Evolution of empathy

  • distance to yourself is a prerequisite for empathy
  • emotional contagion is a forerunner of empathy
  • empathy is learned not inherited
Overview of topics:
Empathy - what´s that?
Empathy is learned
Gender differences
Adoption of perspectives

Empathy – what´s that?

Empathy refers to feeling with another person. It is the ability to focus one’s actions on the well-being of someone other than yourself. Empathy must be distinguished from emotional contagion, in which an emotion is simply taken over. For example, when you laugh just because another person is laughing and you don´t even know what´s so funny.

In order to be able to feel empathy you must be able to take distance from yourself. In a child´s development this is usually the case in the middle of the second year of life. If children begin to recognize themselves in the mirror, that´s a good indicator. From then on, children can develop empathy.

Empathy is learned

The University of Cambridge found that only about ten percent of empathy skills are genetic. Instead, the capacity for empathy is mainly determined by social factors, especially in childhood1. In other words, empathy is learned and if there are differences between the sexes, then their environment teaches children different things depending on their gender.

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Parents and educators are called upon here to promote empathy of children and not let it atrophy. For example, it is beneficial to encourage children to think about the feelings of others. If they harm another child, you can explain to them how the other child feels („If you throw the ball at the child, it hurts. Do you remember when you got hit by a ball? Did it hurt?“). Prohibitions without explanation or empty phrases, on the other hand, let potential to teach empathy pass („We don’t do that“).

Gender differences

In summary, we found that if gender differences exist, they must have been learned for the most part. At the same time, the female lead in prosocial behaviour is considered proven. After all, being social was an essential function of the female sex, which predominantly took care of the families.

Little girls show significantly more interest in social exchange. Even as babies, they look towards voices more often and seek more eye contact. Boys, on the other hand, tend to break off eye contact so that the caregiver does not receive any reinforcing feedback. Potentially, parents pick up feedback like that from their children and adapt their behavior. Consequentially, parents would talk more intensively with girls, which would provide a better basis for social exchange and empathy impulses. This way, a small congenital difference of the genders that the children send is picked up and amplified by their environment.

Difference not in potential but in use

A study by Tania Singer (2006 University College London) raised the question of whether the sexes differ in empathy potential at all. In her experiment, participants observed a fair and and an unfair card player. The unfair player did not gain sympathy from neither men nor women, whereas the fair player did. Afterwards, both players were apparently exposed to pain. Women felt sympathy with both players, but men only with the fair player. For the unfair player, on the other hand, men felt satisfaction and malicious joy3. The last one requires the ability to feel the suffering of another person, as is the case with empathy4. Singer draw the conclusion that the potential for empathy does not differ between the sexes, but they use it differently.

However, when men and women were answered questions in a survey about empathy, the results spoke a different language. Why do interviews indicate a strong difference between the sexes when tests did not? Social desirability and established stereotypes play a central role here. Society expects a higher empathy from women. The sexes tend to attribute the desired characteristics to themselves and therefore their answers do not depict the truth.

Adoption of perspectives

While empathy is connected with emotions, adoption of perspective is a cognitive performance. Therefore, it depends on the ability to think about processes of consciousness.

One experiment tested the reactions of preschool children to an accident of another child. Girls felt the pain of the kid, were very worried and wanted to comfort and calm the child, whereas boys reacted more soberly. Their ideas went in the direction of calling the police or an ambulance.

The researchers concluded that girls showed a slight overweight to empathy and a slight underweight in adoption of perspective2.

» next topic:

Morality and values »

Find out what empathy has to do with morality, how both evolved and what gender differences there are »


  1. welt.de Abruf 4.7.2019
  2. Hoffmann 1977 nach Bischof-Köhler 2006
  3. deutschlandfunk.de Abruf 4.7.2019
  4. Bischof-Köhler 2006, S. 320

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