An Exploration of Empathy and Individuality

What makes us human?

The idea of humanity being defined by a single trait is abundant, and one prominent answer to this question is empathy. Empathy is the capacity to feel or understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, etc., through a shared experience, while sympathy means to feel for someone else’s experience. Empathy and sympathy are often misconstrued or misperceived as interchangeable, but feeling with someone differs from feeling for someone.

Although empathy has been classified by some as something exclusively human, modern scientific research has introduced the idea of empathy presenting itself in other species. Author, primatologist, and university professor Frans de Waal, Ph.D., analyzes two compelling studies supporting the presence of empathy in animals. The first of which was conducted by researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health, who intended to study the capacity of empathy in children. But when they “instructed people to pretend to sob, cry, or choke, [they] found that some household pets seemed as worried as the children were by the feigned distress of the family members. The pets hovered nearby and put their heads in their owners’ laps” (De Waal). These animals recognize the feelings and emotions of humans. However, this is likely a sign of sympathy over empathy. These animals cannot possibly have similar experiences as the human. As completely different species, household pets function at a different capacity than humans. Yes, these animals do recognize and understand feelings of humans, but they might not understand the why as they have not had similar reactions to similar experiences. A dog cannot be upset over failing a physics test because it has never taken a physics class. Another study De Waal cites which seems more promising comes from a team of psychiatrists at Northwestern University, where “rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal” (De Waal). In this study, one monkey understood the pain that another was going through by receiving the shock. This is similar to how humans empathize with each other, which is through understanding of pain or pleasure. However, the display of empathy shown by the monkey compelled to starve itself is a sign of empathy within a single species. The same could be said of humans. Humans can empathize with each individual over a shared experience, but they can never understand what goes on inside the head of a dog or a monkey. Animals and humans do not share the same overarching experience on earth. The former study is more concurrent with the idea that animals can sympathize with or worry for humans whereas the latter supports the presence of empathy for one’s own species. Conclusively, empathy is a defining human trait… that is, empathy for other humans.

There is, however, a class of humans that are incapable of empathy. A handful of neurodiverse do not have or have a limited capacity for empathy. Psychopaths, sociopaths, people with autism, and people suffering from various personality disorders (narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder) lack empathy due to developmental issues in their brains regarding mirror neurons, which are located at the top of the frontal lobe. Mirror neurons are “a variety of visuospatial neurons which indicate fundamentally about human social interaction. Essentially, mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in others” (Acharya). Due to the absence of mirror neurons, some humans are incapable of understanding how an experience is shared and, therefore, lack empathy. However, the lack of mirror neurons does not make someone less than human.

In recent years, humanity has taken great strides in tolerance and acceptance. The LGBTQIA+ community is free to be themselves. Women and people of color are supported through current social justice movements. Mental illness is now recognized as a human struggle, not as a disease. Humans have holistically made great strides in being more loving and accepting of what makes each other individuals, whether that be internal or external. But as people grow in individuality, they also lose a sense of group identity. Experiences and responses to those experiences are no longer shared in the same way. This growing diversity and differences in experiences across today’s society might be a gateway to the path of losing empathy.

Barack Obama said “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” As a Democrat, Obama was more supportive of social progression and acceptance than many Republicans. He supported individuality, and yet, empathy was still lacking. Moving forward with increased individuality in isolated people or an individualistic mindset could contribute to a decline in empathy. Reporter Catherine Conory in her article “As a Society, Are We Losing Our Empathy?” shares a quotation from the author Peter Bazalgette, author of The Empathy Instinct. He says “in a broad sense... [humans are] less tribal. We’ve managed to co-exist in busy cities with public transport… living in a less tribal environment” (Conory). As humankind has grown to support individuality, it has continually lost a sense of “tribalism,” or shared experiences. If society continues to grow more individualistic and isolated, fragments of empathy left over from the days of “tribalism” could continue to diminish. A lack of empathy in society and in individuals will only lead to suffering amongst specific groups and relationships.

A lack of empathy in favor of an individualistic mindset over a broad group of people has proven to be detrimental in the modern world. Conory brings up how a lack of empathy impacts the prison system: “there is a severe empathy deficit in how we treat prisoners, leading directly to reoffending. In England, we have a recidivism rate approaching 60 per cent” (Conory). A rise in recidivism is due to a lack of empathy and understanding of the prisoners. They are isolated, alone, and cast out by society. These prisoners feel misunderstood, and they may feel compelled to lash out. Prisoners reoffend because prison is a place they can be understood, a place where others can empathize due to the shared experience of being isolated from society in a prison cell. The broader community believes felons to be inherently bad people, and prisoners are often portrayed poorly in the media. However, they are still human. This individualistic mindset of how prisoners should be treated and isolated from the rest of society is an example of a lack of empathy in modern society.

Humans have also had a lack of empathy in favor of an individualistic mindset at other points in history. Turn to James Burton, cultural and home news journalist at The Conversation, The Daily Mail, and The Independent: “Slavery, colonialism, alienation, patriarchy, racial inequality and virtually any form of systemic social injustice you can think of, involve presenting some beings as ‘less than human’ in order to justify their exploitation” (Burton). In the absence of empathy, an individualistic and isolated mindset has led to great mistakes in the course of human history. Humans, individuals, people have been harmed because of a lack of empathy or understanding of an experience. In the 1800s, the American South would not allow slaves to be free. Every slave was black, and, excluding indentured servitude, every white person was free. The whites prohibited the freeing of slaves because they would have to acknowledge that people of color were, in fact, people. If whites believed blacks were of a different species, they would not be capable of feeling empathy, such as the case with pets and their owners. When humans distance themselves and from each other and do not allow for a shared experience, they cultivate an individualistic, isolated mindset that only causes pain and suffering.

A lack of empathy can also harm individuals and their relationships. Although difficult to imagine, neurodiverse who lack empathy live in a world where they cannot understand the emotions of someone close to them. Author, speaker, and relationship therapist Dr. Andrea Brandt believes that empathy is the key to a happy relationship. She explains the effects of a lack of empathy between two people in a romantic relationship, specifically regarding making assumptions: “one sign [of a relationship without empathy] is that you assume your partner has the same needs and boundaries as you do and that they experience life the same way as well.

A relationship without empathy quickly hits a bump.... he or she doesn't always share your preferences or opinions, and you begin to have the same argument again and again” (Brandt). But these struggles extend to other relationships, too. If a person lacks empathy, he or she isolates him-or-herself from friends and family by making assumptions. As society grows to become more individual-based instead of group-based, everyone will not have the same experiences, so these assumptions about the experiences of another person will lead to misunderstanding and arguments.

If society supports the growth of individuality, less people will share experiences. Since empathy is evoked from shared experiences, society could also be moving towards a world in which there is no empathy, a world where communities are hurt and relationships are broken. By losing our empathy, we could condemn our children to living like androids… just machines operating in a world where love, hate, and everything in between is limited to the internal self. But, if we continue to celebrate individuality, we will provide a safe and loving space for all people, their individual experiences, and their feelings. If humankind chooses to condemn empathy or individuality for the sake of the other, the question should not be “What makes us human?” but rather “What makes us inhuman?”


Sophie Reynolds

Episcopal Collegiate School Junior


*please contact me if interested in reading any of the cited sources!

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