Empathy engages brain areas, such as the limbic system, that are more than 100 million years old. The capacity arose long ago with motor mimicry and emotional contagion, after which evolution added layer after layer, until our ancestors not only felt what others felt, but understood what others might want or need. That ultimately led to sympathy: while empathy is a way we gather information about someone else, sympathy reflects our concern about the other and a desire to improve the other’s situation. Sympathy is anything but automatic. Nevertheless, it is common not only in humans but also in other animals, such as apes, dogs, elephants, and birds.
Apes will groom and hug those in distress. There is also evidence of that behavior in dogs. Belgian biologists watched more than a thousand spontaneous fights among dogs released every day onto a meadow at a pet-food company. After aggressive outbursts, nearby dogs would approach one of the combatants—usually the loser—to lick or nuzzle, play with, or simply sit with him or her. Doing so seemed to settle the group, which quickly resumed its usual activities.
As for its origins, empathy probably started with the birth of parental care. During 200 million years of mammalian evolution, females sensitive to their offspring outreproduced those that were cold and distant. When a pup, cub, calf, or human baby is cold, hungry, or in danger, its mother needs to react instantaneously. Females that failed to respond did not propagate their genes.
Descended as we are from a long line of mothers who nursed, fed, cleaned, carried, comforted, and defended their young, we should not be surprised by gender differences in human empathy. Two-year-old girls who witness others in distress treat them with more concern than do boys of the same age. And in adulthood, women report stronger empathic reactions than men, which is one reason why a “tending instinct” has been attributed to women.
Believing we are seeing a person with whom we have just cooperated receive a painful electric shock (though it’s actually staged) activates pain-related areas in our own brains. That applies to both men and women. But some experiments show that if a man feels he has been duped by someone, he shows the opposite of empathy: when he sees the other’s pain, his brain’s pleasure centers light up. Those men are getting a kick out of the other person’s misery! Women, in contrast, remain empathic. The underlying theme (male lack of empathy for potential rivals) may well be a mammalian universal.
None of this denies male empathy. Indeed, gender differences usually follow a pattern of overlapping bell curves: men and women differ on average, but quite a few men are more empathic than the average woman, and quite a few women are less empathic than the average man. In addition, with age, the empathy levels of men and women seem to converge. Some investigators even doubt that in adulthood there’s much difference left.
Disciplines that view humans as rational decision makers, individually weighing the pros and cons of their own actions, underestimate the way we are influenced by the bodies that surround us, unconsciously responding to voice, mood, posture, and so on. But those influences are what provides the “glue” that holds entire societies together.
Human empathy is so ingrained that it will almost always find expression. As a consequence, at times it must be suppressed. Doctors and nurses in emergency rooms, for example, just cannot afford to be constantly in an empathic mode. They have to put a lid on it. Soldiers must be trained to dehumanize the enemy. Empathy can also be enhanced, as we do when we urge a child who is hogging all the toys to be more considerate of her playmates.
Like other primates, humans can be described either as highly cooperative animals that need to work hard to keep selfish and aggressive urges under control, or as highly competitive animals that nevertheless have the ability to get along and engage in give-and-take. I rank humans among the most aggressive of primates, but I also believe that we’re masters at connecting, and that social ties constrain competition. Many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature. But in fact many animals survive through cooperation, so there is a long evolutionary history to compromise, peaceful coexistence, and caring for others. Empathy is part of the survival package, and human society depends on it as much as many other animal societies do.