Two contradicting theories of empathy share some similarities and differences. Firstly, both perception-action model and learned matching hypothesis suggest that empathy can be seen from human infants. However, they are different with respect to how they interpret the display of emotional cues in infants. The perception-action model (Preston & Waal, 2002) suggests that humans are more prone to show empathic patterns to others due to the evolutionary advantages. Conversely, learned matching hypothesis (Heyes, 2018) states that affect mirroring by caregivers provokes infants’ emotional contagion, which is one of the components of empathy. This discrepancy in theories can be attributed to ongoing debate of nature vs. nurture in psychology. Perception-action model and its supporting evidence add weight to the nature side, while learned matching hypothesis argues for the nurture side.
Many researchers have provided valuable empirical findings that support or counteract one or the other theories of empathy. Melchers et al. (2016) conducted a study to investigate the heritability of empathy exploiting an extended twin design. In this study, they understood empathy as defined by Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004); a phenomenon consisting of an affective emotional response and a cognitive side that are both equally important. An affective empathy refers to the observer’s emotional response to the affective response of others, while cognitive empathy refers to the observer’s ability to understand others’ feelings. Melchers and his colleagues used self-report questionnaire and emotion recognition task to assess the heritability of empathy in 743 twins and siblings. The result showed that the heritability estimates for affective and cognitive empathy are between 52 and 57% and 27% respectively. When the estimation of cognitive empathy heritability was corrected for heritability, the value rose to 53%. This result fits in well with proposed perception-action model of empathy. However, considering that these researchers used two different methods to measure the heritability (self-report and experimental data), this research suggests further research. Moreover, the fact that non-twin siblings and fraternal twins were included in the subjects lessens the reliability of findings.
On the other hand, a six-year longitudinal study conducted by Kataoka et al. (2019) showed an intriguing result that weighs up the belief that empathy can be enhanced. Their study aimed to observe whether a targeted educational program can enhance empathy in medical students. The training program focused on communication skills of these students. The level of empathy was estimated five times by Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE). A total of 69 students’ data proved that the communication skills training fortified the level of empathy, indicated by significant increase on the JSE (Kataoka et al., 2019). Likewise, there has been substantial body of evidence that empathy can be augmented through appropriate training and learning. These studies back up the learned matching hypothesis which argues for incremental trait of empathy. However, the absence of sustained effect in mentioned study questions the preservation of such augmentation in empathy. In addition, given that such intervention studies have been conducted only in medical students, a further study in more general school setting is necessary.
Implications of theories of Empathy in learning context
The notion of empathy has been thoroughly researched in psychology because of its substantial role in many social and learning aspects. Therefore, it is of great importance to correctly examine whether empathy is an inborn trait or not. If empathy can be taught and enhanced through learning and training, we must strive to integrate such programs for enhancement of empathy in learning. According to Arghode et al. (2013), science teachers reported that empathy plays an important role in students’ learning. Knowing how empathy provides an emotional bridge between individuals that later promotes pro-social behavior (Riess, 2017), learning scientists should mind how these contrasting theories of empathy can have different implications in learning.
In this essay, I strived to provide two contradicting theoretical approaches of empathy and critically compare them in light of recent empirical findings. Many nativists have conceived that empathy is an innate trait and this perspective has been supported by perception-action model of empathy. Perception-action model suggests that humans are inclined to understand others’ emotional responses through their personal representations, which allow empathy to increase (Waal & Preston, 2017). Conversely, many recent researches have posed that empathy is learned. One of them is learned matching hypothesis which asserts that empathy depends on the matching mechanisms, formulated during the development of associative learning (Heyes, 2018). Although there is a plethora of evidence favoring nature aspect of empathy like mirror neuron heritability studies, recent findings in medical students have proven that empathy can surely be learned and enhanced (Kataoka et al., 2019). Considering empathy’s critical role in learning and pro-social behavior, we must clearly understand that empathy is a teachable trait, and further imply this finding in teaching and training.
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