The Role of Empathy in Our Evolution


Empathy is the ability to recognize thoughts and feelings within another conscious being. It is a mental capacity in which we can understand the inner world of others – their beliefs, emotions, intentions, values, goals, and personal experience.

With empathy not only comes the understanding that other beings have thoughts and emotions, but also that these thoughts and emotions may differ greatly from our own. This makes empathy a crucial tool for understanding other people and getting along with them.

Psychologists distinguish two main components of empathy: cognitive empathy (knowing another person’s thoughts and beliefs) and affective empathy (knowing another person’s feelings and emotions).

The degree of empathy we have for others can be found on a spectrum. At lower ends, empathy only requires that we are aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings. But at higher ends of the spectrum, empathy may include actually experiencing one’s situation as if it was our own.

Some experts on empathy, such as emotion researcher Paul Ekman, say that these higher levels of empathy lead to a third kind of empathy: compassionate empathy, where we are so attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others that we are driven to alleviate their pain and suffering through kindness and charity.

Maybe you once saw a commercial for starving kids in Africa and it tore your heart out. You saw how much the people over there were suffering, and you felt an immediate drive to donate some money to the cause. This is just one common example of how empathy can drive us to be more compassionate and altruistic.

Empathy and Child Development: The “False Belief” Test

At a young age, we’re not very good at empathizing with other people’s point-of-view. Instead, we tend to think that everyone perceives the world in the exact same way that we do. Developmental psychologists often use this “False Belief” test to determine whether a child is capable of empathic thinking or not:

In this particular test, a child is shown a box of crayons and asked what is inside the box. Naturally, they answer with “crayons,” but the experimenter then reveals that there are in fact candles inside the box.

After this short demonstration, the experimenter introduces “Snoopy” into the conversation. She reminds the child that Snoopy didn’t hear any of their discussion that they just had, and then asks the child, “If I were to ask Snoopy what is inside the crayon box, what do you think he’d answer?”

The average 2-3 year old, lacking the ability to put themselves in Snoopy’s shoes, will answer with “candles.” But someone who has the ability to empathize would more likely answer that Snoopy would think the crayon box had crayons in it – because we know that Snoopy was unaware that the crayon box was filled with candles.

In order for the child to successful pass the test, they would need to put themselves in Snoopy’s place and understand that he has different knowledge about the situation then we do.

Within a couple of years, most kids will develop the empathic ability to see the world through Snoopy’s eyes. And as a child interacts with more and more individuals throughout their cognitive development, they will become more attuned to the fact that each person has their unique differences in perception, knowledge, and experience.

Children grow to understand that how they view the world is not necessarily the same as how someone else may view it. This is often the first step toward developing empathy.

Children who fail to pass the “False Belief” test after the ages of 4-5 have a greater probability of being autistic. Psychologists and parents often use this test on children to catch autism early, so preventive measures can begin to be taken. A lack of empathy is one reason autistic individuals are usually not able to function effectively in social situations.

The Role of Empathy in Our Evolution

Humans have evolved as social animals, who throughout history have depended on cooperation and strong relationships in order to adapt and survive in their environment.

Back when we were hunters and gatherers, we had to work together to find food and provide security for one another. Our ability to survive was directly related to our ability to empathize with others, respond to their needs, and thereby build trustful connections.

If someone lacked empathy, and thus an inability to build these effective relationships, then they would quickly be seen as a social outcast, and thus be ostracized from the group

Naturally, empathy also played a large role in the development of our parenting habits. Parents who better recognized the needs of their children, and how to respond to those needs, were much more likely to raise successful and adaptive offspring.

These are just some examples of the early evolutionary origins of empathy. Over time, our capacity and ability to empathize has grown more and more complex.

Jeremy Rifkin explains in the video The Empathic Civilization that as communication technologies developed more and more – from the printing press to the telephone to the world wide web – our capacity to empathize with others similarly expanded. He believes one day we might develop empathy toward the complete “biosphere” of our existence.

So at the beginning of our evolution we may have only empathized with close family ties and those within our community or tribe, but we now have the capacity to empathize with people all over the world through various communication technology (print publications, radio, TV, the internet, etc.) and also travel technology (cars, airplanes, etc.), which allows people to visit and experience more types of cultures and connect with more people than was ever possible before.

Why is Empathy Still Important Today?

The ability to empathize with others is still a very important aspect of our cognitive development. One reason is because we still greatly depend on healthy relationships with others in order to live happy and successful lives.

Most of us need to cooperate with people at school, at work, at home, or in public. And most of us crave a sense of belonging, as well as affectionate relationships with family, friends, and significant others. These things would be incredibly difficult to accomplish without empathy. How can we be expected to treat others with dignity and respect if we can’t put ourselves in their shoes?

In a very real way, we all still operate in “tribes,” they are just much greater in size and complexity than they were thousands of years ago (and they encompass both real-world and online relationships now). The need for empathy is still alive and well wherever there is social interaction taking place.

More broadly, empathy isn’t only relevant to building relationships, but also problem-solving and creativity.

Being able to take on another person’s perspective can very often lead to answers and insight that we wouldn’t discover if we limited ourselves to our own personal, narrow world-view.

When we find ourselves experiencing difficulty in a situation, we can draw on others experiences for inspiration and motivation. In my article on role models, I describe how putting ourselves in a “role models” shoes can help us learn from them.

For example, there’s the common saying, “What would _____ do?” We can often use this question as an empathic tool to find insight on how another person would act in a certain situation. By asking questions like this we are actively putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes in order to learn from their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

We can similarly apply this model to other people. An aspiring baseball player may ask, “What would Cal Ripkin Jr. do?” Or someone aspiring to be a movie filmmaker may ask, “What would Charlie Kaufman do?” The point is we can put ourselves in the shoes of any kind of role model to help guide us toward certain goals. This is all a product of empathy.

This article only begins to scratch the surface of how empathy will continue to be one of the most useful skills in the 21st century. It influences everything from our relationships with others to our individual goals and motivation.

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