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Do You Have Empathy? Take Our Challenge and Find Out

Sure, you may think you have compassion and read people well. New research shows you may be wrong.

by Sarah Mahoney

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If you’re like most people, you probably think your empathy—that’s the ability to read and relate to other people’s feelings—comes from your gut. You believe you have the intuitive ability to sense your friends’ family’s and coworkers’ pain, unhappiness or anxiety. You have compassion and intuition, are you are a good listener. Like most people, you’re probably wrong about this. Here’s the good news: If you’re looking to change and improve the quality of all your relationships, it’s easy to sharpen your empathic skills.

To test whether tapping into our gut feelings or using reasoning produces a more empathetic response, researchers at Harvard and the University of La Verne in California ran four different experiments involving some 900 participants. The study confirmed that most people think intuition is the best way to read other people’s feelings. But this research also provides evidence that your best results come from using reason. For those of us looking to change the way we relate to others, this study challenges our assumptions about what makes us reliable emotional mind readers.

Wondering if you trust intuition more than reasoning? If you have to think about it, you probably do. “Intuitive thinking usually involves thoughts that come automatically, reflexively and with little effort—it's your gut instinct, your first response,” says researcher Christine Ma-Kellams, Ph.D. “Systematic thought takes more effort and involves thinking carefully, with deliberation. So if you're making a decision or judgment very fast and reflexively, it's probably intuition.”

She says that one of the most surprising things was that people's perception of their intuition didn't match up with reality. “People thought intuition was good for reading others, but in actually, systematic thinking was better.”

See also: Up Your Empathy

People aren't usually as accurate as they think they are. “Part of this comes from overconfidence in our own intuitions, and thinking our gut always leads us in the right direction,” she says.

Three of the four studies were based on professionals and managers, and researchers say sharpening your empathic ear can have big implications for hiring decisions and workplace relationships. But increased empathy can improve relationships with anyone. (It even boosts your kids’ dating prospects: A recent study from Australia found that teenage boys who scored higher on empathy had 1.8 more girlfriends on average than boys with lower empathy scores.)

Ma-Kellams says you can put this insight to use simply by challenging your first reaction. “The first step to being more empathetic is to take a step backward and consider more carefully what you might have already considered before,” she says, “to perhaps be a little skeptical of your initial impression and think more deeply about the other person.”

The best news for people striving to become more empathetic is that it doesn’t seem to take long, and neuroscientists say they can even detect empathy in brain imaging. A new study from the University of Zurich, which compared the brain responses of people reacting to groups composed of people they knew compared with groups of strangers, showed that having even a few positive experiences with people from a different group are enough to trigger measurable changes in this learned empathy.

The study measured brain activation in participants, who expected to get painful shocks on the backs of their hands, but who also knew that a member of their own group or the group of strangers could pay money in experimental transactions that would spare them pain. It took only “a handful” of good experiences—when someone from a stranger’s group helped them—to generate a significant increase in empathic brain responses.

Besides questioning your initial impressions, other research has shown that you can up your empathy by cultivating a curiosity about strangers, listening harder and learning to open up yourself.

”You can up your empathy by cultivating a curiosity about strangers, listening harder and learning to open up yourself.”

How to walk in someone else’s shoes? You can even use technology to become more empathetic.Several studies at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have shown that virtual reality (VR)—that’s the 3D computer imagery viewed with special immersive headsets and goggles—“can increase empathy and prosocial behavior,” says Jeremy Bailenson, Ph.D., director of the lab. One study, for instance, compared people who were told to imagine they were colorblind and people who experienced colorblindness through VR.

“Those who experienced the actual visual impairment in VR were likely to spend more time helping someone with the same disability after the study,” he says. Bailenson says the research shows that these immersive experiences, where technology actually makes you feel as though you are in the body of someone else or as though you've taken on a new ability (they’ve also done VR experiments that turn people into superheroes, for example), “can impact your thoughts and behaviors in the real world.”

While that may sound a little too futuristic, the Pokémon Go phenomenon (based on VR’s augmented reality, VR’s close cousin) offers plenty of proof that this kind of technology is ready to become part of our everyday lives. The advent of a range of headsets, including Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and Oculus Rift, has made experiencing VR far more accessible. And Bailenson says he hopes his lab will eventually distribute empathy-building content.

But you don’t have to wait. There are already apps that provide empathetic experiences. “The Within VR app contains video documentaries that put you in the midst of refugee camps, disease-ravaged countries and other experiences that would be otherwise impossible to have available at the click of a button,” he says. “VR is an incredible tool for changing perspectives.”

The method may be high-tech twist on putting yourself in another person’s shoes, but people have been pushing themselves to develop compassion and understanding in this way for centuries. (Remember Walt Whitman’s line from freshman English class? “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”)

Pushing to become more empathetic isn’t just nice for the people around you. It offers a personal payoff, too, increasing your sense of purpose, leadership and overall well-being.