Is There Science Behind Empathy?
JoAnna Bennett
JoAnna Bennett, O’Brien Communications Group
17 August 2017

It is easy to judge people we don’t know, people we do know, or even people we think we know. We take one chapter, one page, or one sentence out of someone’s life story and make negative or positive presumptions of them based on our own perspectives and life experiences. We see it in business, politics, entertainment, and even personal social circles.

Instead of baselessly judging one another, we should try to be a pinch more empathetic. Scientifically, this is referred to as theory of mind (ToM). We are not born with ToM. It is a skill we develop around age four. Each person has a similar journey through the steps of this development, but we each go about it at our own pace – with the help of our personal experiences.

Is it wrong to judge people for a short period of their life? I don’t know. I am not the Magistrate of Right and Wrong (don’t tell my husband I said that). But I do know that if someone were to take a short story of a few parts of my life, I would not want to be judged by many singular situations. I have made some bad choices, and those moments may have shaped me. But who I am now is not defined by any of them.

I have gotten to my current destination by taking a combination of wrong turns, right turns, speeding a little, and stopping when I had to.

I have been joined by friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. Some are still on the journey with me and others have gone their own ways. But each of them has helped me continue to develop my ToM.

Before you read another newspaper article, scan through your social media newsfeed, listen to the next round of office gossip, or hang up the phone with your newest prospect, practice growing your theory of mind. To get you started here are a few questions that may help:

  • What does this person want?
  • What is this person’s purpose for saying certain things?
  • What is this person thinking?
  • Are there any hidden feelings involved (a different emotion from the one on display)?
  • Does this person have any false beliefs?

I don’t think any of us have a completely developed ToM. I have been working on mine for about thirty years and still must consciously remind myself to be more empathetic or understanding. I would like to think most people agree with me on this one, but how are knee-jerk assumptions and prejudices still so prevalent? How are we able to read a set of words and have immediate feelings and judgements toward people?

I may never know the answer, but I hope to be different.