Empathy has been researched in the field of learning sciences thoroughly for its eminent effect on learning outcomes. In the field of psychology, there is no common definition of empathy that everyone agrees upon. However, in this essay, empathy will refer to “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition” (Arghode et al., 2013, p. 7). Because of its high relevance in learning, the prolonged nature vs. nurture debate of empathy has inspired many researchers to formulate a framework and conduct an empirical research. This essay aims to compare two contradicting theoretical approaches of empathy, whether empathy can be learned or not. Moreover, it will address how these contravening theories of empathy can have different implications in learning and teaching.
Empathy is innate
It is widely believed that humans are born with a tendency to feel what others are feeling. One of the most prominent model that advocates this viewpoint is Preston and de Waal’s ‘perception-action model’ (Preston & Waal, 2002). This model originates from the perception-action theory of motor behavior which indicates overlying representations for performing and observing actions (Waal & Preston, 2017). Applied to emotional phenomena, it suggests that “attended perception of the object’s state automatically activates the subject’s representations of the state, situation, and object, and that activation of these representations automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic response, unless inhibited” (Preston & Waal, 2002, p. 4). The term ‘subject’ refers to the person who empathizes while the ‘object’ refers to the person who is being empathized. The term ‘attended’ comes from the fact that strong empathic reaction demands the subject to attend to the state of the object. This mechanism accentuates that the subject’s perceptions choose the elements in the environment that require a response from them. In other words, subjects are prone to show empathic responses to those objects that they count on to obtain their personal goals. This is seen from the study conducted by Chapman et al. (1987) that aimed to investigate affective and dispositional factors in the motivation of children’s helping. They found out that empathy and feeling of guilt motivate children to help others the most. The result showed that human children are more susceptible to help others when they feel responsible for the object’s distress.
Perception-action model also explained possible causation of empathic behaviors in humans from evolutionary perspective. It explicates that the evolution of a perception-action organization of our nervous systems leads to empathy. We are simply more prone to code others’ actions as if they were ours, simply because it is much more efficient. Preston and Waal (2002) also stated that we are inclined to show empathic responses because such tendency leads to higher chances of reproduction by avoiding predators or attackers. It is important to note that this tendency is more often seen from group-living animals, in other words, social animals. It is also widely believed that humans have evolved to comprehend of others’ emotions to increase the chance of survival by becoming better parents and players in nature. Researchers have found that infants are inclined to imitate others’ facial expression, indicating the predisposition for empathy (T. M. Field et al., 1982). In conclusion, perception-action model suggests that humans understand others’ emotions through their personal, manifested representations which alter their empathy based on the past experiences (Waal & Preston, 2017).
Empathy can be learned
On the other hand, many researchers have attempted to challenge the acclaimed belief of empathy as an innate trait. Heyes (2018) proposed the dual system model of empathy. According to this model, there are two systems in empathy; Empathy1 as an emotional contagion and Empathy2 as an empathic understanding. While Empathy1 revolves automatically, Empathy2 includes more controlled processing, meaning relatively slow and intentional processing. Although Empathy1 is believed to develop in early age in humans, adequate amount of researches affirm that even this aspect of empathy is learned.
One of them is the Learned Matching hypothesis, which suggests that Empathy1 is based on a matching mechanism formulated during the development by associative learning (Heyes, 2018). Self-stimulation, synchronous emotion and affect mirroring contribute to this associative learning. Specifically, this hypothesis implies that, affect mirroring is an important source that impacts the development of Empathy1 in human infants. That is, caregivers’ imitation of infants’ emotional revelations is the driving source behind Empathy1, not the other way around. There is a plethora of evidence that this imitation by caregivers occurs very frequently (Ray & Heyes, 2011). These experiences in infants enable them to construct corresponding associations between external and internal emotional stimuli, which in turn enable emotional contagion (Heyes, 2018).
Furthermore, a study that observed children of depressed mothers added weight to this belief. A study conducted by Field and his colleagues (Tiffany Field et al., 2009) reported that infants of depressed mothers appeared to be less responsive to faces and voices. In other words, these children seemed to experience less affect mirroring than the infants of non-depressed mothers. They asserted that the lower level of responsiveness is ascribed to higher arousal, less attentiveness and less empathy of these children. Therefore, empathy is something that infants learn from their caregivers / parents, rather than an innate trait that they are born with. To conclude, learned matching hypothesis alludes to the malleable nature of empathy and its development during lifespan.