Research suggests that bullies are deficient or completely lacking in the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. Clearly, Donald Trump has his pulse on the thoughts and feelings of an element of the electorate. But many political pundits, academics and health care professionals like me are shocked by his inability or unwillingness to be empathetic to large segments of our population.
People don’t come out of the womb able to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. This complex thinking, feeling and behavioral skill set typically requires some education or informal instruction. Whether it’s from parents, religions, teachers or coaches, we all need to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes.
A recent analysis of data from 18 clinical trials using a total of more than 1,000 participants indicates that empathycan effectively be taught. Easier said than done, of course, and effectiveness appears contingent on a number of factors. For example, training is more effective on health professionals and university students as opposed to the general population, and it works better when participants are compensated in some way — whether financially or through course credit. Training is also more effective for those who have reached a certain level of neurological or cognitive maturity.
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Empathy training is also typically a large part of treatment for those who are aggressive or antisocial — school bullies, sexual and violent offenders.
What do these trainings look like? They often involve teaching people non-verbal empathic detection and expression — noticing others and watching your own eye contact, facial expression, posture, affect and tone of voice, and then engaging in what psychologists call reflective listening. This essentially means summarizing what the other person says and checking in with them to see if you got it right.
Empathy trainings likely involve some demonstrations and exercises where a person can engage experientially via games or role-play. Other techniques involve reading victim impact statements aloud, viewing videotapes of the victims describing their experiences or writing hypothetical letters of apology to those to whom one has offended.
I don’t think Donald Trump is going to voluntarily sign up for or tolerate one of these interventions. But maybe he’d be up for something else. Researchers have just used mobile technology to make people more empathic. They randomly assigned people to receive empathy-building text messages or one of two control conditions. These empathic-fostering text messages included things like, “Smile at the next person you see, no matter who they are,” and, “Imagine what the last person you interacted with was thinking about. What does the world look like from their perspective?” Those who received these text messages had increased feelings of concern for and motivation to help others. In addition, based on self- and observer reports, these individuals also engaged in more prosocial behaviors compared to controls. This means they actually helped, shared, donated or cooperated more in the service of others.
A few simple empathy building text messages aren’t changing deep-seated personality traits. How could one expect them to? Such change doesn’t usually happen without serious psychotherapy, spiritual awakening or some life-altering event. But in that study it did impact people’s temporary motivations and behaviors to feel for other people. That’s a good thing.
Trump is unlikely to recognize the importance and value of empathy on his own. But if he were open to it, I’d like toteach him how to cultivate and express empathy. This wouldn’t be a one-time course. It would require ongoingtraining. But we could do it via text.