strathclyde University found that children who are good at standing up to bullies, whether for themselves or others, are better at resolving problems without conflict, are more emotionally literate, and better at taking other people’s perspective. See “What doesn’t kill you, makes you”.
Students today, however, are 40% less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, according to a report in The Times. “Generation Me” is more narcissistic, self-centred and competitive and less concerned with other people’s feelings. People also see them as more confident and individualistic but less kind.
The decline has been more marked since 2000, attributed to violent video games, social networking sites, and an obsession with TV celebrities. Inflated expectations, competitiveness and hiding weaknesses leaves no time for empathy.
Researchers believe that technology has replaced human interaction and having “friends” online means that you don’t have to respond to their problems. At one point it seemed that emotional intelligence was at last being taken seriously in the last labour government.
In The Times at that time, an article about cabinet resignations said that Shaun Woodward and Tessa Jowell were given; “prominent communication roles to provide emotional intelligence and, according to aides, address Mr Brown’s communication weaknesses”. That those attempts failed is now history.
BTW If you want to check out how good you are reading NVC go to this BBC site
First posted on SGANDA in 2010
The researchers thought that stress would make everyone self-centred because when we’re stressed we don’t have the cognitive resources to think of others.
In other words when we’re stressed we become more egocentric and only think of ourselves. This reduces the cognitive load and we would be expected to be less empathetic.
But this was only true for men not women.
The experiments required the participants to judge others’ emotions, try to think from another person’s perspective, and try to imitate body movements.
Men performed these things worse when put under stress. The opposite was true of women.
The authors , Lamm and Silami were unable to explain the reasons for the different outcomes. They thought women mighty internalise social support and have learned that this is better when they interact with others.
Oxytocin might also play a part as previous research suggests that under stress conditions women had higher levels of it than men.
When I read this it rang a bell. I remembered a suggestion that rather than having a “fight or flight” response to stress women adopted a “tend and befriend” approach.
I found the reference in an article in the APA Monitor on Psychology from January 2004.
Shelley Taylor, a psychologist at the University of California, who along with a number of colleagues developed the model, proposed that in stressful situations females protect themselves and their young through nurturing behaviours (tending) and forming alliances with larger social groups of women (befriending).
She published her model in Psychological Review (Vol 107, No 3 in July 2000).
Males by contrast show less of a tendency towards “tending and befriending” and were more likely to stick to the “fight or flight model”.
The model was based on research into non-human animals, neuroendocrine studies, and social psychology.
Most of the research on stress responses has been in males but women, as the primary caregivers, can’t always respond in the same way – even though they may have the same initial reaction. Females can’t just flee and leave their offspring at risk.
Oxytocin probably plays a key part as it enhances relaxation, reduces fearfulness,and decreases the stress responses typical in a “fight or flight” response. Males are more influenced by androgen hormones such as testosterone linked to hostility.
Oxytocin also promotes care-giving and underlies attachment between mother and child. Some studies have shown that mothers tend to be more caring when they are under stress.
As far as the befriending is concerned females prefer to be with others in stressful situations whereas males don’t. Generally women are more likely to reach out for social support in all types of stressful situations including health worries and conflict at work.
The researchers were keen to point out that we shouldn’t gender stereotype these responses and males might find it equally useful to use the “tend and befriend” strategy as part of a repertoire of responses which includes affiliation.
Sources: Psyblog and APA Monitor on Psychology January 2004
It may not be about selfish genes and economic man after all. According to primatology professor Frans de Waal, the success of Homo sapiens is due primarily to our capacity for empathy and our urge to understand and appreciate others.
Robin McKie interviewed him in The Observer about his book; “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society“. De Waal says that, like most mammals but particularly primates, we possess an innate sensitivity to the emotional status of other members of our species. He believes that empathy developed with the evolution of the maternal instinct as mothers need to understand when their offspring are in danger.
That might also explain why women seem to be more empathetic than men and the hormone oxytocin, which increases bonding between people, may also be a key component. The ability to understand another’s emotions and share them – what he calls emotional contagion (and which may be due to possession of so-called mirror neurones) – is common in all higher mammals. (See “Emotional Intelligence and Empathy”).
He thinks this emotional perspective appears at the age of two and correlates to the development of self-awareness. The more self-aware the animal the more empathetic it appears to be.
And it is this ability to be empathetic that enables us to care for the sick and elderly and survive in overcrowded cities (compared for example to rats which in experiments on overcrowding attacked each other).
Robin McKie interviewed him in The Observer about his book; “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society“.
Ever wondered how much empathy you have? Psychological tests developed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, and their team at the University of Cambridge, England, can give you insight into the way your brain functions. Specifically, you can discover if you are more prone to empathize or systemize. Click empathy v systemising and instant feedback.