Empathy: giving comfort

What is empathy? Empathy is more than being sympathetic. Being sympathetic is feeling others pain, but not necessarily giving comfort. Empathy is the ability to feel the distress of others and to give them comfort. Are all people capable of giving comfort to fellow humans?

Research on animal emotions revealed empathy in primates and mammals. A study also revealed that rats are capable of empathy. The rat study tested how rats respond when their friends were trapped. The results showed that rats would deliberately help their companions escape. However, what was surprising was that after they liberated their rat friends, they shared food with them. The experiment gave rats a choice whether to free their friend by rotating the door on the trapped rat’s cage or not. The experiment was repeated for 12 days. The rats were noticeably agitated when they saw a trapped companion: they circled the cage, tried to dig under the cage and called to the trapped rat in the cage. When the cage was empty, they did none of these actions. When there was an empty cage, the rat opened the cage door 12.5% of the time. When their companion was trapped in the cage, they opened the cage door 77% of the time. Hence they were more motivated to open the cage to help a companion rat.

Empathy is the ability to feel the distress of others and to give them comfort.

Were there gender differences in the rat study? Yes. Female rats were more likely to open a cage for a trapped rat friend than males. During the 12 experiments, 100% of females became door openers, whereas 70% of male rats were door openers. Females were quicker to open the cage door than males. Does this mean female rats are more empathetic than male rats? Not necessarily.

What happened when rats had a choice whether to open the cage with chocolate chips or their trapped rat friend? Chocolate is a rat favourite so it is an effective motivator. There was no difference in the amount of times a rat chose chocolate over their trapped friend. But the rats shared the chocolate chips after they liberated their trapped friend. They chose to share, and they chose to eat less chocolate chips so that their distressed rat friend could feel better. What is not clear is why they are empathetic. Were they liberating their friends to make the friend feel good or to make themselves feel good about their actions? Researchers note that this is an important distinction.

When people participate in giving to charity are they doing so to help those in need or are they doing so to make themselves feel good because they have helped someone in need? As with rats, this is an important distinction. However, both actions demonstrate empathy. In both examples, people are giving comfort – to others or to themselves.

Empathy is the emotion that motivates people to donate to charities, give money to the disadvantaged, contribute time at the local school sporting event, support a worthy cause or provide a shoulder to cry on.

Empathy is helping others to relieve their distress. Whatever the reason why the animal kingdom and humanity are empathetic on a personal level, their actions help others on a community and global level. Feeling empathetic – giving empathy – makes a difference.

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls specialises in human rights, peace and reconciliation, disaster relief, and aid development, primarily in developing countries, states in transition, and conflict zones. She is the author of four books: The Sudan Curse, Kashmir on a Knife-Edge, Bardot’s Comet and Liberia’s Deadest Ends.

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