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Psychology of Social Connection

“You’re such an empath”: The social importance of practicing empathy in the real world and beyond

February 20th, 2023 · 12 Comments

Ella: What is Empathy, and How Can We “Do It Right”? 

In these modern times, one would not necessarily be exaggerating by saying that you can see the words “empath” or “empathy” or “empathetic”  everywhere you look, whether online or in real life. In the digital universe, you may have seen one of Buzzfeed`s myriad of quizzes promising to tell you whether you are an empath, or browsed a few Tik Tok videos offering you telltale signs that you are one. In the news, perhaps you have heard discussion about “empathy politics”; maybe you have heard remarks that someone in your life could use a little more empathy – or even a little less. 

A few natural questions arise from the wide usage of this word: what is empathy, and how does it work? Is it good or bad to be empathetic? How do we know? 

According to the Psychiatric Medical Care Communications Team, empathy differs from another commonly associated word – sympathy – in its being shown by how much compassion and understanding we give to one another, rather than pity (PMC, 2023). Emotions researcher Brene Brown further elucidates this decision with an excellent analogy: when someone else falls down into a hole, we enact empathy by climbing down into the hole with them, rather than looking down on them from above. In this way, she explains, “empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection” (PCM, 2023). What does climbing into the hole entail for Dr. Brown? It’s simple: we must open ourselves up to perspective taking, seek to listen and stay out of judgment, recognize the emotion the other person is experiencing that we have perhaps felt before, and then communicate that we can recognize that emotion (Psychology Today, 2014). However easy this sounds, it can be surprisingly hard to implement consistently: like anything else, empathy is a skill that needs repetition in order to gain proficiency. 

A potential aid to understanding how to better enact empathy interpersonally is learning how we experience empathy within ourselves. Elliot et al. (2011) explains that empathy consists of three major subprocesses that we can trace to specific brain regions. Firstly, empathy begins with emotional simulation, wherein brain activation centering in primarily the limbic system mirrors the emotional elements of another`s bodily experience (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). Next, we enter into a process of perspective taking via the medial and ventromedial areas of the prefrontal and temporal cortices, through which we attempt to “place ourselves in another’s shoes” (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an emotional regulation process which allows us to soothe our own distress that we feel in response to another person’s pain or discomfort (Elliot et al., 2011, p. 2). 

As Brene Brown alludes to, empathy executed incompletely can be incredibly disconnecting. We can continue to distinguish empathy from sympathy through conceptualizing sympathy as two out of three critical processes, as described by Elliot: mentalization and self-regulation. Without emotional contagion – or the ability to feel what the other person is feeling – you are disconnecting by looking down on them from above the hole they feel stuck in. Similarly, and perhaps in some cases more damaging for relationships, is empathy that occurs without self-regulation. If you take on the emotions of others such that you can no

If you cannot understand, regulate, and work with your own emotions, unregulated empathy could lead you to take on the pain or distress of others and internalize it. This is not only harmful in that it leads to unnecessary personal suffering, but it also inhibits your ability to provide compassion or understanding for the other person; in short, it becomes all about you. When others are vulnerable with us and we react in ways that – albeit, unintentionally – center our emotional experience over their own, we communicate that their feelings are a burden to us, and we fail to forge connection in a time when it may feel critically necessary for the other person. 

All in all, empathy is an incredibly complex and powerful facet of the human experience. No person can know what it is like to be another person, but when it comes to understanding our emotional selves and that of others, it is essential for connection that we try. 


Cassie: Imagining Human Empathy and its Unique Ability to Transcend Reality

So, by now, it is clear that empathy is important for social connection among humans. In fact, many claims have been made by researchers and laypeople alike which suggest that humans have a special capacity for feeling empathy towards others. While research has largely refuted the idea that humans have a greater capacity for empathy than other non-human animals (e.g., Palagi et al., 2014), human empathic concern is still incredibly fascinating and important to consider as it extends beyond proximal social and physical boundaries.

Have you ever cried while watching or imagining your favorite character in a movie, TV show, or book as they experience grief from the death of a loved one? (Shout out to the heart-wrenching final chapter/movie scene when Hazel Grace reads Augustus’ letter in The Fault in Our Stars and the countless tear-jerking episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.) Or, have you ever smiled so embarrassingly wide at the end of a movie because of a feel-good ending? (Dozens of romantic comedies like The Proposal or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days come to mind.) If so, research suggests that you certainly aren’t alone. 

Aside from helping us to more deeply understand and support our loved ones in times of distress or elation, our incredible empathic capabilities allow us to understand and experience the emotions felt by fictional characters presented on a TV screen or in a book, too. So, when our favorite characters experience happiness, anger, sadness, or fear, we can feel and experience it with them–especially when authors or cinematographers create the right narrative-focused ambience (Keen, 2006; Lankhuizen et al., 2020). For example, one study found that, among a sample of young women with high levels of trait empathy, exposure to emotional movie clips meant to induce either a positive or a negative mood led to a larger cortical gamma response (which measures the processing of emotional information) and a greater subjective emotional reaction than exposure to a neutral movie clip (Maffei et al., 2019). However, among young women with low levels of trait empathy, a difference in gamma response was only observed when participants were exposed to a movie clip meant to induce a negative emotion (Maffei et al., 2019). Another article reports similar findings in dispositional differences between readers regarding felt empathy towards fictional book characters, suggesting that empathic concern is more readily expressed when reading about and trying to understand or empathize with a character’s negative emotions (Keen, 2006). These results suggest that humans have the ability to feel empathy – to some degree – towards fictional characters, despite their own varying empathic dispositions. Thus, they also support that humans have an intriguing – and perhaps unique – capacity for empathy.

But why would humans have the ability to empathize with people who don’t actually exist in the real world? One potential explanation is that empathizing with characters in movies, TV shows, books, and other forms of media increases perceived enjoyment of our watching and reading experiences. Being immersed in a fictional world by engaging in empathic concern for its characters may allow us to more completely buy into the narratives being portrayed, thus leading to greater enjoyment of the media we are exposed to (Green et al., 2004). Another possibility is that engaging in empathy with distant others has real-world benefits – even if those others appear only on a movie screen or in a book. For example, one account suggests that engaging in empathic concern for fictional characters allows us to hone our skills to better understand and interact with others (Mar, 2018). Whatever the reason, humans’ ability to empathize with fictional others seems to have important implications for the centrality of empathy to social connection and human nature.


Pomai: Keeping an Empathetic Mind in the Judicial System and Beyond

Bringing things back to the real world, empathy is crucial to how we understand people – not only those close to us, but also those who we wouldn’t normally share a connection with. It’s easy to be empathetic towards our friends and close relations, but what about those in need or those who we don’t always see eye to eye with? In the case of the judicial system, it’s so hard to be empathetic towards criminals and those prosecuted, especially when they seem so different from us. But empathy is an important part of being human, and it’s needed to ensure that all people, even those who are prosecuted, are treated with compassion and fairness. 

Empathy in the judicial system is complicated and there’s a growing debate regarding the use of empathy in court decisions. Some judges are intentionally empathetic in their cases, while others try to be as impartial as possible. The argument for empathy is that it makes judges more compassionate towards an accused person’s wellbeing (Cormack, 2021), making them less likely to inflict debatably immoral sentences such as the death penalty. However, psychologists also argue that empathy can lead to cognitive distortion and racial bias by overvaluing certain individuals’ perspectives more than others (Cormack, 2021). These distortions include potentially overvaluing a specific witness’s testimony and thus making a false accusation, and overvaluing a victim’s statement and thus being more willing to support the victim despite contrary evidence. For instance, in murder cases, if a judge is a White male (as they often are, given that White people account for ~98% of judges in most states) and is hearing testimonies from a White victim, the White victim’s perspective is significantly overvalued such that a Black defendant is 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a White defendant (IResearchNet, 2022). 

The drastic racial biases in judicial decisions make empathy seem like a dangerous flaw in the judicial system that prevents equality for all people involved. But to really understand empathy’s role, we have to take a step back and ask ourselves, when is empathy present in judges’ decision making? What we find is that arguments against using empathy are irrelevant because empathy inherently plays a role in judicial outcomes. 

As shown by our tendency to empathize with friends, family, strangers, and even fictional characters, empathy is a natural human response and it is inevitable. While we have a good amount of control over who we empathize with, studies have shown that we naturally empathize with people who we can relate to (Colby, 2012). So, we can’t just instruct judges to act impartially because they will subconsciously have more empathy towards groups of people who are more similar to them based on commonalities such as partisanship, race, and gender. Interestingly, a 2015 study found that judges who had daughters were more liberal in their decisions on criminal and civil court cases (Glynn et. al., 2015), which is a clear indicator of the subconscious role that empathy plays in decision-making. Even judges who don’t consciously empathize with a victim, witness, or defendant have too many life experiences that will sway their subconscious empathy towards specific individuals simply because empathy is a crucial part of being human. So to ask a judge to not have empathy at all is to deny people the right to connect with those in need. Yes, there will be mistakes in judicial decisions because empathy isn’t perfect. But judges can learn to set boundaries and work on recognizing what types of individuals they subconsciously empathize with so that they can make more just decisions. 

As for the rest of us, we can reconceptualize how we treat people based on how we view empathy. Empathy is not bad; it is not racist, nor unfair. It is just a tool that everyone can choose to use in a productive way. We should practice having empathy for those who are different from us and those who are distant from us, aiming to be more aware of our empathetic tendencies by taking on the perspectives of more than just our friends and making sure that we’re not judging people based on subconsciously perceived in-group connections. In doing so, we can live life with an open mind and be able to find ways to bridge the gap between our empathy and our biases.



Colby, Thomas B. (2012). In Defense of Judicial Empathy. Minnesota Law Review, 96(1), 



Cormack, Warren. (2021). Reassessing the Judicial Empathy Debate: How Empathy Can Distort 

and Improve Criminal Sentencing. Mitchell Hamline Law Review, 47(4), 81-108.

Elliot et al. (n.d.). Empathy. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from

Glynn, Adam N. & Sen, Maya. (2015). Identifying Judicial Empathy: Does Having Daughters Cause Judges to Rule for Women’s Issues? Midwest Political Science Association, 59(1), 37-53. 

Green, M. C., Brock, T. C., & Kaufman, G. F. (2004). Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds. Communication Theory, 14(4), 311–327. 

Keen, S. (2006). A Theory of Narrative Empathy. Narrative (Columbus, Ohio), 14(3), 207–236. 

Lankhuizen, T., Balint, K., Konijn, E., Savardi, M., Bartsch, A., & Benini, S. (2020). Shaping film: A quantitative formal analysis of contemporary empathy-eliciting Hollywood cinema. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 16(4), 704–718.

Maffei, A., Spironelli, C., & Angrilli, A. (2019). Affective and cortical EEG gamma responses to emotional movies in women with high vs low traits of empathy. Neuropsychologia, 133, 107175–107175.

Mar, R. A. (2018). Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science : a Journal of the American Psychological Society, 27(4), 257–262. 

Palagi, Norscia, I., & Demuru, E. (2014). Yawn contagion in humans and bonobos: emotional affinity matters more than species. PeerJ (San Francisco, CA), 2, e519–e519. 

Rjr. (2022, October 12). The difference between empathy and sympathy. Psychiatric Medical
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12 responses so far ↓

  • Karley Merkley // Feb 21st 2023 at 10:03 am

    Morning! This was a great post I feel like I just got a crash course about empathy. I really enjoyed the analogy Ella found and decided to mention because I feel as though that was a great way to differentiate empathy from sympathy and helped me understand better! I am wondering what makes an individual decide to display empathy versus sympathy in any situation?

    It is so interesting to think about why and how we display empathy in non-fictional characters. It would be cool to see if the effects get amplified or reduced if the viewer is alone or not or if it is a long tv series vs a short one. It makes sense looking back on the shows and movies that I “didn’t like” maybe it was because I didn’t display empathy for the characters?

    Lastly, I think it is really interesting looking at empathy in the judicial system… part of me thinks that if you take away empathy in the court room we will take away the nature vs nurture part of child development when coming to decisions… Pomai, I really enjoyed your concluding paragraph mentioning that empathy is tool that can be used how one sees it best because, if we relate to someone and display empathy that individual probably feels understood which is healthier than not being heard.

    (my question form Ella was also answered by Pomai in the sense that maybe we display empathy when we relate to others and sympathy when we don’t)

  • Rachel // Feb 21st 2023 at 10:23 am

    Especially after reading about the deficits of empathy, it was interesting to read Ella’s section detailing the use of empathy as a skill for connection, rather than a tool of bias. In what way can we reconcile these opposing beliefs? And are they opposing to begin with? In regard to Cassie’s points, and as someone who cries at the end of every movie, I wholeheartedly agree that the experience of immersion within a fictional universe requires some level of empathy, as the emotional echoing truly connects one to these stories. For Pomai’s section, it called back to the article on the use of empathy in moral decision making as the wrong move, but on the other hand, if one is aware of their potential biases, compassion and empathy could still facilitate more restorative justice practices.

  • Evan Tingler // Feb 21st 2023 at 11:07 am

    Since taking social psych in the spring of 2020 (my sophomore year – feels like centuries ago), I have been drawn to understanding empathy. While reading Ella’s easily-digestible explanation of how processes of empathy work in the brain, I remembered a book that I read by Abigail Marsh (a neuroscientist and psychologist mentioned in the Lecturette) called The Fear Factor. Essentially, she conducted a study comparing the amygdala sizes (a region of the brain heavily involved in empathy) of true altruists versus psychopaths. She ultimately found that compared to a standard amygdala size, altruists have enlarged amygdalas and psychopaths have shrunken amygdalas. This got me wondering more about people’s biological ability to express empathy and to what degree our neurological makeup explains the differences we see in society. Next, I definitely resonated with Cassie’s anecdotes of connection with fictional characters. When picking movies or books, I lean towards those that I find some personal connection with the plot or characters (especially when romance is involved). Now I recognize that the empathy I feel towards the characters because of the similar experience we share plays a large role in my overall appreciation and liking of the movie/book/etc. Lastly, Pomai’s section on the judicial system fascinated me. I am so curious about psychology’s role in the criminal justice system ranging from lawyer’s tactics to the insanity defense to the psychology of heinous crimes to the sway ability of a jury. These instances continue to pose the question of how objectively people (such as judges) can make decisions, and the associated implications, both positive and negative. There is so much to unpack in terms of empathy, so thank you Ella, Cassie, and Pomai for giving such a comprehensive overview and highlighting some of the most prevalent and important questions about empathy’s role in our society.

  • Elle Freedman // Feb 21st 2023 at 1:34 pm

    The task of tackling empathy and all of its contents, variations, and dimensions is a tall order that Ella, Cassie and Pompai effortlessly executed! Ella started off with a comprehensive overview of what empathy is, but also its importance in forming social connections. I especially loved the analogy to someone falling down a hole, and how the subsequent actions offer insight to what differentiates sympathy from empathy: empathy is climbing down the hole with the person, and sympathy is recognizing the person is down there but not physically joining them. Super cool visual and definitely helped me conceptualize the difference between those classifications, and the possible downsides of empathy. Cassie’s section on how we can empathize with fictional characters and people we don’t even know is something I can 100% relate to- I am guilty of crying in so many movies and can attest to that. What Cassie did so well was taking it one step further to explaining our capacity for empathy, and connecting biological processes that turn on when we experience empathy. Furthermore, the idea that feeling more empathy and strong connections to fictional characters increases our overall enjoyment of media is a cool theory to think about. Finally, Pomai rounded out the blog with an interesting take on empathy in law. I agree with her statement that it is pretty much impossible to ask judges to not be empathetic, based on the point that it is a subconscious process. Her line “So to ask a judge to not have empathy at all is to deny people the right to connect with those in need” particularly resonated with me. Thank you all for your enlightening review of empathy, I left with a newfound perspective and understanding!

  • Sophia Gilroy // Feb 21st 2023 at 2:21 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this week’s blog post! It was written so beautifully and the ideas built off each other in a very productive manner. Ella’s section was a very helpful overview of what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy, including the hole analogy which helped put things into perspective. I also appreciated the inclusion of brain areas implicated in each part that makes up empathy as it took her discussion one step further. Ella’s emphasis on both the pros and cons of empathy was another important detail and her explanation of the mechanisms behind this aided in a better understanding of empathy as a whole. Cassie’s section was a really interesting perspective on empathy and was also very relatable. The study that she noted about the different reactions between women with high or low empathy was a great way of applying her discussion to psychology in the lab. Her concluding paragraph brought together her ideas nicely and provided a sense of closure into why humans may benefit from connecting with an entity that doesn’t actually exist. Lastly, Pomai’s section was another really interesting perspective on empathy and brought up real-world applications that I had never considered before. Her explanation and then possible ways to improve within the judicial system and the world at large were greatly supported by prior research on the workings of empathy and how to use it as a strength rather than a weakness.

  • Wendy // Feb 21st 2023 at 8:10 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post! Ella – I really appreciated you drawing the distinction between empathy and sympathy as I was still struggling to conceptualize it. The component of self-regulation personally gave me a new perspective around empathy, as it made it very clear why it is so difficult to practice. On one hand, if we don’t identify with the other person and we try our best to put ourselves in their shoes such that it strongly affects us, then empathy can become a mutual burden. On the other hand, even if we identify with them and we are quick to react, then it can overshadow the other person’s experiences and in that sense be unhelpful as well. This goes to show how empathy isn’t merely about sharing emotional experiences with another person but about being able to embody them /appropriately/ (to the right level). This is particularly what makes it so precarious: empathy isn’t a one-way thing; it requires that we monitor not only other people’s emotional states but simultaneously OURS as well.

    I also liked Cassie’s section about fictional characters. The fact that we’re more likely to empathize with fictional characters who experience negative emotions despite our empathic dispositions really resonated with me. Personally, I become affected when a character undergoes tragedy because it touches upon my own personal apprehensions; that is, vulnerability in a character makes them seem real and hence relatable to me despite a lack of shared experiences, making me empathize with them more. Conversely, it makes sense that we would feel less empathetic towards fictional characters who mostly experience positive emotions because life is hardly ever black or white or full of roses.

    Finally, I found Pomai’s discussion about the judicial system very fascinating. I agree with Pomai that we cannot expect judges to fully detach themselves and not empathize with in-group defendants due to its subconscious nature. It makes me wonder about the degree to which a jury’s verdict is also affected; whether one is more effective than the other.

  • Jessica // Feb 22nd 2023 at 10:01 am

    Thank you, Ella, Cassie, and Pomai for three super unique perspectives on the way empathy impacts our lives. The idea that Cassie raised of empathy for fictional characters and humans’ higher capacity for empathy was most interesting to me because I happened to write this discussion post after a very very long marathon of Grey’s Anatomy (and will be returning to my marathon soon). I thought the theory that empathizing makes the experience of media consumption more enjoyable was interesting. I wonder if it has a lot of experimental support outside of Green’s findings. From my own experience, I would definitely agree that empathy is part of the motivator behind returning for re-runs, new seasons, or sequels for our favorite stories. But I also think back to our question about mentalization last week — is it possible to turn it off? Even though the people are fictional, when faced with an emotional story how can we NOT want to empathize? I’d be interested to do some more research into what motivates people to engage/not engage in the emotional aspect of empathy that differentiates it between looking into the hole versus jumping in.

  • Andrea Beltran // Feb 22nd 2023 at 8:38 pm

    Thank you all for your thoughtful insights! I thought the theory behind the Elliot et al. (2011) paper on the neuroscientific tracking of empathy was intriguing. I didn’t see an APA citation for this article, so I was unable to read the exact reference of this neurobiological explanation, but I know there has also been a lot of research on a set of neurons in the parietal lobe and motor cortex called mirror neurons that are also involved in empathy. From my understanding, the way mirror neurons function is that when we see certain actions conducted by someone else the same neurons to conduct those actions will unconsciously “fire” in our own brain as if we were physically engaging in those same actions even though we are not doing so (Jankowiak-Siuda et al., 2011).
    Additionally, when researching mirror neurons I came across a study by Penagos-Corzo et al. (2022) on psychopathy and mirror neurons that found that people with psychopathic traits (i.e., callousness, antisocial thoughts, etc.) have abnormally low activation in the regions of their brain that contain mirror neurons. This idea not only supports the idea mentioned in the lecturette regarding decreased emotion-sharing ability in those with psychopathy, but also the connection between mirror neurons being an integral part of empathy.
    One last thought I wanted to include was in response to a claim made in the post that empathy may be innate, and perhaps unique to humans. Whereas I believe that current research does support the idea that empathy may be innate, it seems that this is in part because it is actually not at all unique to humans. We see that other mammalian species have an innateness to feel empathy towards their own offspring and thus, empathy may also have an evolutionary basis behind it as well (Decety, 2010).

    Decety. (2010). The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 32(4), 257–267.

    Penagos-Corzo, Cosio van-Hasselt, M., Escobar, D., Vázquez-Roque, R. A., & Flores, G. (2022). Mirror neurons and empathy-related regions in psychopathy: Systematic review, meta-analysis, and a working model. Social Neuroscience, 17(5), 462–479.

    Jankowiak-Siuda, Rymarczyk, K., & Grabowska, A. (2011). How we empathize with others: A neurobiological perspective. Medical Science Monitor, 17(1), RA18–RA24.

  • ava rauser // Feb 22nd 2023 at 10:05 pm

    It’s so fascinating to explore the intersection of empathy and fiction characters. I actually just laughed out loud reminiscing on the time when I cried so hard after reading Sirius Black’s death in the fifth grade, that my mom let me skip school the next day to have a pretend vigil for him. As an only child and avid bookworm, I’ve always deeply felt that the majority of my socialization process came from reading about characters lives and mimicking their actions in the real world (kind of sad I know— but feeling very affirmed at the moment!) As an adult I read almost exclusively character-driven novels and still catch myself mimicking some of my favorite traits of my most recent protagonist. Looking back to module 3 and the implications of imitation, I’m now wondering if this could be seen as a type of mimicry in subconsciously trying to “befriend” the protagonists I so admire via mirroring their described body language, mannerisms, etc. On a different note, I found the negative potentially repercussions to be extremely sobering. The dangers of misplaced and/or lacking empathy having such tangible results on court decisions really draws to light the importance of equity and intentional empathy. Thank you for a great read Ella, Cassie, and Pomai!

  • Georgena Williams // Feb 22nd 2023 at 10:39 pm

    Thank you, Ella, Cassie, and Pomai, for this post!

    Ella, I absolutely loved how you framed empathy as a skill and not an innate characteristic because it invites conversation on how individuals can grow to better understand and care for each other. Reading the example of someone falling into a hole to contrast empathy (climbing into the hole with them) and sympathy (looking down at them in the hole) was super effective! I loved that you broke down the processes of empathy and elaborated on the importance of self-regulation. Reading about self-regulation made me think about the importance of putting on your oxygen mask first before helping others in the case of a flight emergency. In the case of empathy, self-regulation allows you to regulate your emotions which supports the ability to offer compassion to others.

    Cassie, I felt so seen when reading your section about the connection between fictional characters and empathy. I remember watching Grey’s anatomy in high school; every episode left me on a roller coaster of emotions. I found the findings about empathy and fictional characters to be both insightful and validating, as I have had my fair share of emotional TV/movie-watching moments.

    Pomai, I loved that you highlighted connections between empathy and the judicial system. More often than not, there is a reason why an individual commits a crime, and although those reasons surely DO NOT excuse the crime, there is so much value in understanding the entire picture. Individuals are more than the crime they have committed. Often, the nature of the US criminal justice system deprives incarcerated individuals of their human rights and excludes empathy from the conversation. It was incredibly disheartening to read the statistic that a black defendant is 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white defendant. It is so important that we extend empathy to everyone despite coming from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • Callie // Feb 23rd 2023 at 1:03 pm

    This post was very interesting to read! It was interesting to gain more understanding about empathy and the way in which it affects our day to day lives. I appreciated how Ella started with a definition of empathy to orient the readers, especially when she described how empathy affects the regions of the brain. Cassie’s point about humans feeling empathy towards fictional characters was also really interesting and I have never really thought about the role empathy plays in our overall enjoyment of media. Pomai’s point about the importance of being conscious of how empathy affects decisions in places like the judicial system was an important way to end the post. I really liked how she described empathy as a tool that we can choose to use productively.

  • Eliot Min // Apr 5th 2023 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you guys for your blog post! I definitely am guilty of conflating sympathy and empathy, but your analogy of helping someone out of the hole has given me a clearer idea of how the two differ. I’ll definitely carry that with me.

    Ella, I thought it was particularly interesting how you found through your research that one’s ability to understand and regulate their own emotions is crucial to empathy. I had assumed that the healthiest way to share someone’s distress was by internalizing their in its entirety. However, it makes sense that we should, even when practicing empathy, keep our emotions distinct lest we begin to focus on ourselves instead of the person in need of empathy.

    Cassie, it never occurred to me that our tendency to feel what fictional depictions of humans feel carried significant meaning. On one hand, I think “duh! Of course I feel what they feel — these characters represent people”. On the other, I think “Wait. Some combination of light particles and sound is making me feel actual emotions”. You make a good point that the ability to empathize with fictional others could be useful, but I wonder if there are situations in which this might actually be maladaptive? Broadly speaking, couldn’t it be an issue if we are swayed by random people-related stimuli as much as we are actual people?

    Pomai, empathy is often talked about in context of the Judicial System so I’m really glad you brought this up. The racial imbalances in the system suggest a “fair” system would be to make the empathy shown by judges in and of itself more “fair”… understandably, this is really difficult, as empathy is an automatic process. This raises more philosophical questions about the Judicial System in general, too — is its goal to be as objective as possible? Should the emotions we feel play any role at all?

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