Empathy and its central role in our world

Empathy has many names. It has been defined as “the breath of air of a kind heart” or the art to care about fellow beings. It surely is a multi-layered part of one’s soul and mind. Scholars have also concluded that empathy is indeed a multidimensional concept with at least three main elements. The predominantly emotional component, present across species, is emotional contagion or sharing. It is also known as the ability to be affected by and to partake in some kind of form in others’ sorrows, pain, and, generally, others’ experiences, which actually may not be as automatic as it was once thought to be. Unfortunately, it could depend on the individual’s a priori attitudes toward, the already formed schemas about the background of the distressed person and on in-group bias: empathy can be more strongly felt for members of one’s own group than for “outsiders”. The second motivational, biologically and evolutionary-rooted element is empathic concern that can be expressed toward any living being. This component underlies many important psychological processes such as attachment – the bond of affection that first forms between the child and the mother and then extends to other people. The third cognitive component is perspective-taking – one’s capability to see through the eyes of another, to feel what they are feeling. As cognitively taxing as it may be, taking the perspective of another has been demonstrated to reduce in-group bias and the influence of stereotypes on the experience of empathy for someone. It has been proposed that precisely perspective-taking, stimulating empathic concern, was the internal motivational vehicle for hiding and rescuing persecuted and abused people during some of the most gruesome events in human history such as World War II. The first involvement in rescuing activities led to further contact with the tyrannized individuals and more such aiding activities, but even more importantly, it led a lot further than the initial empathic concern – it ignited a concern for justice. In other words, empathy with all of its dimensions is not perfect evidence of what a miracle it is to be a human (as humanity, in general, is not at all perfect), but it is a powerful tool against inhumanity, meaningless hatred, and our self-destructiveness. Consequently, it is a psychological mechanism crucial for our survival as a species. As such, it can and must be cultivated. In the next column, you will find out how this can happen through the media.

Fostering empathy – one possible function of media

The sphere of communication and information technology influences all aspects of our lives, including our day-to-day emotional experiences. Very often, the content of specific media that reaches our perceptive receptors provokes feelings of empathy. Perhaps you have been moved by an advertisement and thought to yourself that you are too easily affected by some silly manipulations. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for viewers to tear up while watching commercials. Despite their brevity, classical drama ads, said to have similar features of film and theatre, draw viewers in with their performative aspects and elicit feelings of empathy.

However, the media’s influence is, of course, not limited by what happens in TV commercials. For a long time now, the so-called “persuasive media” have had quite an impact on viewers’ emotions, attitudes, and even behaviour. This superpower of media can be harnessed not only for materialistic purposes such as marketing products, but also for useful societal purposes such as promoting mental health or encouraging greater empathy, pro-social behaviour, and activism. Social media have definitely contributed a lot. Many of the profiles on such platforms as Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok spread serious and motivating messages and advice. Nonetheless, all of us need to use our critical thinking skills more often and realize that even if something is portrayed or written in a beautiful or interesting way, it does not in the least mean that the information being posted is credible.

Something else important to take into consideration is that the concept of empathy should be discussed both as a factor influenced by the media and as a pre-existing characteristic or ability that to some degree pre-determines what media content the consumer will be drawn to. Here it is time to mention violent video games and the endless debate about their possible role in increasing aggression and aggressive behaviors in players. Actually, the answer is not at all clear-cut. In most cases, a lot depends on what kind of person you are, i.e., what personal qualities and traits you already possess, and whether they will serve you as a shield from the problematic, sometimes even harmful consumption of video games and other types of media or, on the contrary, push you towards it.

What is more, many video games fall into the category of persuasive media. They are defined as interactive tools for entertainment developed to impact the player’s thoughts and feelings about reality. This impact can be very helpful in cultivating empathy. Video games, especially those with virtual or mixed reality elements, have the ability to not only show you many different perspectives (and, as we already know, this is beneficial for the arousal of empathic concern), but also to immerse you somewhere else entirely – beyond the confines of the physical world your body currently inhabits, perhaps even transporting you to another body. This technique has been applied in such games as “Hush” by Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson and “Peacemaker” by ImpactGames. In the former, the player takes on the role of a Rwandan Tutsi mother hiding in a shack with her child during the genocide of 1994, while in the latter the player must take into account the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and act cautiously so as not to derail the peace-making process. Games of this type have been recognized as means for compelling both cognitive and affective empathy.

Time for reflection

After reading this far, one cannot help but wonder if the media really has this superpower to send out good, to develop empathy – the part of us that makes us human. Are video games or perhaps social media the “antibiotics” that are supposed to counterattack the dreadful effects of the spread of the human bacteria of cruelty, greed, obsession with power? Furthermore, could have they been used for the prevention of some of the horror stories of human history?

What do you think? If you could go back in time, would you use the media to prevent a tragic event? Or would you use the media for educational purposes? 

Think about what kind of mark you would like to leave in the digital world.

Iva Cherneva