Empathy is the ability to step into other people’s shoes to understand and feel their emotions – be these positive emotions of happiness and delight, or negative emotions of sadness, anger or disappointment. Indeed, Martin Hoffman (2000) defines empathy as “an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own” (p 4). Empathic responding is what you do about it- do you high-five your friend with the good news? Or try to comfort your father when he’s feeling blue? These responses are considered empathic prosocial behaviour.
Prosocial behaviour is more than an absence of antisocial behaviour. A striking example of this can be seen in war-time heroes who not only refrain from antisocial, violent behaviour, but engage in active prosocial behaviour such as saving comrades. For example, Pfc. Doss (an American soldier whose life story is dramatised in the film Hacksaw Ridge) saved 75 men in the WWII Battle of Okinawa- all without carrying a weapon. This is an example of profound prosocial behaviour- Doss likely felt empathy Doss for the men in pain, and he did something very prosocial in response.
But where does our ability to empathise come from? We know that newborns cry in response to distress from other infants (Hoffman, 2000), suggesting that empathic feelings are automatic. As we get older, witnessing distress or excitement can still generate similar feelings in oneself - how we learn to respond appropriately to those feelings is a question of considerable interest to developmental psychologists, especially since recent twin findings indicate that the origins of empathy are almost entirely non-genetic (Warrier et al, 2018).
By age 24-months, children typically try to help adults in distress (Brownell, 2013); recent findings demonstrate that 18- and 24-month old toddlers will even try to help a life-like baby doll in distress (McHarg, Fink, & Hughes, 2019; Nichols, Svetlova, & Brownell, 2015). The findings from these recent studies indicate that toddlers often show personal distress when they hear an infant crying, but the effects of this personal distress can vary widely, from constraining to catapulting prosocial action (Eisenberg, Fabes, & Murphy, 1996).
Parents, teachers, and other caregivers help young children learn how to respond prosocially to others’ feelings (Brownell, 2016). This socialization might include helping children to get past their own feelings (especially feelings of distress) in order to be able to offer support to the person experiencing the emotion. Parents and caregivers do this in many ways: they might model empathic responses or explain what is happening, or draw a child’s attention to another person’s empathic responses. Acquiring this ability to overcome personal responses may continue into adulthood. For example, medical and healthcare students have to learn how to remain detached in distressing situations in order to think clearly and provide the medical help that is needed.