A chapter from Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development, by Professors David A. Pizarro, Brian Detweiler-Bedell, and Paul Bloom offers three methods of triggering empathy:
1. Surround your child with positive examples.
“We tend to mimic, mirror, and imitate the actions of others, and this mimicry causes us to actually feel what others are feeling through the mechanism of bodily feedback. The smile of one person thus causes another to smile, and this smile in turn causes the other person to actually feel happiness. In this way, emotions are transmitted from one mind to another as a sort of ‘action-at-a-distance.’ This process may be a universal precursor to the emergence of moral sentiments. After all, if I ‘catch’ your pain, I am suddenly motivated to care about you because you and your situation are, in essence, causing me pain.”
2. Encourage perspective taking.
“This mechanism can be initiated by asking a person to put themselves in the shoes of another. But perspective taking can also occur fairly spontaneously. For instance, Storms (1973) was able to elicit perspective taking simply by shifting the camera angles of videotaped actions. If the actions in the video took place through the eyes of the actor, participants were more likely to perspective-take than if the actions were shown from the perspective of an observer.”
3. Point out similarities.
“Describing a suffering individual as somehow similar to the target of the appeal is often an effective way to encourage an empathic reaction. For instance, telling us about an individual who lost his dog may make us feel sad, but if the individual happens to be from our hometown, we are likely to feel much worse. Anything that points out similarities to an individual seems to increase the chances that the individual will feel empathy.”
contributions from Frankie Thomas and Ilya Tsinis