Can Empathy be ‘Taught’ to Adults?

Empathy plays a critical role in AIDA’s learning program. And, we are constantly looking for new ways to incorporate it into our curriculum.

Here is one such example from Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (great book by the way, highly recommended)

Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron are husband and wife as well as research partners and writing collaborators at Stony Brook University. They have made it their life’s work to study the ways in which we form intimate ties with those in our inner circle as well as with members from an out-group. Over the last decade, they have been bringing together diverse pairs of complete strangers – black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino – to participate in an unusual experiment.

The Arons asked each of these couples to come together for a series of four intimate, hour-long sessions. During their first session, each member of the pair was asked to share his or her answers to a list of questions, everything from “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” to “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?” During the second session, the pairs competed against other pairs in timed games like charades, word play, and logic puzzles. Then, in the third, there were guided through a series of intimate conversations with questions about their personal lives and their feelings of affiliation toward their ethnic groups.

In the last hour-long session, they did a blindfolded trust walk, taking turns navigating a maze wearing the blindfold or serving as the guide.

Although the activities conjure up a weekend at seventh-grade summer camp, Dr. Arthur Aron argues that these four hours create a relationship that is as close as any in a person’s life.

In fact, research from Arons’ tests showed that the four-hour sessions almost immediately lowered subjects’ score on a variety of prejudice measures. Stress hormone tests, conducted on the subjects’ saliva, showed significantly reduced anxiety for both members of the pair when they encountered a social interaction with a member of their partner’s ethnic group.

Psychologists suggest that these kinds of powerful bonds – creating new definitions for in-group and out-group – occur through our own highly evolved process of empathetic mimicry. We are rarely conscious of it, but we, as humans are constantly copying the facial expressions, manners of speech, postures, and body language of those around us.

Here is proof that empathy can be ‘taught’ to adults, so there is hope for us after all. ;-)

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