’Every person can learn to be more or less empathetic’

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Empathy can be transferred. This means that people can learn or unlearn empathy by observing their environment. This is shown by a new study by Würzburg neuroscientist Grit Hein.

With her latest evaluations of empathy skills, Würzburg professor Grit Hein has once again disproved the old adage: "What goes around comes around". It is not only children who can adopt empathic reactions from close caregivers. Adults are also malleable and can learn to be more or less empathetic by observing others.

The Professor of Translational Social Neuroscience at the Center for Mental Health at the University Hospital of Würzburg (UKW) has succeeded in capturing this complex social phenomenon using mathematical models, so-called computational modeling, and mapping it vividly in the adult brain with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Their results, published in the journal PNAS, provide a computational and neural mechanism for the social transmission of empathy. This mechanism explains the changes in individual empathic responses in empathic and non-empathic social environments. Grit Hein has to a certain extent formalized how empathy is transmitted.

Social transmission of empathy tested

Their research focused on the question of whether empathy or lack of empathy for another person’s pain is transferred. In a total of four studies, the participants first watched videos of hands that had just received painful stimulation and indicated how they felt on a rating scale. After they had given their own rating, they were shown the empathic or non-empathic reactions of other people to the same videos.

Finally, the people again gave an empathy rating, but this time in relation to the pain of a new person. With this experimental setup, Grit Hein and her team were able to test how and whether a person’s empathy changes in the presence of empathic and non-empathic fellow human beings.

Observation-based reinforcement learning

The result: By observing the empathic reactions of other people, the test participants learned to be more or less empathic. Depending on whether empathic or non-empathic reactions were observed, the empathy ratings increased or decreased. Interestingly, the neuronal reaction to the other person’s pain also changed," says Grit Hein.

The neuronal changes measured in the fMRI scanner were reflected in an altered connectivity of the anterior insula, a brain region associated with the processing of empathy. Hein and her team were able to show that these neuronal changes can be explained by mathematical learning models. This means that the increased or decreased empathy is really caused by learning from others and is not just mere imitation or shown to please others.

It pays to invest in an empathetic environment

Applied to the professional context, does this mean that if you want to have a good team, you have to create a good environment? "Absolutely!" answers Grit Hein. "You simply have to know that adults also learn or unlearn empathy through observation, even from people they don’t know." Anyone who creates a working environment that lacks empathy for reasons of cost-cutting, lack of time or mismanagement must be aware that this behavior shapes employees in the long term and that this in turn affects their dealings with customers or patients.

Previous studies have shown that positive empathy can turn into prosocial motivation and increase the willingness to cooperate and help, among other things. However, too much empathy can also take a different route and trigger stress, leading to burnout or complete withdrawal. Empathy can therefore also be perceived as stressful.

"Respect is the breeding ground for empathy"

"The good news from our studies is that we have opportunities to shape the capacity for empathy in adults through appropriate measures in both directions," says Grit Hein. "It is possible to learn positive empathy from others. However, in order to flourish in the long term, empathy needs a climate of mutual respect. You can respect someone without having empathy with that person, but it is difficult to develop empathy if the other person is not respected as a human being or if disrespect is accepted in society."

Complex social interactions are one of Grit Hein’s main areas of research. In order to understand them, you have to start at a very basic level, establish the fundamental mechanisms and build them up like a puzzle, i.e. gradually adding social factors. For this reason, the current study was only conducted with women. However, the effect was replicated in different environments, MRI and laboratory, and with participants of different ages and ethnicities. Younger and older, European and Asian participants reacted similarly.

Subsequent studies on empathy with mixed genders are an interesting approach. At the moment, however, Grit Hein is examining whether the model can also be transferred to other social behaviors such as egoism or aggression.


Yuqing Zhou, Shihui Han, Pyungwon Kang, Philippe N. Tobler, Grit Hein. The social transmission of empathy relies on observational reinforcement learning. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America - Psychological and cognitive sciences. February 2024.

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