Can empathy be learned?

by Bruce Wilson

This morning, I received a tweet about a new book written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist and psychiatrist who studies empathy. His book is Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.

Baron-Cohen says that our view of cruel people as “evil” is misguided and rooted in obsolete, theological notions of morality. In an interview with the Guardian, he explains that people who are cruel have a low capacity for empathy because of genetic makeup and early childhood experiences. Cruel people tend to have had an insecure attachment in infancy, now recognized as a critical factor in the human development of empathy.

Most interesting is that empathy is related to our sense of self in relationship to others. Cruel people literally cannot feel what they are doing to others. Their sense of “other” is missing. That lack of sensitivity is not in itself sufficient to lead to cruelty, but a necessary condition, he says.

Baron-Cohen also says we should view cruel people as disabled, much like people with autism, which he also studies. Rather that meting out eye-for-an-eye justice, we should be finding ways to treat them with the very capacity they lack – empathy.

Research clearly shows that empathy is an inborn trait, a key feature of human nature, and evident even in our closest primate relatives.  But our capacity for empathy is largely dependent upon the love and attention we receive during childhood. If your childhood was extremely abusive or barren of love, you may end up having “zero degrees of empathy,” which Baron-Cohen describes as follows:

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Pretty sad, but I think most of us know someone like that, even in positions of power – perhaps especially in positions of power.

But my question is: can empathy be learned? Can someone with heavy trauma in childhood learn to become empathic?

Empathy is the basis for most psychotherapy these days. To be a good therapist, you must be empathic. This especially applies to primal therapy, where one must be acutely sensitive to the feelings of your client. But can one bypass the process of reliving, feeling and resolving their early wounds through deep feeling therapy and learn to become empathic? Developing empathy—or compassion—is one of the aims of Buddhist meditation and by all reports, many years of meditation develops one’s sense of compassion.

And does primal therapy result in more empathy for others? Of course, good evidence is lacking on this, as it is for most claims of primal therapy. All we have are testimonials, often cherry-picked to promote the therapy.

To add to the testimonials: I feel the therapy increased my capacity for empathy, but not in and of itself. Rather, it lifted the deep depression that was clamping down on my ability to be empathic and allowed me to develop it through close connections with friends, lovers, social activism, and professional groups.

But I know several people, even after years of therapy, who seem quite selfish and self-centered. Perhaps their capacity for empathy was limited to begin with, or their trauma was so severe and early that the brain circuits that mediate capacity were damaged.

Empathy would be a critically important measure to include in any outcomes study of primal therapy, and it can easily be measured. Several psychological scales are now available to measure empathy, including the Empathy Quotient, a self-report questionnaire. Try it yourself and see how you do.



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The Can empathy be learned? by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

3 Replies to “Can empathy be learned?”

  1. I would tend to believe that some success with primalling and the knowledge of how it works is a way toward recovering empathy. Also, a belief in primal theory, you might think, would be a way of learning to be more empathetic.
    I certainly feel that is true for me, but what really helps is recovering feelings. When you recover your history, that’s recovering your “sense of self”.
    Maybe just practicing listening to others and what they go through, would help, also. I guess this also presupposes an openness to all these things.

  2. This is a fine and excellent article. I wanted to mention something: a person could be reliving their traumas through deep feeling therapies and other protocols, but other than getting in touch with one’s vulnerability, working one’s traumas doesn’t necessarily mean that person has become more empathetic. Empathy comes into play when a person has made a switch in their thinking, in their heart, in their soul, a transformation, the ability to forgive… and this can happen in a flash of a second, or after a decade of real work. It can happen through therapeutic process, through some kind of personal suffering, a spiritual awakening, a death, a lover, a good friend, a teacher. Thank you for such an excellent write-up! Shoshannah Sarah, mindbody therapist / healing piano composer

  3. What if it has nothing to do with trauma and more about brain development? I saw a documentary on someone who was going through some experimental therapy where an area of his brain that was not working was being stimulated and his empathy was clearing being birthed for the first time! I no longer believe it is all trauma related. The documentary is on youtube on a person with Asperberger’s

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