The Influence of Others, Empathy and Learning to Do Good

Why do we behave? Janneke Joly, Ph.D., the University of Groningen, suggests that we are prompted by others to do so and that we do it under three distinct influences – other people’s physical presence, the association of a particular person with a normative behavior, or having their memory on our minds.  In other words, my mother standing next to me, the association of her with cleaning my plate of all its food, or the memory of her telling me to clean my plate will all have the effect of influencing me to finish my meal.

Now, if the norm happens to be that altruism or doing good is a proper thing to do, then each of the three influences above will tend to direct me to do good.  But why I do good could be motivated by a variety of things.  Recent research by psychologist Lidewij Niezink, also of the University of Groningen, suggests that we help friends due to our empathy with them whereas we tend to help relatives because we expect help back in return.  This has a certain logic.  As the old cliche goes, you can’t choose your relatives.  We may or may not have a lot in common with siblings or parents whereas we will tend to have more in common with the friends that we choose – hence an easier time empathizing with them.

Finally, we are hardly off the hook if we state that we just don’t have a lot of empathy for people, period.  Maybe so.  But researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison state that kindness and compassion can be learned.  Functional MRI studies indicate that “brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.”  Activity increased in the insula, a portion of the brain where bodily representations of emotion tend to be processed, and the temporal parietal juncture, which processes empathy.  The net result was that individuals who practiced “compassion meditation,” the art of generating kind and compassionate thoughts towards others, thought and acted more compassionately.

So in summary, thoughts of my mother telling me to be kind to my crazy Aunt Meg will influence me to do so, even though I don’t want to.  I may expect that Aunt Meg will be nice to me in return, even though she and I have little in common.  Nevertheless, under my mother’s influence I decide to do so and after a few minutes of quiet thoughts of good will towards her I surprisingly find it easier to do so.  Anybody relate?

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