Empathy, which is the ability to understand what other people are feeling, is essential for developing healthy social skills and meaningful relationships. Research shows that empathy inspires us to help other people, and being empathetic toward our significant others leads to more satisfying relationships. Based upon the significance of empathy, people have begun to focus on how we can develop this trait.
You’ve likely heard of the powerful effects of empathy, but despite its benefits and importance, sometimes, it is difficult to be empathetic toward certain people. So, why can we empathize with some people, but not everyone? Learn some answers below.
How Empathy Affects the Brain
One reason that we may empathize more easily with some people when compared to others is that our brain simply responds differently to strangers. For example, one study found that when people observed a friend being socially excluded, their brain lit up in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in emotional pain. This suggests that when people watch a friend suffering from social exclusion, their brain reacts as if they are directly experiencing the exclusion themselves. On the other hand, the study found that areas of the brain linked to thinking about the traits, mental status, and intentions of other people were activated when people saw a stranger experiencing social exclusion.
What can be concluded from such studies is that when someone we know experiences an emotionally painful event like social exclusion, our brain reacts as if we are experiencing that pain ourselves. We can feel strong empathy in these cases because we literally feel what the other person is feeling on a neurological level. On the other hand, when a stranger experiences emotional pain, we don’t necessarily feel the pain ourselves; instead, we simply think about their mental state. In this sense, it’s not that we cannot empathize with strangers; we just empathize less intensely because of the way our brain reacts to strangers vs. people with whom we have close relationships.
Group Membership and Empathy
We have a tendency to empathize more with friends vs. strangers, likely because of the way our brains respond, but in some cases, we can empathize with strangers. For instance, one study in which women watched videos of new mothers revealed that study participants who had experienced the same life events as the mothers demonstrated more empathetic concern and understanding toward the mothers. It makes sense that we can better empathize with people when we have experienced their same struggles.
Additional research shows that people may have greater levels of empathy toward strangers with whom they share a group identity. For instance, minority groups, such as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population have been found to display anger toward hate crimes because of their sense of shared suffering with the victims. When we have something in common with other people, such as through shared experiences or discrimination, we have a stronger ability to empathize with them, which can explain why we can empathize with some people, but not others.
The Role of Unintentional Bias in Empathy
Because we tend to empathize more with people we can relate to, through either shared experiences or group membership, this means that we may also have a harder time empathizing with those who are different from us. In fact, research has consistently demonstrated that people exhibit a stronger brain response when watching individuals of their same race in pain, compared to when they see people of a different race from their own undergoing a painful situation.
People are often unaware of the fact that they demonstrate this bias toward people who are different from them, but the truth is that we do have a tendency to empathize more with those who are similar to us, when compared to those who are different. Recognizing and accepting that we all carry biases can be the first step toward making a conscious effort to overcome these biases. Through intentional effort and increased interactions with those who are different from us, we can develop stronger empathy skills.
Final Thoughts on Why We Can’t Empathize with Everyone
Empathy is an important trait, as it allows us to connect with others, but it can be difficult to empathize at times. Based upon research in neuroscience and social psychology, humans have a tendency to be empathetic toward people with whom they have close relationships, as well as toward those whom they relate to through shared experiences or group membership. Our innate ability to empathize with those we’re similar to is advantageous, but we may also have a negative bias toward those who differ from us.
While we may be naturally inclined to empathize with those who are more like us, we can train ourselves to be empathetic toward people with different life experiences from our own. Having an open mind and taking time to learn about the experiences of people from different walks of life can help us to develop a better understanding of them and increase our empathetic ability.