Brainmatters | Em·pa·thy - not right now


I think I'm a pretty kind person - I care about others, sympathize with them, and try to help them however I can. But not always. Sometimes I have too little patience with others, think they are whiners, and cannot (don't want to?) be there for them.

[noun; plural empathies] Identification with and understanding for the situation, feelings and motives of another person.

Psychology has always paid plenty of attention to people's readiness to help each another. It is one of the few phenomena that actually serves as a proper behavioral measure - it is measured not with a subjective questionnaire, but objectively in hard numbers.

Some people are more empathetic than others, sympathize more with another, and are therefore more willing to make a sacrifice for another. But sharing another's feelings and helpful behavior are also very much context dependent. Research shows that pressure - such as time pressure - very strongly influences this behavior.

Yet again in recent weeks, unhappily, many incidents have been reported in the press that are classic examples of situations in which people fail to summon enough understanding for others - the immigration crisis, Brexit, Orlando. But we don't need to look far afield to find examples.

At times a lack of empathy is evident here on our own campus. Some people find it difficult to understand that canteen prices can be a real issue for others (‘Surely you're happy to pay an extra euro for a good cup of coffee?’), both fraud regulations and appeal procedures are becoming ever more complex, criticism of colleagues ever keener, and it turns out that our Dutch students came bottom in an international poll on the warmth of the welcome given to foreign buddies.

It is not easy to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and of course we are all busy - too busy. And that is not going to change any time soon, what with shrinking study grants and rising student numbers.

But suppose that we as a group surprise ourselves in the coming year - we have the best study programs, the loveliest campus, the tastiest sausage sandwiches: why don't we try being the friendliest community in the country? I'll go back to leaving my door open in case you want to talk, and you'll invite your foreign colleagues round to your home?

Yes, I know I'm being a pain in the butt in this column - or are you simply too busy?

Yvonne de Kort is Professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

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