Is empathy second nature?

Is empathy second nature?

Why is it when a friend of yours loses their job or a relative earns recognition at work you are able to easily put yourself in their shoes? It’s second nature to feel the same way. In fact you’ll probably feel the same disappointment and rejection of a job loss and you become equally as elated for the work kudos that your friend has.

But when you hear the same thing in the newspaper or even the news about someone not well known to you, you have the emotional reaction of a shoulder shrug?

Because empathy is second nature

It would be easy to say you care about them and that’s why you are have similar feelings. And you’d be right, but shouldn’t empathy extend to people you’re not familiar with as well? It’s second nature to know what it’s like to receive praise and you know the bitter taste of defeat so why don’t you have those feelings for strangers?

It’s not your fault. Empathy is hard-wired into your brain but it’s like any other muscle, the more you exercise it the greater your ability to extend where you feel it. The reason you come across feelings of empathy for friends and relatives with such ease is your brain sees your friends as your self. Not the one word, yourself, but your self – your being, who you are – you.

Your brain doesn’t see the difference

Research out of the University of Virginia has shown when a person who has received a small electric shock then sees their friend receive a similar electric shock, the area of the brain responsible for empathy lights up as if they have received the shock themselves. But when a stranger is witnessed receiving an electric shock there is no reaction.

How you identify yourself is made up in part about who you call your friends. Social science tells us we seek out friends and allies who we think are similar to ourselves and then add them to our self-definition.

Empathy is a great leadership quality

Employees who feel their boss exhibits empathy for them are less likely to call in sick, have higher levels of productivity and don’t ask for raises as frequently.

By being intentional in being empathetic for those you lead you’ll not only naturally increase your second nature ability to experience empathy but you’re also going to be a more effective leader.

Photo illustration by Charis Tsevis

Sign-up for our newsletter

We'll only send you an email about once a month

You can also subscribe to our RSS Feed