Research suggests that the level of incivility in the U.S. is rising. As we publicly battle out our issues in every arena—on our roads, in schools, on social media, in the check-out lane—we’re exhausting our collective ability to empathize with each other. In his latest column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s CEO and president Bryan Goodwin looks at the research and wonders why the shift away from empathy began, and how, as educators, we might help reverse this trend.
Empathy is feeling with another; compassion is feeling for another. Either would lead us to behave ethically toward the people around us. But, to social scientists and brain researchers, they differ in a crucial way: Compassion can be taught and better sustained than empathy.
Brain research suggests that a strong, sustained empathic response can lead to a form of emotional burnout, or indifference, causing us to care less about others over time. This has been observed in medical students as they progress in their studies. With the 24-hour news cycle putting us all under constant pressure to feel other people’s suffering, we’re becoming more like those med students: It hurts too much to try to absorb everybody else’s pain all day, every day, so we form psychic barriers to protect ourselves.
Compassion, meanwhile, activates different neurons. It is perfectly possible to care about somebody’s troubles enough to want to help them, without soaking up their experience so deeply that we, too, are thrown into turmoil. This is obviously good news for the those that need the help. It’s also good news for educators, because compassion can be observed, measured, and taught.
Most importantly, teaching and modeling compassion, rather than falling back on empathy, can be good news for children—if parents also act on this understanding. Focusing on service-oriented activities rather than loading kids up on activities meant solely to develop personal competencies would lead to more resilient, more intellectually open, and happier children, Goodwin writes.