The Empathy Project

Empathy, while traditionally considered an inherent trait, can be taught and refined by educational programs and life situations. Our team, in partnership with the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway and UNESCO, developed a curriculum, Activating Empathy, which is designed to teach empathy to teenagers. Through 15 one-hour interactive modules, participants gain an understanding of empathy, and learn how to apply empathetic practices to their community and the world. Part of ongoing pilot studies across the world, The Empathy Project is making an impact on youth in the global community.

Why teach empathy?

In recent decades, empathy has been the subject of considerable social sciences research, with a particular emphasis on the link between empathy and prosocial behavior.

Empathy is often seen as containing two components.

  1. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and identify another person’s thoughts, feelings, perspective and intentions.

  2. Emotional or affective empathy is the capacity to share another person’s feelings or to feel what they feel.  

One of the goals of an education system is to create responsible, caring and socially aware citizens who feel connected to their communities, societies and the wider world. This is a goal that is of lost in the context of exam pressure and curricular overload. Empathy matters because of its capacity to foster social connectedness and civic behavior. Empathy education can target intervention designed to improve empathy skills amongst young people with a focus on enhancing their social competence and promoting civic behavior.

There is a now a considerable body of research on empathy and civic behavior, which demonstrates the importance of cultivating empathy as a life skill. Key to this is the demonstrated connection between empathy and prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is defined as a voluntary behavior designed to help or benefit another person (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). Some examples of prosocial include sharing to meet others’ unmet material desires, comforting another person in emotional distress and cooperating with others to attain mutual goals. Empathy is claimed to be central in promoting pro-social and altruistic behaviors by increasing an individual’s positive, helpful and thoughtful actions (Gano-Overway et al., 2009; Pavalovich & Krahnke, 2012). Empathy for others and its associated prosocial behaviors are seen as key facilitators of positive social understanding (Hoffman, 1977; Tori & Batson, 1982).

Research has shown that empathy is lined to a range of beneficial effects on behavior and attitudes. Specifically, empathy and prosocial responding in children and adolescents is associated with:

  • better quality peer relationships (Dekovic & Gerris, 1994; Eisenberg et al., 2006)

  • greater academic achievement (Caprara et al., 2000; Wentzel, 1993)

  • greater social competence (Sarni, 1990)

  • less prejudice (Dovidio et al., 2000; Galinsky & Ku, 2004);

  • fewer externalising behaviors (Bandura et al., 1999; Kokko & Pulkkinen, 2000)

  • lower aggression (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988; Pulkkinen & Tremblay, 1992; Raskauskas et al., 2010)

  • lower engagement in antisocial behavior (Barr & Higgins-D Alessandro, 2009).

It is relevant to note that adolescence has been identified as a crucial period for empathy development (Chase-Landsdale, Wakschlag, & Brooks-Gunn, 1995). Research also indicates that the social and developmental experiences that occur during childhood and adolescence can set the stage for citizenship and responsibility across the lifespan (Hope & Jagers, 2014; Wray-Lake & Syvertsen, 2011).

“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this - when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers - it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.” – Barack Obama (2006)