Is Empathy Inherited or Taught? Listeners Respond

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kids get in a few more hours of play - before potentially getting stuck indoors - in Inwood Park on Sunday afternoon. (Julianne Welby/WNYC)

Is empathy inherited? Is it taught? Dr. Perri Klass shared her thoughts and recent findings with the Takeaway and listeners are sharing their opinions.

Caroline from Detroit says: 

"I think empathy comes more naturally to kids and we have to be retaught it as we get older."

Bruce from the Florida Keys agrees: 

"Empathy like sociopathy is innate. you can't teach a sociopath to feel love. empathy is something, a love for some sort of human condition and sociopaths can't feel love. so if it isn't there to have the ability to feel than i don't believe you can teach it.”

And a listener from Detroit sums it up this way:

"I don't think anyone would teach their kids not to be empathetic, so I think it's inherited. As the oldest of eight kids I know some of us display more empathy than others, but empathetic is not the first word you'd use to describe any of us."

But another school of thought out there is that empathy is the something the brain learns from watching the moral actions of others.

Rob from Pittsburgh says: 

"I think empathy can only be taught, and it's got to be done not only by parents and immediate family members but society as a whole. When random acts of kindness are observed by developing individuals, it cultivates an inherent consideration of others feelings through an obligation to others."

Rachel from Eugene, Oregon, agrees: 

"I right now live with a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who is on the cusp of being an infant where all his needs were met immediately to being a little creature that can take care of some of his own needs himself. And empathy has to be taught to him otherwise he is the center of the universe, and why shouldn't he be, he's the cutest thing in the room."

And a listener from Denver says:

"Everything is taught to kids. Everything. The child who enjoyed watching lions eat people at the Roman coliseum was not evil, and the child who helps their family feed the poor is not necessarily pure of heart."

This is not one of those easy to resolve nature-nurture kinds of debates. And some listeners prefer to see things both ways.

Catherine from Portland, Oregon, says:

"I think that some children born into an environment lacking caring or that was hostile can learn empathy if that environment is changed and they are given consistent examples of empathy both toward themselves and others. i also think that some people are born inherently lacking the ability to empathize and will likely never be able to learn it.”

And Sarah writes on our Facebook page:

"Those of us who live with people who have autism can tell you that there are some for whom empathy is nearly impossible and others for whom empathy is so strong it overwhelms them. It's like the woman in Star Trek the Next Generation who reads the emotions in a room. It can be modeled to a certain extent but there is a neurological wiring component in there, too."

What do you think? Is empathy something we're born with? Is it something we're taught? Which plays a stronger role: nature or nurture?

Give us your take and your story: Call us 877-8-MY-TAKE, text START to 69866, tweet us, or write on our Facebook page.

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [6]

Edwin Rutsch

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.

Dec. 14 2012 02:11 PM
unkerjay from Puget Sound, WA

Iacobini's research results seems to suggest not just a potential pathway to empathy, but, also an origin of violent behavior. It suggests that "free will" may not be the deciding catalyst of behavior. The question is, with that understanding, given centuries of anti-social behavior / tendencies - assault, murder, rape, war to what extent is this behavior ingrained and to what extent is it modifiable. Seems like we're at the point of a possible understanding of its origins which isn't the same as having a handle on the possibilities or implications.

From Amazon:


"Want to learn what mirror neurons have to do with Super Bowl commercials, violent video games, autism, addiction, and even free will? This is your book."--Discover magazine

"One block of experiments demonstrated that being exposed to media violence increased aggressiveness and violent behavior. While this is a seemingly simple statement whether you agree with it or not, Iacoboni is insightful to enough to point out that this actually challenges our own perception of free will. If something as simple as watching violent movies and playing violent videogames affects our behavior, doesn't that mean we aren't completely in control of our actions (even though we're ultimately responsible for them)? This is still a hot topic for debate, but there is strong empirical evidence that the correlation exists."

Dec. 14 2012 04:46 AM
Michele from Westchester

This is no longer the total mystery it's been for most of human evolution: see Marco Iacoboni's 2009 book on the current state of research on mirror neurons "Mirroring People: The science of empathy and how we connect with others", also anything by Daniel Siegel. Both are MDs researching at UCLA's Mind, Brain & Culture institute.

Dec. 13 2012 03:37 PM
TEAL from tarrytown

I believe Empathy is the reason we incarnate on this planet. It may take a long time but evolution moves in the direction of empathy. When we learn that we are all part of the same universal fabric and experience, and when we walk enough miles in eachother's shoes, we learn empathy , generosity and kindness.I beieve that this is the great morality play in U.S. politics today. Those who believe in individuality over empathy and those who believe in empathy over personal gain.

Dec. 13 2012 03:37 PM
Cat from Portland

Primates display empathy by making choices that go against their interest and fitness seemingly out of some form of empathy. There are cases of once orphaned juvenile males adopting unrelated orphans, and sacrificing their earned social status to raise an infant when no females are available.

Dec. 13 2012 01:54 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I try to teach my kids to be respectful towards other kids and to do the right thing over being empathetic.

Hopefully, they will be empathetic when they grow up... When it comes to little kids, you are dealing with "Lord Of The Flies;" you don't want to turn your back on them - EVER!

Dec. 13 2012 11:44 AM

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