We’ve explored how emotions affect the brain and our actions. We’ve explored how our perceptions of reality impact our emotions. We’ve looked at how educational work to engage learners in managing, expressing, and understanding emotions is laden with values that are either explicitly or implicitly taught and modeled in learning environments. And we’ve looked at specific techniques and methods for building a strong container with our learning communities so as to encourage the expression of authentic emotion.  A thread that flows through all these explorations is the fundamental theory of human nature. Biologically how and why have our emotions evolved? Is humanity’s evolving “state of nature” a positive one?

In this video, Jeremy Rifkin talks about new research that demonstrates the empathic nature of humans and how that empathy has evolved and adapted throughout history.



Several other scholars, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and primatologists have studied similar aspect of human empathy.  Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker, explores the real world implications of growing empathy among humans in his book,  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. And in an interview he conducted for a video series on human nature he lays out a good challenge for us as educators – to find out what practices and customs encourage expanding empathy.

“We have a sense of empathy, which extends only to a family and friends, but which can be expanded as we realize that other people are made of the same stuff and therefore feel the same pains and pleasures. But we do have to have a set of moral norms and a set of cultural practices that lead people not to act on their aggressive impulses. By most measures we are living in particularly peaceful times. There’s less homicide than there used to be. There’s less warfare. There’s less genocide. So we’ve been doing something right. We can’t really identify exactly what it is, but it sure would be good to find out.” (The Bi-Polar Ape: Caught Between Love and War, 04:54 – 05:32).

Reflection Question: Do you feel like humans are a naturally empathic creature? Are you surprised by Pinker and Rifkin’s research that historical trends have shifted toward less violence and more peace? That human are biologically wired to be empathic and that that empathy is expanding? What experiences or information have played a key role in shaping your understanding of human nature and does this new research change your perceptions at all?

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21 thoughts on “4.6

  1. As both an individual and as a parent I have seen a great deal of evidence to support the idea that humans are innately empathetic. Whenever I am upset or down my son’s mood is visibly effected. I was this way regarding my parents when I was a child as well. There was no conditioning or coaching given to illicit these feelings. I think that many other examples exist and that few people have not had similar experiences.

    It is not really surprising to me that Pinker and Rifkins research yielded the results it has. I think as a species humans have evolved. This evolution is what I believe be responsible for our arrival at a place of pursuing peace and undermining violence more often than ever before.

    This I believe is directly connected ro the full fillment of our more base needs. (I adhere to the ideology of Maslow) We are able to sustain ourselves easily because of advancements in agriculture and agriciltural science and the introduction of mass production. We can buy and rent homes rather than build shelter and dwell in cities with schools and recreational groups which give us a sense of belonging. Those things being more easy to attain we can focus our efforts on higher pursuits.

  2. Before watching this clip, I had never contemplated whether humans are naturally empathic. It was difficult for me to consider whether humans are naturally empathic or not because I believe there are multiple examples, from every-day life to large-scale events, for each side of the argument. For example, the large amounts of volunteers and donations that help those who have experienced disasters (9-11, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, etc.) prove to me that people can be empathic. However, violence, wars, and riots that break out during political/power struggles and international conflict prove to me that people’s actions may not be driven by empathy.

    After watching the video, I have changed my mind and agree with Pinker and Rifkin that humans are naturally empathic and society teaches us to be driven by aggression, violence, self-interest, and utilitarianism. I am not sure if I agree that historical trends have shifted toward less violence and more peace; however, empathy is expanding. Increasing amounts of global communication make it possible to empathize with more cultures and people because they are more accessible. Where you once only had the ability to empathize with blood relations, you are now able to empathize with the entire human race.

  3. I definitely am in agreement, that humans are naturally empathic creatures. It was interesting to consider that as we are becoming a more global society that our empathy is expanding — I really hope that that is true, and it seems true enough in the microcosm of my own life… However, when I think about the distribution of wealth in this country, the lack of services for people who are mentally ill, the continued cuts to social welfare programs, I tend to think that empathy is still lacking in a big way.

  4. I do not fully believe the research and idea that humans are gradually getting more peaceful. Just take one look at what is going on in our world: murders, riots, wars, etc. So to me, the idea that we are getting more peaceful is something that I just can’t completely agree with.

    When it comes to feeling empathy, I couldn’t help but think back to the Educational Psychology class I took earlier this summer. One of the main aspects of that class was to look at the environment in which a child grows up, because this often has a strong impact on the child’s social and behavioral development. Answering this question was difficult for me. Part of me believes that empathy is not innate, because growing up, I spent very little time hearing and expressing feelings. It just wasn’t something that was done in my family. Because I have had very little experience putting feelings to words, to me, empathy is almost like a learned skill that has been developed and honed over time. My fiancee, however, would argue that it does come naturally, because she does this all the time. She was raised in a very open, expressive environment and naturally feels emotions that other people (even strangers) are feeling. Because of my experiences, I wonder if it is truly something that one is born with or is it something that has to be learned over time. I am looking forward to seeing how our children come out and paying attention to my students to fully understand empathy and if it comes naturally.

  5. I consider humans to be a very empathic species. However this empathic nature may vary and is dependent on the specific situation. Humans tend to express more empathy to those that they are closely associated with. For example, I am more empathic towards a family member who is experiencing a terminal illness than a stranger who may be going through the same situation.
    The Haiti experience that Pinker made reference to in his presentation holds true as a very empathic experience nationally. However, in my opinion, it only lasted for a short time. In the long run only a few people or group actually embraced the people who suffered in these devatations to ensure that they are once again safe and comfortable in their environment again.
    I am not surprised by Pinker and Rifkin’s research that historical trends have shifted toward less violence and more peace because in earlier days such as in Bible times, there were probably more wars among nations. As time progresses, humans were able to communicate better, design peace accords that enhance a more peaceful resolution on political, social or economic issues. This national trend towards peaceful resolution has also transferred into the school setting. Educators try at all cost to discourage physical confrontation among our students.
    The experiences that have played a key role in shaping my understanding of human nature is the relationship that I have with my family members and church family. We all empathize with and for each other during times of severe illnesses and or death.

  6. My understanding of human nature is shaped by my Christian upbringing. I am taught that man is inherently good; born in our creator’s image. That we are meant to be our brother’s keeper and work together for the common good. And so, as we hold fast to our morals and values, with love being the greatest, our empathy is great. We and our community are connected (”I am my brother’s keeper.”); know peace and happiness.

    It is when we separate from community (think ourselves higher or lower), focus on pleasing self over others, that that we become prideful, greedy, envious, slothful, lusty, angry, power hungry, and lose empathy. When we can find no peaceful way to have our way, we either fight (stand our ground or invade someone else’s) or flight (become excessive in our pleasures (eat too much, party too much, do drugs etc.) or withdraw (depression, suicide, etc.) . (Personal observation – Because we are naturally empathic, we tend to shut down our ability to empathize by mentally or verbally hyping ourselves with justifications for our ensuing act (i.e, “In the name of the queen”, “I just don’t care, anymore”, “YOLO” ). Also, I once heard/read somewhere that attackers objectify their victims because it is difficult to hurt someone with whom you connect/empathize.

    If Pinker and Rifkin’s research is correct, it confirms my understanding of human nature. It is, to me, logical that we would become less violent as our definition of community expands. However, I need more time to research, analyze, and synthesis this data. At first pass, something is not adding up…

  7. I would agree that humans are naturally empathic creatures around their own type. I believe that it is a paradigm shift of how we communicate our feelings and how some of the actions that are displayed by the feelings are the consequences of the intentional reaction that is given by the taker/giver. I am very surprised in the study by Pinker and Rifkin’s research. I can’t seem to take a side to say I agree with the presenters or not. I think it is still a little vague or not enough information for me to determine if less violence and more peace has been displayed. I would definitely say that people are biologically wired to be empathic by nature of their feelings, emotions and characteristic ways. I can see how empathy is expanding in our world because we are caring people by nature and make connections with people by eye contact, smile, or verbally. The research does not change my views on how human nature plays a key role in society. It does give more clarity. I think it is exactly what it states-it’s only human for us to do some of the things that we do by just living life and observing others. It’s just like a baby, watching things humans do on a daily basis and they pick up how to do certain things and some of them pick it up by human nature instincts.

  8. I believe humans are naturally empathic creature because we do understand one another. The question is do we agree with one another? Of course that answer is not all of the time. In different situation empathy is still alive and in other situations is dead. If you share common beliefs, religion, or culture view then of course human are empathic. I can’t agree with Pinker and Rifkin’s research I need more data. It seems like all that I read about or hear about on the news is violence or poverty. It seems as though the number are increasing. I don’t believe empathy is expanding. I don’t think it gets beyond your immediate family . It seems that everyone is out for self and what benefits them. My perception is still the same regardless of this research.

  9. The world is a big place so I’m skeptical of a claim either way–that violence is increasing or that it’s decreasing. I don’t see how an institution or group of researchers can collect enough evidence to make a convincing case. I’ve seen evidence in individuals of an increase of empathy over time. Members of my immediate family for example have grown in expressing love and support over the years. I can also think of examples of people who seemed to have lost the capacity for empathy. I’m thinking of a situation in which mental issues were not addressed and self-centeredness and aggression grew. I believe everyone experiences some hardship in life. Whether or not we face our pain and loss leads to whether or not our empathy grows. And in whatever situation we find ourselves, it helps to reach out to other people.

  10. Ok let me first say interesting, but a little hard to follow. To answer the questions, yes humans are naturally empathic, especially to those the know. But I am having trouble trying to put this together. Yes as in the video babies at the age of two start their journey with being empathic. They see someone upset, they become upset, but for no real reason. So does this stand to reason, if the students see that I am having a bad day, they will also?
    I serve a population were empathy is somehow lost somewhere. They think everyone owes them something or no one can understand their feelings. How do we teach that? Positive psychology, social/emotional, who really knows. I know that at the beginning of the school day I have to make sure mentally I am prepared for my students regardless of what is going on with me, my students should not be subjected to that. I know I have to find what makes them hungry for my lesson, if its me telling one of my life experiences or showing them how to play defense in basketball I need to be able to do that. These are all great ideas that if was implicated some way/where the world would be a better place, but we have roughly 8 hours with our babies and that is divided amongst several other teachers, some of this has to be done at home. And their is the problem!

  11. The research doesn’t really change my perceptions. I see every day how my students are naturally empathetic. They are easily caught up in activities that may suggest otherwise and some have so much going on outside of school that it’s difficult to even see that the capacity exists.

    I’ve had this conversation with other special education teachers, but I’ve noticed that my special education students very often are much more naturally empathetic than my other students. It doesn’t show (or I haven’t perceived it) as much outside of the classroom as inside, but I’m very often impressed by how I see them inside the classroom.

  12. Daniel Knoll – I do believe that humans are naturally empathic creatures, and I’m not surprised that Pinker and Rifkin’s results show that humans are moving away from violence and towards peaceful interact. I think Adam makes a valuable point that there is increase empathy between those who share a common identity. I believe this is true because having those connections make it easier for people to imagine “life in their shoes.” However, I do not think there is any roadblock that cannot be overcome to develop empathy between groups that may not share a common identity. Cultural immersion, exposure to divergent views and more can help break down what are social created inhibitors to empathy. The only hardwiring I think that would interfere with the development of empathy is our biological desire to “survive” and put our own priorities first. However, cooperative learning and the development of community can teach individuals that by understand and working together with others, you can accomplish more than possible by yourself.

  13. I’m torn, I believe individuals are naturally self preserving and thus, the environment in which there born will determine how empathetic they are. A survival of the fittest mentality may occur in an area where there is a fight for resources. On the other hand, in a society where there is an abundance of resources people may be more altruistic. I believe the video supports this assertion insofar as it details the evolution of empathy throughout time and the increase in resources that led to increased appreciation and value for all. No longer is one in competition with another.

    Nevertheless, I find the question of humans being naturally empathic irrelevant. Even if it is not human nature, it does not change one’s ethical obligation to equity. I could be born with a chemical imbalance and be prone to anger, this does not justify my mistreatment of others. In a similar manner, empathy is a goal that each of should strive to embody regardless of its innate occurrence or lack of occurrence in each of us.

  14. I’m not surprised by the recent “mirror neurons” discovery. I think that humans, and many animals, do experience empathy as a basic function. It makes sense that empathy would exist, perhaps as an evolutionary trait, to protect individuals from harms or benefits they see occurring to others. I think perhaps one explanation for the expansion of empathy and peace throughout history is the continually increasing means of communicating and experiencing with others. Certainly within the last several decades, our ability to see, hear, touch, and learn from others has dramatically increased due to advances in travel, telecommunications, etc. The more we have the opportunity to learn from and experience others, the more our mirror neurons have the opportunity to fire up and add to our empathy and human experiences.

  15. I feel humans are naturally empathetic towards those with whom they share a common identity. This is fairly in agreement with the trends presented in the video, where humans have seen their communities grow from blood relations to nation states. From a very basic standpoint, the need to belong has as its ultimate goal protection from competition, so the biological basis for empathy is there.

    I agree with Richard that these particular arguments do not necessarily account for the entire human experience. Rather, they are quite Euro-centric and built around seeing every society as post-industrial. Granted, there has been tremendous revolutions in communication, there is no guarantee that people will consider one another. Though we may hear of news like the Haiti Earthquake, it is too broad a generalization to say that humanity empathized and sought to help. Perhaps those that did were simply a vocal minority.

    Personally, my understanding of human nature, and consequently my world-view, changed throughout college and graduate school. I had to see the world – and slowly take it in – to truly empathize with the rest of it. Seeing poverty, ignorance, racism and the systemic inequality in society will shape anyone’s view.

    This research is fascinating in that I can definitely see the arguments being made about the evolution of the empathic civilization, but I think it underplays the lengthy nature of this evolutionary process. Those alive today will never live in a global empathic community, but that does not mean it will never exist. They key is to increase understanding and cooperation in order to decrease competition for scarce resources. My world view is a bit skewed towards Hobbes, so let’s just say that will take quite a while to evolve.

  16. On one level, I’m not surprised that research tells us we are empathic beings. I consider myself empathic, and I don’t know anyone who is not. However, reading the news causes me to ask if humans are empathic beings, what happened to the ones who cause violence? However, I don’t like the word empathic or empathy. I don’t think there was a flood of empathy for the people in Haiti, or it was at least not always genuine. To feel empathy means to relate or feel what another is feeling. In that way, expressing empathy can by insulting if, for example, someone in the US says they empathize with someone in Haiti who lost loved ones and his home to the earthquake because the American has lost someone close to him before. Both are painful experiences, but are very different. I think sympathetic is a better word. Sympathy requires you to see a difference between you and another human being, but it is an emotion that can unite people.

  17. The research presented here is interesting and does convince me that biologically we’re “wired” to be empathic; that doesn’t surprise me. I found it very simplistic to suggest that we simply need to expand our sense of empathy beyond the nation-state to include every living thing in our biosphere. Easier said than done, although I love the idea of it.

    What didn’t convince me at all about the changing nature of empathy was the example of the world’s response after the Haiti earthquake. I think there’s a very important distinction between an empathic response and a prolonged or permanent sense of empathy for all humans, not just during times of crises. What good is our natural empathy if we don’t have the knowledge, motivation, or resources to act on whichever injustice it is that provokes our empathy in the first place?

    I think that most of us aren’t challenged enough (or ever) to act on our feelings of empathy, and that is our greatest barrier to a true expansion of empathy.

  18. I am not yet convinced that humans are naturally emphatic creatures. I am also not convinced that historical trends have shifted towards less violence and more peace. Events in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe since the great wars, but with proliferation of weapons, demonstrate that violence has increased – more humans have died from the many “small wars” than the big wars and the so-called Cold War.

    Humans may well wired to be emphatic, but as I noted earlier, the emphatic bonds of blood (race, tribe) religion, class, and nationalism is not leading to empathy which is collaborative and peaceful, but more competition and the increase in conflict.

    Information on the growth of the human brain has played a key role in my understanding of human emotional nature. The behavior of nation states, organized religion, and other exclusionary groups which come from socialization, also explain and account for some aspects of human behavior or “nature”.

    This new research does give me pause, I need to read more, but old perceptions still persist.

  19. It makes sense to me that humans are naturally empathic creatures. I was able to logically follow Pinker and Rikin’s research on how the historical trends have expanded the network of empathy from blood ties to religious associations to national identification. With increased globalization in business and internationalization of education, propelled by exponential growth in technology, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine how these gains will allow us to connect our empathy to all parts of the world. This research shaped my understanding by introducing a new and logical perspective — showing how the historical trends influence the way we feel, and how our degree and expanse of empathy is correlated to the current happenings. The notion that empathy is expanding or capable of expanding in the future is a positive outlook, and I think it is the responsibility of educators to facilitate as much interaction and communication between and within cultures as possible to allow opportunities for such expansion.

  20. I’m not surprised with the idea that humans are naturally empathic. I think that it is more likely for humans to be empathic but to hide that in order to appear tough and unbothered by others. Teenagers especially often hide behind the idea of ‘I don’t care’. I think that the idea of empathy starting with blood ties and then moving out to larger contexts of communities, nations and then the concept of global citizens is important and true to a large extent. But, I think that those ties become much looser the further out we go. Blood and family ties are very strong (though even those can be broken) but as we branch out, there are more things that differentiate ourselves from others and make it harder to maintain those ties. I think that the more differences there are the harder it is to empathize with others.

  21. I suppose I am not surprised. I remember when I first learned that race was a social construct, rather than a biological one. To support that fact, it was explained that the humans are 99% genetically matched. It’s just the lone 1% or so that creates any kind of difference in us whatsoever. One percent. I remember this was a turning point in the way I thought about things. It was as though I had been given scientific, factual permission to focus on how we’re all alike, rather than what separates us.

    Furthermore, I see this play out everyday where I work. The students are often so focused on fighting and beefs and drama. Yet, ironically, at the heart of it, it’s all motivated by a need for acceptance, love and loyalty. The fact that this is the well-spring of their being, and not the belligerent manifestation of it is what encourages me that all the fighting and warfare is based on human misunderstanding, not human nature. And misunderstanding can be mitigated.

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