Normally there are differences between the way we explain our own behavior and the way we explain another’s in similar situation. This is one of the major problem in today’s complex world that undermines human happiness. Surprisingly, when practicing empathy, we tend to perceive other in the same way as we think of ourselves regarding how we explain the causes of their behavior or interpret their activities. Under ordinary conditions we tend to explain the causes of our own behavior as having more to do with situations-i.e., if we come home to our messy apartment, we tend to explain it based on circumstances (“I was working late last night and didn’t have time to clean up” or “I was running late to work”). On the other hand, when it comes to explaining another’s behavior, we tend to attribute the cause to dispositional explanations – i.e., that is “the way they are,” it is part of their intrinsic character or disposition. This fundamental difference between how we normally explain our own versus another’s behavior is called the FAE – the fundamental attribution error. Studies have shown that when we empathize, the FAE disappears.
There can be many definitions of Empathy. But regardless of the differences between definitions, they all seem to include certain basic features: First, there is some kind of emotional connection with another person. Second, there is also some kind of cognitive component, such as judgements or ideas about the other. And third, there is some kind of mechanism responsible for maintaining boundaries between self and other, something that helps the person keep track of which attributes or emotions are his or her and which belong to the other. On a popular level, it seems that empathy is most often thought of as the capacity to “put yourself in another’s shoes”, the capacity to imagine or sense what another person is experiencing.
Our human capacity for empathy is one of our most wonderful attributes, particularly when it is used in the service of love, compassion and kindness – but even in the absence of these sublime states of mind, empathy plays a critical role in our ordinary day-to-day lives. As we all know, human beings are social animals. In order to function effectively in groups, we need a way of “reading” other people, of anticipating the behavior and reaction of others – and by facilitating our ability to do this, empathy plays an essential role in human evolution. As we have become more interdependent and our social systems more complex, empathy has become even more indispensable in today’s world. One important detail regarding practicing empathy, seeing them as more like ourselves, is that generally when we attribute our own traits to another as a result of practicing empathy, we should assign our positive traits to them, but not our negative traits. The positive effects and benefits of empathy can be far reaching. The practice of empathy reduces social aggression and improves attitudes and evaluations of out-groups.
A deep understanding of our common humanity, empathy and compassion, an awareness of the true practical value of these things, and the courage to implement them in daily life can determine or influence levels of personal and societal happiness. Ultimately they have the potential to shape the future of humanity.