Empathy can be learned by sharing positive experiences

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A study by researchers at the University of Zurich indicates that empathy towards strangers can be learned and that positive experiences with others influence empathic brain responses.

According to a recent Swiss study, we are all capable of feeling empathy towards strangers. By repeating positive experiences with strangers, our brain learns and develops empathic responses.

To reach this conclusion, Grit Hein, a neuroscientist and psychologist, and his colleagues Philippe Tobler, Jan Engelmann and Marius Vollberg at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, measured brain activity in participants who had shared positive experiences with a member of their own social group (in-group member) or a group of strangers (out-group member).

The study involved the participants receiving painful shocks to the back of their hands. The brain activity of the observing participants was recorded before and after they witnessed the others experience pain, within the two separate groups.

At the beginning of the study, the participants were less affected when a stranger was in pain than if a member of their own group suffered. However, when the researchers made them spend time with someone from the other group through positive exercises (such as sharing), a significant increase in empathic brain responses to the other's pain was noted.

Dr Hein said that the stronger an individual's positive experience was with a stranger, the greater the empathic brain response. In other words, by the process of repetition, our brain develops new empathic neuronal networks.

With this study, the researchers highlight the importance of having empathy towards people from different nationalities and cultures, to avoid conflicts that are often due to a lack of knowledge of others.