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Originally published Monday, January 28, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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Building empathy builds society

Recent events make all of us wonder how people, especially young people, develop legitimate concern for others. Empathy is essential for a healthy society.

Special to The Seattle Times

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On Health

Empathy — the ability to understand and care about how other people feel, a fundamental aspect of humanity.

Recently, our country became aware of the devastating consequences that happen when there is a dramatic failure of empathy. Developing and maintaining empathy for others, even in the face of strong dislike or disagreement, is one of society’s most pressing concerns.

While it may seem obvious, empathic people care about how others feel. Brain research suggests that the emotions we feel about how another person feels differentiate someone who merely intellectually understands another person’s sentiments in a coolly rational way from someone who both understands and cares emotionally about the way another person feels.

Why is this important? When we are angry or dissatisfied with another person, our ability to care about how that other person feels diminishes. Whether you are upset with someone in your family, annoyed by a co-worker, or fuming at some politician’s insensitivity, maintaining empathy is crucial, because it helps us work out our differences more productively.

As children, we develop empathy for our own feelings along with developing empathy for others. Usually, we learn this when our early caregivers acknowledge and reflect back to us how and what we feel. This, in turn, helps us learn to care about our own and others’ feelings. Like learning other things, kids need to be taught about feelings.

Dr. Carol Kusché, a local psychologist, has developed a remarkably well-researched curriculum teaching kids in the classroom about empathy and other feelings. While not used in enough schools, the curriculum is used in Seattle and across the nation, and in more than 20 other countries. If, as a society, we decide this is as important as math, reading and science, we now have the tools to teach kids how to recognize and better deal with their feelings.

Teaching kids about feelings works, because while, as Kusché believes, “Empathy may largely be genetically influenced, socialization has a profound impact on how empathy is expressed.” She said some kids who don’t appear to respond to the emotional pain of others can learn to “register the feelings of others and recognize an appropriate social response.”

Not learning enough empathy early on increases the likelihood of anti-social behaviors later. However, even then it is not too late to teach people to respond differently. For example, research shows that the best way to prevent adolescents from committing crimes like robbery is to have them role-play the victim’s role. This forces the teen to understand the victim’s feelings, prompting a drop in recidivism.

Tony Hacker, Ph.D., is a Seattle-area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His email is: tahackerphd@gmail.com

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