There’s a lot of talk about empathy — but what does it mean to empathize with someone? In common usage, “empathy” means “sympathy” — feeling sadness or sorry for someone. That’s usually what it means in social science research, too. But it shouldn’t. Empathy is a sharing of someone else’s feelings and those can just as well be feelings of pleasure, joy and success. That’s called “empathic joy,” but it’s rarely recognized, let alone researched, in the social sciences.
Professor Todd L. Pittinsky of Stony Brook’s Department of Technology & Society and his colleague, R. Matthew Montoya, of the University of Dayton, have taken the plunge in their new empirical research, published in the Journal of Social Issues. They find that empathic joy can make a difference in creating positively diverse communities. Researching white teachers working with predominantly ethnic minority students in under resourced districts, they found that those who took pleasure in their students’ joys and successes were more likely to have an attitude of allophilia and thus to engage more positively with the students. This led to better student outcomes on test scores.
“Education has always been seen as a key to what is best about American society,” Pittinsky and Montoya conclude. “We need teachers who empathize with their students fully — that is, who experience empathic joy as well as empathic sorrow for them.”
Professor Pittinsky is the author of Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference, editor of Crossing the Divide: Intergroup Leadership in a World of Difference and coeditor of Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders: Enduring Challenges and Emerging Answers (Oxford University Press).