21st-century skills: Teaching empathy? It's complicated.

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Trevor Walraven was just 12 years old when he started using methamphetamines, smoking weed, and taking hallucinogens. When he was 14 years old, he shot a man in the back of the head and then took his car for a joyride. At 15, Walraven was tried as an adult in Oregon state court, found guilty of aggravated murder, and sentenced to life in prison with a 30-year minimum. By the time Walraven was granted parole in 2016, he had spent more of his life in prison than outside it.

Walraven entered prison as a young man who romanticized the criminal lifestyle and would do anything, even take a life, to be accepted by his peers. Today, he’s a legal assistant, prison reform advocate, and evangelist for the idea that empathy can be taught. “I do believe that people have the capacity to change,” he said during a phone interview. “I think there, of course, are limits to everything, but I think it’s important to instill hope and to encourage positive, forward progress.”

Until recently, most people thought that empathy was something you were born with. You either had it or you didn’t. However, research gathered by scientists and doctors over the past few decades shows growing evidence that empathy can and should be taught.

Researchers and authors have also recently made arguments for why empathy isn’t always a good thing. It can lead to racism, tribalism, and a whole bunch of other us-versus-them societal evils that are, in many ways, the opposite of empathy. While we may be able to teach empathy, that doesn’t mean doing so is without complications.

What we mean by “empathy”

In Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As a lesson in empathy, it’s a good start.

However, empathy is more complicated than seeing the world from someone else’s perspective. When a human being empathizes with another, she not only identifies what that other person is feeling, she also uses her imagination to viscerally experience what he’s experiencing.

In her 2018 book,The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, Dr. Helen Riess, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, explains that empathy is not just a personality trait. “Increasing evidence suggests that empathy is partially hardwired into the brain and splits into three different aspects,” she writes, “emotional (or affective empathy), cognitive (or thinking empathy), and motivation for an empathic response.”

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