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Teaching Students to Turn Empathy into Action

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

You have to read David Brooks' New York Times article about empathy. He challenges our emphasis on empathy as the main reason why people do good things for others. The essence of his argument is that the research on the relationship of empathy to being willing to do for others, and especially to go out of one's way to do for others, is not impressive.

There are many significant findings, but the effect size is small -- empathy is relevant but it does not explain much about what is really happening. So if we want to teach children to do good things for others, to be helpful and especially to act when it may not be convenient or popular, we need to focus on something in addition to empathy.

This makes sense when you consider how many situations children will come across during a school day that might stir their empathy and, you would think, move them to action. But there is a reason why there are so many bystanders to others' acts of aggression, cheating, unkindness, intimidation, teasing, exclusion, and downright cruelty. And there is a reason why students learning about the plight of the homeless, the refugee, the hungry, the member of a minority group who is discriminated against, and the like are not moved to action with greater frequency.

It's not just a lack of empathy.

David Brooks believes, and cites research to support his view, that two primary conditions are important to impel action in the face of need:

  • First, the individual must feel positive about him or herself. Altruistic action does not seem to flow from misery (or at least a subjective sense of misery -- we are all aware of those who seem to have so little, or to be so downtrodden, but whose sense of gratitude allows then to be willing to give or do for others).
  • Second, action seems to follow from a moral code held by the individual. And based on that code, a situation calls to that person in a particular way and is more likely to lead to action. So a child may have come to believe deeply that stealing is morally wrong and will confront someone taking something out of another student's locker, but that same child might not intervene when a child is being denied a seat at a lunchroom table by taunting peers. He or she may have empathy for the victim, but the buttons necessary to generate action either don't exist or have not been pushed hard enough.

Here is what David Brooks would like to see schools do: "Help people debate, understand, revere, and enact their codes." Too many schools have Codes of Conduct, core values, mottos, and missions that are more verbiage than vital laws of life for the students and the staff.

With that, I believe our zones of compassionate action can be expanded -- and I think Brooks would agree. There is no reason why individuals can't articulate personal goals and values within the larger school framework, especially at the secondary school level.

When students have a set of beliefs that they cherish, they will be "upstanders" for others when adults aren't looking -- and when everyone is.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

broscience84's picture
5-6 math and 5-8 science

I'm attempting to find ways to motivate my junior high students to do more than just come to school, learn some stuff, and go home. I want them to be so interested in learning that when they go home, they research things on the computer, try to understand more about how things work, and just enjoy the idea of school the next day. Thanks for sharing these points.

Koren McManus's picture
Koren McManus
High School American Government & Economics teacher from Rock Hill, SC

I was especially interested in this blog because I teach in a high school where bullying tends to be a "hot button" issue. We have developed a character-education program that we teach in our small group advisory session. WE recently discussed the importance of developing and having a strong morale code and positive self-esteem. Recently we discussed how helping others can actually improve one's self-esteem and build a stronger "community" in our school. I do think it is difficult for students to feel empathy for others in light of their busy schedules and focus on other things. Generally students do nice things for others expecting some sort of reward. WE need to teach our young people to have intrinsic rewards and do things for others because the WANT to help, not because they need affirmation from others.

Jason Marsh's picture
Jason Marsh
Editor in Chief, Greater Good

I agree empathy alone does not explain why people help others. Clearly, research suggests that people can feel empathy for others without coming to their aid, just as they may sometimes take compassionate action without feeling empathy.

Yet I think Brooks goes too far in essentially dismissing empathy as a "sideshow" to morality. He seems far too hasty in ignoring the substantial body of research that has found an empathy-altruism link, including research suggesting that nurturing empathy can motivate moral action, even at a cost to one's self. It's not the only ingredient in altruism, to be sure, but it may be an important one.

At the same time, Brooks doesn't seem to recognize the blind spots in his argument for a "sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code." Don't members of al Qaeda have exactly the kind of code Brooks extols? What they don't seem to have is empathy for their victims.

Perhaps, as Brooks suggests, empathy without a moral code is futile. But a code without empathy is dangerous.

(I elaborate a bit on this argument here.)

Edwin Rutsch's picture
Edwin Rutsch
Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

hi Maurice

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

I posted a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

I also posted a link to your article in our
Empathy and Compassion Magazine
The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world


Mary Jones's picture
Mary Jones
second grade teacher from michigan

I'd like to see parents help their children "debate, understand, revere, and enact their codes". My son stood up to bullies when he was in the 7th grade. He was a new kids, didn't have many friends and was trying to feel his way into the social structure. He was assigned to help carry the backpack of a boy he didn't know with a broken arm during class changed. This boy was not well liked and my son heard students taunting this boy as they moved through the hall. One morning my son arrived at school early and found 3 8th grade boys surrounding this boy, pushing him back and forth (arm cast and all) and saying "let's play *name*ball!" A ring of student stood around watching. My son stepped in and stood between the 8th graders and the boy, preventing them from pushing. He just stayed there until they went away. He was reluctant to tell me and reluctant to tell an administrator for fear of reprisals and social censure. He did this because our family taught him that it was right to stand up for others despite the cost to yourself. It's not that schools shouldn't be teaching this, but no school is going to have the impact that the home is and it would have been great if David Brooks had made that point in his article.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

Edwin, I thank you for sharing this information with my readers and I. I am very pleased my post can assist your efforts.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

As Jason so clearly points out, we have a lot more to learn with regard to reducing the gap between empathy and congruent action. While our concepts are far from precise, our assessment of those concepts-- extent of empathy, compassion, altruism-- or is it strength? depth?-- is even less well developed. I would like to see parents and educators devote more discussion time to the idea of expanding students' (and adults') zones of compassionate action. Particularly as regard harassment, intimidation, bullying, and cyberbullying, I believe this would help make clearer the circumstances under which joining in and standing by are problematic and where upstanding should be considered normative and expected.

Nicole Forsyth's picture
Nicole Forsyth
President and CEO, RedRover

Here is what David Brooks would like to see schools do: "Help people debate, understand, revere, and enact their codes." Too many schools have Codes of Conduct, core values, mottos, and missions that are more verbiage than vital laws of life for the students and the staff.

So many classrooms we visit with our RedRover Readers program(www.redrover.org/readers) have posters on the wall about respect, etc., but the children clearly have not integrated what respect towards others really means. Developing and utilizing students' critical thinking skills, which the RedRover Readers program does, and giving students the space to practice (and be reinforced for their behavior) is essential for students to incorporate concepts like respect into their narratives or cognitive schemas that can be called upon when they need to decide how to act with others.
Thanks Maurice!

Monica Bruder's picture
Monica Bruder
Teacher of the Handicapped, Hamilton Township, New Jersey

This blog expresses such an important goal for students that so often gets overlooked. If we look at many students enrolled in our school systems, it is overwhelming to think that so many of them need more social skills instruction- understanding that having empathy and being able to use it when dealing with others is such a critical skill to have.

mp's picture
k-12 ELL

I agree that students have not integrated what they see on the signs "to teach respect" at school. Schools are pursuing the training of teachers and students in the area of bullying, which incorporates learning about empathy.

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