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Why We Walk: Choose Empathy #walkforpeace2015

"When we are empathetic, we share the feelings of another--we put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak."

We’ve been blogging a lot about compassion lately: what it is, how it works, and why it matters. This is no surprise--compassion is the foundation of Play for Peace! But what about some of the other emotions that play a role in improving the state of the world? Empathy, for example. In a recent article by the New York Times, titled “Empathy is a Choice”, professors Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham explore some of the complexities related to this emotion.

Let’s first start by asking how empathy and compassion are different. Often used as synonyms, these feelings are marked by a distinct difference: where compassion is about feeling concern for others and desiring to initiate action towards that concern, empathy is about mirroring another’s thoughts and feelings. When we are empathetic, we share the feelings of another--we put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak. So what are folks saying about empathy? As it turns out, empathy has been criticized by researchers who believe that its effects are both negative and limited. Studies show that people tend to feel less empathy for larger groups than for individuals--single victims, for example, as opposed to victims of a genocide. It also appears that people are less likely to empathize if their background is different from those in need: if they are of another race or nationality (Cameron et al., para. 3 - 9, 2015). The research feels disconcerting, but it doesn’t have to be. As these professors point out, the research being accurate doesn’t mean that it’s an inherent, inflexible part of the human condition.

"Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.” (Cameron et al., para. 7, 2015).

Several experiments suggest that the perception of empathy is key: in one, participants made stronger efforts to develop cross-cultural empathy once they learned that emotion is a skill that can grow with practice (Cameron et al., para. 10, 2015). Another experiment demonstrated that if participants believed action was required on their part (financial aid, for example), they tended to avoid empathetic situations. This suggests that empathy is not inherent but rather affected by the expectations upon those feeling it--this is a positive point when we understand that the limits of empathy are not built-in, but rather are flexible. (Cameron et al., para. 9, 2015).

Cameron, Inzlicht, and Cunningham even found that narcissists and psychopaths were capable of empathy when they wanted to experience it. (para. 13, 2015). What does this mean for us? It means that if we want a more peaceful world, then we must choose empathy ourselves: we must choose to look at situations that make us feel and to make an effort to understand diverse groups of people. When our children and youth play together in Practice Peace Sessions they are doing just that. They are practicing many valuable life skills and are interacting with others different from them in a way that allows them to also learn empathy. By participating in our Walk for Peace you and your family are also choosing to empathize with the thousands of children and youth around the world that Play for Peace reaches who are living in fear from violence and conflict. Please join us in supporting this important work.

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REFERENCES 1. Cameron, Daryl, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham. (2015, July 10). “Empathy is a Choice.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: