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Extending Empathy Beyond the Familiar

Sue Gerhardt provides a follow-up to the 60 Minutes "Born Good?" program, looking at the challenges in being empathetic outside of familiar social interaction.

By Sue Gerhardt

Sue Gerhardt is a practising psychotherapist, author and social entrepreneur. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, she has worked as a paralegal and as a documentary film-maker for a period. In 1997, she co-founded the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity which provides psychotherapeutic help to around 230 families a year. She is the author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain (2004) and The Selfish Society (2010).

November 30, 2012

Editor's Note: Read here for Erika MacLeod's recent interview with Sue Gerhardt.

The recent 60 Minutes programme Born Good? highlighted research, which suggests that babies as young as 5 months old already have some sort of basic sense of morality. The programme expressed surprise that we come into this world with co-operative social instincts.

Is this really such an unfamiliar idea to many people?

I suppose it doesn’t sit easily with those who buy into the favourite assumption of modern economics – that we are all isolated creatures seeking individual gain, no matter what effect it has on others.

The programme reported that babies are drawn to helpful, nice people and avoid – or even want to punish – anti-social people. This seems to me a pretty intelligent attitude for young creatures who are adapting to living in a highly social, interdependent world. Perhaps the really interesting question is:

Why do some of us lose that social awareness as we grow up?  Why don’t more people object to those who are unhelpful to others – bankers who refuse to lend to small businesses, politicians who invade other people’s countries, rich people who avoid taxes?

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The answer may be that we are set up for small scale group living, and most of us are not that concerned about people who are more remote from our daily lives.

The research literature certainly suggests that we are most responsive to the people around us, especially those who we rely and depend on. We help those who are closest to us, or most familiar to us, much more readily than people who are less connected to us – even toddlers do this.  As 60 Minutes showed, right from the start we approach helpful people and steer clear of nasty, obstructive people in everyday life. We even help others who have been harmed by anti-social types. And we feel good when bad behaviour is punished, and norms of helpful behaviour are reinforced. None of this surprises me at all – after all, I lived in an English boarding school for several years; to me, this is what people do in groups.

What I think is much more astonishing is the way that humans have taken these group living instincts and extended them so much, into complex capacities like empathy. Empathy is a much bigger step up the developmental ladder. It isn’t just about figuring out who is helpful or unhelpful – it’s a whole new level of understanding other people.  Empathy is the ability to focus on other people’s experiences and feel our way into sharing them to some degree ­– taking us further inside other people’s minds and making it possible for us to co-ordinate ourselves with each other in much more sophisticated ways.

This mental closeness also has its roots in babyhood. It starts with the emotional co-ordination of mother and baby – (hopefully) the baby’s first experience with a nice, kind person who notices his mental states and helps him to manage them. The better this goes, the more aware the baby becomes. This helps him develop more self-control and self-regulation. Basically, once his own systems are up and running, he can afford to give more attention to other people’s states of mind.  In my experience, the stronger someone’s self-awareness, the more clearly he can see other people. When you feel valued, it is natural to value others: there is somehow more space in your heart and mind for other people. A poorly loved person doesn’t have that sense of the value of people; he mentally treats others as a bit of junk in a dusty corner of his mind, occasionally pulled out when it’s useful – whilst the well loved person holds others in his mind like a favourite silver photo frame, which he polishes and burnishes.

Born Good? challenged the dominant cultural idea that we are born selfish and individualistic. But although it established that we are an innately social and co-operative species, it also hinted at our limitations. In another experiment shown in the programme, young children were clearly not interested in helping unknown (and unseen) strangers. Extending helpfulness to those beyond our in-group probably doesn’t come so naturally. So perhaps this alerts us to the need to actively promote empathy, with programmes such as Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy in schools (now spreading here to the UK).

But the first step, in my view, is to make sure that every child feels emotionally secure and “seen” enough that he or she is able to focus attention and imagination on other people’s feelings and experiences. Responding helpfully to the needs of our nearest and dearest is only the first step on the long road of developing our full humanity.  Ultimately, we need more – in effect, to recognise the value of every individual on the planet.