Empathy in Romantic Relationships: A Research Proposal

Throughout the semester, the class has focused heavily on empathy as a broad concept, covering numerous situations. We’ve looked at empathy in the courtroom, empathy for people of other races, empathy for a father, and even empathy for those committing atrocious acts. In several of my own blogs, I’ve addressed empathy as a very malleable concept and it has proven to be just that. However, with relationship science being a fairly new and emerging science in psychology, I thought it would be interesting to venture into the realm of empathy as it pertains to romantic relationships.

downloadIn doing so, my goal is to uncover what exactly the role of empathy is in romantic relationships, and how couples can harness it to benefit their relationship. In order to do this, I intend to not only uncover the beneficial effects of empathy, but the harmful effects as well. For instance, it appears perceived empathy (believing one’s partner empathizes with them, or is trying to empathize with them) appears to be more important for a couple’s relationship satisfaction than accurately empathizing with one another. In doing a more extensive literary review of the material on empathy in romantic relationships, I intend to learn more about this topic in more detail, and uncover intriguing insights like the one I mentioned above.

So what is empathy’s role in romantic relationships, and how can couple’s harness it in order to benefit their relationship?

I believe this is an important question, and answering it is necessary in order to improve upon and facilitate successful and satisfying relationships with our partners. I believe if people come to find empathy is a key component in relationship satisfaction, and light is shed on the ways it can improve their relationship, they will be motivated to place greater emphasis on maintaining a certain level of empathy for their partner through all relationship transgressions, as well as normal day to day interaction.


(Potential) Works Cited

Barnes, Sean, et al. “The Role of Mindfulness in Romantic Relationship Satisfaction and Responses to Relationship Stress.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol. 33, no. 4, 2007., pp. 482-500doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00033.x.

Cohen, Shiri, et al. “Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction.” Journal of Family Psychology 26.2 (2012): 236. ProQuest. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Cramer, Duncan, and Sophia Jowett. “Perceived Empathy, Accurate Empathy and Relationship Satisfaction in Heterosexual Couples.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 27, no. 3, 2010., pp. 327-349doi:10.1177/0265407509348384.

Davis, Mark H., and H. A. Oathout. “Maintenance of Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships: Empathy and Relational Competence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 53, no. 2, 1987., pp. 397-410doi:10.1037/0022-3514.53.2.397.

Google. “Cartoon Scientist.” Google: 2013. http://www.gll-getalife.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/cartoon-scientists.jpg.

Kato, Tsukasa. “Effects of Partner Forgiveness on Romantic Break-Ups in Dating Relationships: A Longitudinal Study.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 95, 2016., pp. 185-189doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.050.

Kimmes, Jonathan G., and Jared A. Durtschi. “forgiveness in Romantic Relationships: The Roles of Attachment, Empathy, and Attributions.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol. 42, no. 4, 2016., pp. 645doi:10.1111/jtuft.12171.

Péloquin, Katherine, Marie-France Lafontaine, and Audrey Brassard. “A Dyadic Approach to the Study of Romantic Attachment, Dyadic Empathy, and Psychological Partner Aggression.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 28, no. 7, 2011., pp. 915-942doi:10.1177/0265407510397988.

Péloquin, Katherine, and Marie-France Lafontaine. “Measuring Empathy in Couples: Validity and Reliability of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index for Couples.” Journal of Personality Assessment, vol. 92, no. 2, 2010., pp. 146-157doi:10.1080/00223890903510399.

Perrone-McGovern, Kristin M., et al. “Effects of Empathy and Conflict Resolution Strategies on Psychophysiological Arousal and Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships.” Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, vol. 39, no. 1, 2014., pp. 19-25doi:10.1007/s10484-013-9237-2.

Tartakovsky, Margarita. “The Power of Empathy in Romantic Relationships & How to Enhance It | World of Psychology.” World of Psychology. N.p., 10 June 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/06/08/the-power-of-empathy-in-romantic-relationships-how-to-enhance-it/>.

Tompkins, Cody. “Put Yourself In Their Shoes: Empathy For The Homeless.” Gannon University: 2016.

Ulloa, Emilio C., PhD., and Julia F. Hammett M.A. “The Role of Empathy in Violent Intimate Relationships.” Partner Abuse 7.2 (2016): 140-56. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.



A Recipe for Empathy

emapthy-illustratedEmpathy, as I understand it, is the synergistic effect created through the willingness to use perspective-taking and sympathy in order to elucidate another person’s situation, emotion, and even thought-process. The problem that so often occurs when attempting to empathize with someone is our own predispositions and prejudices will sometimes inhibit us from doing so. So how can someone conjure empathy in a time when it’s needed, despite a paradigm that causes this inhibition? Luckily, empathy is malleable, and so, by implementing the right strategies, we can combat empathy’s limitations. Among the many strategies that can be employed, two that I believe would be beneficial to implement are: actively minimizing our tendency to excessively use social media, and deliberately choosing a positive rationale for a given situation rather than assuming the worst in another’s intentions. With two exams occurring at the same time my statistics homework is due, and the deadline for this very blog post arriving sooner than later, I’m extremely stressed out and can’t seem to get a good sleep for the life of me. Can you empathize?

Social Media’s Implications on Empathy

There is a divide between those that believe social media facilitates empathy, and those that believe it decreases it. In my focus on social media regarding empathy, I discuss the empathy deficit that has occurred, which undeniably appears to correlate with social media usage. Particularly over the most recent decade, empathy has declined approximately forty percent. This decline is speculated to be due to the rise in narcissism that results from the excessive use of social media (O’Brien). As people become more and more plugged into their online profiles, they’re simultaneously receiving an abundance of media coverage on tragedies around the world that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to. This, in combination with the rise in narcissism, seems to be causing people to become desensitized to the pain others are experiencing. Putting that into perspective, I mention a particular case in which a fourteen-year-old boy takes his own life because of the resulting ridicule he received when a fellow classmate posted a video of him in the bathroom to social media (CBS this morning). I also mention Mel Wiggin’s experience with social media after the Paris attack occurred. In both situations, social media did not appear to elicit empathy, but rather it hindered it. The message to be taken from their experience is clear, and Wiggin’s has led by example. She openly states her own call-to-action; not for others, but for herself. By making her own call-t–action public, her intent is clear in that she hopes others will follow her in taking action as well. The action indicative of replenishing our empathic concern for others. This action is taken by deliberately lessening time spent on social media, refusing to have a phone out at the dinner table, and paying closer attention to how much conversing is done via technology. These are what she believes will be of great benefit to her, and I completely agree. Those that follow this change in ritualistic behavior regarding the use of social media should in theory begin to raise their trait affective empathy, and adhere to more empathic concern for others.

Empathy’s Many Masters: Why Her and Not Him?

Adam Morton wrote an article titled “Empathy for the Devil,” which had less holes in it to contend with than that of social media’s implication on empathy. His argument distinguishes three dimensions for which we must have knowledge of in order to empathize with someone who commits an atrocious act. He makes the claim that decent people find themselves incapable of empathizing with these people because we don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of committing the same atrocious acts. He calls this “the blinkering effect of decency” (Morton). This is Morton’s explanation for what inhibits us from empathizing. While I didn’t completely disagree with Morton’s proposal, I did impose a counterargument. I demonstrated that it isn’t simply decent people that can’t empathize with those committing evil acts, but rather all people seem to struggle empathizing with any given action performed by another person to some degree. It merely depends on their own unique predispositions, and thought-processes that arise. These immediate thoughts are either allow them or disallow them to desire generating empathic concern. I claim that in order for us to empathize with these transgressors, we simply have to adjust our rationale and allow ourselves the realization that people are flawed (including ourselves), and typically anyone can be capable of committing such an act given the right circumstances (Miller). Essentially, we must give people the benefit of the doubt, as there are many possible intentions behind someone’s reason for acting in such a way. By doing this, we allow ourselves to experience the act in more neutral terms, rather than passing immediate judgement. This strategy for generating empathic concern via changing our rationale combats the immediate prejudice that arises, and allows us to consciously decide to perspective-take in a way that at least tries to eliminate our inherent biases. The outcome for doing so should bring about real change in the previous paradigm that existed before, and will ultimately set in motion a new way of viewing similar situations in the future in a more accurate manner.

Dear Harper Lee, Who is Atticus Finch?

Here, I describe Atticus’s character from the two contrasting lights that he is seen in throughout both To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchman. The conflicting opinions surrounding this iconic character are intriguing. Some believe he was a good man turned racist, while others believe he was racist all along. These are different people, analyzing the same character. Why does this sound familiar? Again we see that given a situation from which people can both see from different perspectives, those people arrive at different conclusions. This is due to the simple fact that the world is being viewed using different mental models called paradigms. Some can empathize with Atticus, and other’s can’t (or choose not to). The rationale being used to examine Atticus’s behavior in both novels differs from one person to the next, thus resulting in a huge difference of opinion. Another thing to consider is when people are viewing Atticus’s character, they are immediately activating the innate stereotypes and prejudices that underly their mental representations of a given situation. That’s why when it comes to empathizing with someone, it can be quite difficult if that person’s actions don’t match up with how we believe we would have acted in that moment (validating part of Morton’s argument). We see this with Jean when Atticus begins to demonstrate a prejudice she didn’t know existed in him. This newly found version of Atticus (as she see’s him) is not one with which she can empathize with. However, empathy_meanpersontowards the very end of Go Set a Watchman, Jean encounters Dr. Finch (Atticus’s brother) and receives a lecture that really resonates with her. He tells her, “…every man’s watchman is his conscious. There is no such thing as a collective conscious” (265). Essentially, this means her and Atticus are different people, with different perspectives. They are bound to see things differently, but that doesn’t mean they are enemies because of this. They can live in harmony upon her accepting their differing beliefs, and attempting to see things from his perspective. In this example, we see that this approach to changing one’s rationale removes the previous inhibition, and breeds an ability to regain her empathy for Atticus.

The Takeaway

Everyone has their own way for which they view the world. We use a sort of model that operates beyond our awareness. This is an extremely useful tool of sorts because it allows us to make snap judgements in dangerous situations, and saves us time when the immediate response is correct. However, rarely are our initial responses without bias, and those stereotypes are not as helpful when they’re flawed. 849afdc275e50235254bb361a5989683Research in the field of perspective-taking has shown “Whether perspective-taking leads to forgiveness or condemnation depends on the intentions the perspective-taker initially attributes to a transgressor” (Lucas et al). This is precisely why it is so important to reduce narcissistic tendencies, and to change the paradigms we have when they are not benefitting us and those we should have empathy for. Like Mel Wiggin’s, I do hope readers of this blog begin to decrease their time spent on social media, because it will combat the narcissism that stands to reduce our empathic concern. I do hope readers will employ a new and improved rationale when faced with a situation that calls for empathizing with others, because it will combat the original stereotypes and prejudices that lay below the threshold of our consciousness. Like in changing any habit, this takes time, effort, and practice. It is my belief that given time, this reduction in narcissism should allow us to regain our empathic tendencies, and increase our desire to perspective-take. If we then begin to choose our rationale of a given situation, we can see a change in our ability to empathize as well as in our ability to empathize, and I’d even argue that we’d see a change in our overall well-being as well. The goal is to stay neutral in our judgment of another’s actions, so that while perspective-taking, we allow the emergence of sympathy. These are by no means the only strategies, and they might not even be the MOST effective, but I do feel that given the information I’ve encountered, these are two effective ways to regain the empathy that appears to be diminishing in the US, and will hopefully bring people closer together (as the function of empathy intended).



If you’d like to know more about the importance of empathy, click here.

Works Cited

Barney, Kendyl. The Lost Art of Empathy: The Virtue Mankind Still Needs. Washington U, 28 Mar. 2016, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/lost-art-empathy. Accessed 10 Nov 2016.

CBS This Morning. “San Diego teen commits suicide after bullying over embarrassing video.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZJvDhaSDnc. Web. 18 October 2016.

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

Lucas, B. J., A. D. Galinksy, and K. J. Murnighan. “An Intention-Based Account of Perspective-Taking: Why Perspective-Taking Can Both Decrease and Increase Moral Condemnation.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42.11 (2016): 1480-489. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.

Miller, Rowland S. Intimate Relationships. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012. Print.

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (2011): 318-30. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Empathy Deficit.” BostonGlobe, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/the_empathy_deficit/?page=full. Accessed 18 October 2016.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.

Unknown. “Empathic Design: Is Empathy the UX Holy Grail?” 2016. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/empathic-design-is-empathy-the-ux-holy-grail.

Wiggins, Mel. “Social Media and the Empathy Deficit.” MelWiggins, http://www.melwiggins.com/2015/11/28/social-media-the-empathy-deficit/. Accessed 18 October 2016.

Yourself Series. “How can I have empathy for someone who is mean?” 2014. http://yourselfseries.com/teens/topic/empathy/how-can-i-have-empathy-for-someone-who-is-mean/.

Yourself Series. “What if that was me?” 2015. https://open.buffer.com/empathy/.

Dear Harper Lee, Who Is Atticus Finch?

In the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch clearly states “All men are created equal” (KM). Throughout the preceding scenes of the film, Atticus appears to reflect this belief—at least to some degree. However, other viewers have a different take on him entirely. For instance, Katherine Nichols published an article on Jezebel titled “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.” There, she provides a detailed description of how she viewed Atticus in both To Kill a Mockingbird (book version) and Go Set a Watchman. She does a brilliant job providing examples that clearly validate her understanding of Atticus as a racist, and concludes the article with a strong statement saying, “Mockingbird Atticus is too easy to read as virtuous—a brave individual, not strong enough on his own to make any headway against inequality. The truth is that he never meant to” and she’s right. With that being said, I must admit that prior to reading Nichols’s article, I too was guilty of seeing Atticus as an almighty do-gooder of his time; somehow being a noble, virtue-driven egalitarian while surrounded by individuals of lesser quality than he. While that is no longer my exact interpretation of him, I still believe the man deserves an immense amount of credit. So who is Atticus Finch really? If he is racist, can he still be perceived as a role-model?

I’ll start with the latter. Can Atticus still be viewed as a role-model? The answer is yes, but a better question would be: how? Well, because everyone is prejudice. Some clearly more than others, and most may not even be aware that they are at all. I’m not saying that’s how it ought to be, but I am saying that’s how it is. Gail Price-Wise, a graduate from Harvard School of Public Health appears to agree, as she also says, “We all have prejudice” (McAteer). The reason Atticus’s prejudice isn’t so apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird is at least in part because the film is being filtered through Scout’s perspective. What that tells us is not only that Atticus must be exceedingly diligent as a parent to have shielded his children from the obscene racist norms that take place within the town at this time, but he also made sure his own prejudicial beliefs aren’t intruding on his children’s ability to form their own perspective of the world. In contrast, we can clearly see how the Ewell family differs on these principles.

The bottom line is—and I think Price-Wise says it best—“…Individuals differ based on how they were raised, their personal life experiences, their education, socio-economic status, whether they have traveled, and the personality they were born with” (McAteer). Yes, Atticus is a flawed man. No, Atticus is not the epitome of all that is good. But, given the time-period and norms of Maycomb, Atticus still deserves to be a role-model, and he has been, especially to Jean. Even in chapter seventeen of Go Set a Watchman, when Jean verbally lashes out at Atticus; he simply chooses to accommodate her by staying calm and polite. He doesn’t raise his voice to her, and he surely doesn’t strike her (as Bob Ewell has done to his daughter). It takes immense self-control not to retaliate in someway, but he neglects to make the matter worse. So who is Atticus Finch? He is an imperfect man, with imperfect beliefs, but he may just be—a perfect father.


 Works Cited

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

McAteer, Ollie. “Actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in the film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, 1962.”Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images, 19 Feb. 2016, http://metro.co.uk/2016/02/19/to-kill-a-mockingbird-author-nelle-harper-lee-dies-aged-89-5706822/. Accessed 24 October 2016.

Mitchell, Robert. “Fighting Prejudice by Admitting It.” Harvardgazette, 05 Nov. 2013, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/11/fighting-prejudice-by-admitting-it/. Accessed 24 October 2016.

Movieclips. “All Men Are Created Equal – To Kill a Mockingbird (6/10) Movie CLIP (1962) HD.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 June 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x6njs-cGUE. Web. 24 October 2016.

Nichols, Katherine. “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise.” Jezebel, 20 July 2015, http://jezebel.com/atticus-was-always-a-racist-why-go-set-a-watchman-is-n-1718996096. Accessed 24 October 2016.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.

Social Media’s Implications on Empathy

An embarrassing video of a fourteen year old boy was put on social media by a fellow student, and the result wasn’t one that elicited empathy from his peers. Instead it resulted in constant bullying and ridicule for the ensuing two weeks that evidently led to his suicide.

This case and many others stand in accordance with what Keith O’Brien is referring to in his article titled “The Empathy Deficit.” He says, “Even as they become more connected [through social media], young people are caring less about others.” Why is this important? There seems to be evidence supporting a rise in narcissism that could be due to social media, resulting in much less empathic concern for others. A study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that “college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.” While the direct cause of this phenomenon is speculative, there is clearly a negative correlation to be drawn from this drop in empathy and the implementation of social media. Exposure to the plethora of daily news reports that are constantly published online may have desensitized people to the constant tragedies that occur, which make it more difficult to feel deeply for the abundance of them. This idea is clearly viewing social media’s impact on empathy in a much more macro way than that of the case in the previous video, but the underlying principles are still relevant: social media appears to be negating empathy, rather than eliciting it.

Author Mel Wiggins also weighs in with her experience via her article titled, “Social Media and The Empathy Deficit.” When the tragic attack on Paris left her speechless, others appeared to take to social media to post photos for attention. Wiggins decided to voice her opinion about it by saying, “…we should probably be lamenting the tragedy instead of uploading pictures of ourselves in Paris…” This statement caused many people to flare up, and take offense to her implied accusation of some people being less affected than others. It was at this time she realized that “social media does not have the capability to hold emotion well.” This idea that when emotions are high, statements don’t seem to translate their intended purpose well on social media. Soon after, a podcast aired that struck a cord with Wiggins, and validated her thoughts and emotions on the topic. A researcher named Sherry Turkle discussed the negative impacts technology and social media is having on empathy as part of the human condition. Much of the research shows clear signs that empathy is being reduced as we are more and more engulfed by social media. Wiggins concludes her article by revealing her own internal call-to-action. She lists the many changes she’s made to the ritualistic habits so many of us have fallen into, such as: having our phones with us at the dinner table, conversing too much via technology, being too connected to our online lives, etc. Wiggins’s personal experience is one countless people have endured, and continue to do so, with little thought of undergoing any sort of change. With narcissism on the rise, and empathy on a decline–is there even any wonder why Matthew Burdette didn’t stand a chance? However, there is light at the end of the tunnel if we act. O’Brien repeats what researcher Sara Konrath says, and that’s: “If empathy can go down, she said, it can also go up. It’s malleable” (ED). We just need to wake up, and “look up” (Gary Turk).


Works Cited

CBS This Morning. “San Diego teen commits suicide after bullying over embarrassing video.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZJvDhaSDnc. Web. 18 October 2016.

Gary Turk. “Look Up || Gary Turk – SPOKEN WORD.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 25 April 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY. Web. 19 October 2016.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Empathy Deficit.” BostonGlobe, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/the_empathy_deficit/?page=full. Accessed 18 October 2016.

Wiggins, Mel. “Social Media and the Empathy Deficit.” MelWiggins, http://www.melwiggins.com/2015/11/28/social-media-the-empathy-deficit/. Accessed 18 October 2016.

Empathy’s Many Masters: Why Her and Not Him?

Adam Morton’s essay “Empathy for the Devil” speaks to the presence of a barrier that appears within decent people when they attempt to empathize with someone who has committed an atrocious act. The idea is—in order to achieve empathic understanding, we must first breakthrough the barrier preventing us from doing so. He believes there are three distinct dimensions that need to be understood in order to achieve a level of understanding necessary to feel empathy accurately. These dimensions are: discovering what the barrier is, the attitude towards overcoming it, and “the nature of the emotion or motivation that facilitates the process” (327). On the surface, Morton’s reasoning is hard to contend with. Especially because I agree that there are obstacles that need to be overcome in order to experience empathic concern for someone that has committed an evil act. However, I argue that Morton is pushing to hard to find a tangible way to measure one’s empathetic capability, and that one’s capability and empathic accuracy will always differ in relation to another’s.

Lets take his example of the battered wife for instance. It is understandable why a wife would want to kill her husband in order to escape her abusive relationship. Even if we question how she could have committed an act that she so strongly opposed, people can surely empathize with her. Something to consider is that there is likely a considerable number of people that empathize with the deceased husband as well. The picture of this scenario can be painted in many ways, despite telling the same story. The emotion experienced will differ from one person to the next, but that doesn’t mean any one person is experiencing a false empathy for either spouse in this example. In other words, empathy can be considered highly relative to those feeling it, and thus a very malleable concept.

In the book “Intimate Relationships,” author Rowland Miller speaks on the topic of social cognition, and how “What we think helps to determine what we feel…” in terms of how we interpret why others do what they do (105). When there are many possible ways to interpret an event, we simply conjure an assumption for the why/how. We have the ability to “…choose a forgiving rationale, a blaming one, or something in between” (105). By choosing to take the perspective which gives someone the benefit of the doubt, we are then able to generate empathic concern for said person. This is important because if we think the husband is an abusive scumbag, and the wife is an abused saint, we will have a hard time empathizing with the husband and easy time doing so for the wife. This isn’t due to a lack of information, or a lack of understanding. Even if we are given the information to understand all three dimensions of someone’s situation, how can we ever truly distinguish fact from fiction? We can’t. We will always be limited in our understanding of specific details. The idea that people can empathize with two different people in the same scenario suggests we are simply choosing to empathize with those we see fit to empathize with–regardless of the actions that person takes. As each individual differs from the other, each perspective of the same scenario will inevitably differ to some degree. We’re human, and we’re always going to have an underlying prejudice that impacts the way we see things. Trying to take someone else’s perspective in its entirety will never be achievable to the extent Morton requires it to be. Does that make our empathy for others less real? By that logic, every instance of apparent empathy would be considered “pseudo-empathy,” and I don’t agree with that (329).

Here we have a front and center perspective of a man in a room. We think we see everything as it is, but do we?

This is the nature of our limitation when we try to take someone’s perspective. We can never know if we’re truly embodying another’s perspective, because we make subtle assumptions that operate beyond our awareness–no matter the situation.

In this instance, famous actor Robert De Niro steps up and voices his opinion on Donald Trump. Much of America empathizes with him, but not all.

We may all have the ability to empathize with anyone, but the paradigm that we use to view the world may be the cause for who we find worth empathizing with in the first place. To contrast the former video, we see those that empathize with Trump instead. The importance of this contrast is the difference in paradigms. Those that are choosing to empathize with Robert De Niro are apart of an in-group, and view Donald Trump to be of the out-group, and vice versa for those that are supporting Trump.

We just have to accept empathy for what it is: useful, needed, malleable, and unpredictable.


Works Cited

Miller, Rowland S. Intimate Relationships. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012. Print.
Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (2011): 318-30. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Quirkology. “Assumptions.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 December 2012. www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNbF006Y5x4. Web. 15 October 2016.
Ronnie Brag. “FULL VIDEO – Robert De Niro Attacks Donald Trump.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 07 October 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly_LrXl795Y. Web. 18 October 2016.
Saturday Night Live. “Voters For Trump Ad – SNL.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 06 March 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg0pO9VG1J8. Web. 18 October 2016.

A Time to Kill: Law and Empathy

How many times do criminals walk away exonerated? How many times are victims left without closure? How many times can justice be circumvented? When two racist white men brutally rape and dehumanize a ten-year-old girl, a devastated father seeks to avenge his daughter—and succeeds. A film where justice is not coextensive with the law, A Time to Kill relies heavily on empathy to take precedence in order to deliver true justice. This doesn’t come to fruition until a diligent lawyer uses a white jury’s limitations to his advantage, and effectively gets a black man acquitted of all charges—despite the overwhelming circumstances they both faced.

In a courtroom trial, the defendant is supposed to be accompanied by a fair jury of his peers. However, in A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey (a black man) is pitted against a jury of twelve southern white folks in the year 1984. In spite of a jury being stacked against them, a young lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance has made it his mission to see Carl Lee is freed of all charges. Meanwhile, Brigance also contends with severe crises of his own: a marriage on the verge of collapse, as well as the constant threat of danger from the restless Ku Klux Klan. Can Jake rely on the law to deliver fair justice?

The law is thought to provide justice in a way that deals out a proper punishment to correspond to a committed crime; but, in order to create and ensure justice, the law needs to personify each case in its entirety rather than to try and dismiss empathy’s role in the decision making process of the jury. The law puts too much emphasis on cases being black-and-white, and this movie demonstrates that in more ways than one. When the law doesn’t take into account the gray areas, justice is evaded, and the real victims can be left feeling despondent and disparaged. It is important to realize that the criminal-victim roles that exist in court can actually be morally reversed. Such a realization results in a situation that requires more than an immalleable rule-based system to come to a verdict that not only maintains the integrity of the law, but also corresponds with the morale of the community.

One scene in the film displays the jury getting together for dinner. During this scene, they briefly unveil their opinions on the case prematurely, and the majority of the jurors raise their hand in favor of a guilty verdict that would send Carl Lee to his grave. The man at the head of the table follows up this vote by saying, “That niggers dead y’all.” This demonstrates the presence of intolerable racial bias that renders them blind to the honorable character Carl Lee possesses—a man that takes responsibility for his actions. A man that provides for his family, both emotionally and financially. A man that deserves a fair trial.

Further along in the film, a white policeman—whom was earlier caught in a crossfire between Carl Lee and the two white rapists—begins being cross-examined. The prosecutor assumes he would have spiteful feelings towards Carl Lee, being that he lost his leg in the altercation, but this proves to be amiss. Instead, he emotionally erupts and demonstrates great empathy for Carl Lee; referring to him as a “hero” (TK). While viewers of this scene might assume that such a powerful moment would have garnered some votes in favor of a not guilty verdict, this as well proves to be erroneous. As jurors got together for another dinner, another vote was cast that landed a full twelve of twelve in favor of a guilty verdict.

In the concluding scenes of the movie, Jake has one final chance to sway the jury in favor of Carl Lee with his closing statement, but he begins to realize even the most well-prepared and well-stated argument won’t be enough. His final approach becomes an appeal to pathos (emotion), as he politely asks the jury to close their eyes. What comes next is a surprisingly disconcerting experience for everyone (including himself), as he verbally reconstructs the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter. The jury begins to cry, and sympathetic sentiments begin to emerge.

Jake’s unfolding of the story vividly evokes utter sympathy in the hearts of the jury, yet something even more remarkable occurs when Jake Brigance changes the dynamic of the story and says, “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). By strategically changing the race of the victimized girl from presumably black, to white, Brigance illuminates the fact that race is playing a bigger role in their judgement than they might have realized. Sympathy then became replaced by empathy, and the jurors could finally peer into the soul of Carl Lee to see indefinitely why he was justified in his actions.  Paradoxically, by having the jury close their eyes, Jake was finally able to get them to see clearly. This is a phenomenon Martin Hoffman calls “perspective-taking.” In his work titled, “Empathy, Justice and the Law,” he says “By [using our] imagination[,] we place ourselves in the other’s situation, [and so] we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments…” This creates an effect on us that “converts the other’s situation into mental images that evoke the same feeling in oneself” (233). As Jake’s story progressed through each dark and twisted sequence, this phenomenon became more and more apparent. It was clear the jury wasn’t invested in this case before, but they certainly were now.

Jake’s appeal to pathos worked so well in this case because it targeted the innately human aspect of the court: empathy. Hoffman delineates two types of empathy, both of which are present in this scene: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy, which can be defined succinctly as “feeling what another feels,” and cognitive empathy, which means having an “awareness of another’s feelings” (230). The jury, through the vivid depiction of Tonya’s rape, began to experience affective empathy for her. Picturing a traumatized little girl—barely a decade into her life—having been heinously abused and unconscionably urinated on by two savages. They also began to realize that this young girl—a man’s daughter—belonged to the very same man that was on trial for taking justice into his own hands. And so, the emergence of cognitive empathy occurs. How could a jury convict a man who has gone through so much pain? How could a jury convict a man that only did what other fathers would have done for their own daughter? To do so would result in an “empathic feeling of injustice” (237). What that simply means is the jury could no longer see Carl Lee as deserving of the punishment he was on trial for.

Finally, the trial was no longer about color; it was about a father having sought justice for his brutally raped daughter. Therefore, it is clear that it wasn’t until after Jake elicited sympathetic and empathetic emotions during his closing argument, the black-and-white circumstance from the law’s perspective started to look a whole lot grayer and the idea of justice had changed. Some people might have said Jake Brigance manipulated the jury, but I don’t believe this is so. He simply showed them the light, and they just finally decided to walk toward it. Empathy served as guiding platform for the jury to make the appropriate corrections in their judgement, which in turn allowed for Carl Lee Hailey, a good man, to be found “Innocent” (TK). An outcome that could not have occurred without the introduction of empathy. Nevertheless, in this trial, true justice was delivered.


Works Cited

A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1996.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, justice, and the law.” Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives., Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2014.

Empathy, Real or Apparent

In a courtroom trial, the defendant is supposed to be accompanied by a fair jury of his peers. However, in the movie “A Time to Kill,” Carl Lee Hailey (a black man) is at odds with a jury of twelve southern white folks in the year 1984. With him, is a young lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance. In the concluding scenes of the movie, Jake has one final chance to sway the jury in favor of Carl Lee with his closing statement, but he begins to realize even the most well-prepared and well-stated argument won’t be enough. His final approach becomes an appeal to pathos (emotion), as he politely asks the jury to close their eyes. What comes next is a disconcerting experience for everyone (including himself), as he verbally reconstructs the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter. As the story progresses through each dark and twisted sequence, Jake vividly invokes utter sympathy in the hearts of the jury, but something remarkable occurs at the tail end of it. Sympathy becomes replaced with empathy, and the jurors can finally peer into the soul of Carl Lee to see indefinitely why he is justified in his actions. For the first time, the trial was no longer about color; it was about a man seeking justice for his brutally raped daughter. This anomaly occurred because Jake Brigance changed the dynamic of the story from black, to white when he says, “Now imagine she’s white” (TK). The look on the juror’s faces said it all. They hadn’t even thought about how they would feel if she were white. They hadn’t even thought about what the average person could be capable of until that moment when they placed themselves in Carl Lee’s shoes. And within that brief instance, the jury truly empathized with Carl Lee Hailey, or they would not have found him— “Innocent” (TK).

I believe Jake’s appeal to pathos works in favor of him and Carl Lee because it targets the innately human aspect of the court. The jurors originally found themselves looking at Carl Lee’s circumstances as being figuratively black-and-white, but consequently after Jake elicited sympathetic and empathetic emotions during his closing argument, that black-and-white circumstance started to look a whole lot grayer. I also believe that by strategically changing the race of the victimized girl from presumably black, to white, it helped to illuminate the fact that race was playing a bigger role in their judgement than they might have realized. By putting race under a microscope, it immediately began impacting the jury immensely by revealing their former biases through introspection (even if some were already aware they had such a bias) and allowed for appropriate correction in their judgement. Some people might say Jake Brigance manipulated the jury, but he didn’t. He simply showed them the light, and they just finally decided to walk toward it.


Work Cited

A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher, performances by Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. 1996. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 1996. DVD.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Defending Tom Robinson

You have all heard the testimony given by Mayella Ewell, and her father. It’s truly a shame what happened to her that day. However, much of it simply isn’t true. I mean, she was clearly beaten, but there is no tangible evidence here to suggest Tom Robinson is the man that did it. Medical examinations indicate Mayella was struck by a man’s left hand. Poor Tom has entirely no use of his left hand. Although, someone was in contact with Mayella that evening that is primarily left-handed: Robert Ewell. One might wonder if that is perhaps a coincidence, or if there is more to this story than was told in their father-daughter tale. Nevertheless, Tom Robinson is not to blame for this. When I asked Mayella if Tom struck her face, she ceased to recall the incident to have happened indefinitely. If Mayella isn’t entirely sure what transpired on that day, how could there not be reasonable doubt? She may be a victim here, but so is Tom.

What would you do if you were Tom, walking home after work and you noticed Mayella Ewell in need of assistance. Would you have taken the risk to do her a kindness that day? Maybe once or twice, sure, you’re good people. But time and time again, for absolutely no payment whatsoever? And despite being poor and hungry? I fail to recognize many individuals capable of such selflessness. It’s astonishing that someone who has been through that kind of oppression could still be so considerate of Mayella’s circumstances. It speaks volumes of his character and integrity. I whole-heartily believe this world is a better place for having Tom Robinson in it, and we all are truly lucky to have someone like him in our community.

Now how about if you imagine that you are the one on trial. You know you’re innocent, but the deck feels as if it is stacked against you. How would you be feeling right now? Alone? Afraid? And for what? The only thing Tom Robinson is guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for having shown a considerable amount of sympathy for someone that is here proving why she didn’t deserve it in the first place.

Have you asked yourselves: why have we all gathered here today? If you did, the answer surely wouldn’t be “for justice.” Justice doesn’t depend on Tom Robinson to be found innocent, or guilty. Justice simply cannot occur in this courtroom today because the wrong man is on trial. The real reason we are all here today is to identify the truth. It was my job to help guide you towards such a truth, and in doing so, I have conveyed the authenticity of Tom Robinson’s unfortunate circumstances. I believe you see the truth here today. I believe you see Tom for who he is. Not as a negro man, but just as a man. You see him as a kind and considerate man. You see him as a family man. You see Tom Robinson as a son to a loving father, and as a husband to a loving wife. You see him, gentleman, as an innocent man. Now let Tom see you for who you are. If nothing else, do as he has done countless times before, and extend your hand to him.


Work Cited

To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.

Martin Hoffman’s “Empathy, Justice, and the Law”

Martin Hoffman’s “Empathy, Justice, and the Law,” gives an insightful look into empathy through the window of psychology, within the context of the courtroom. His intent to answer the question, “Does empathy play a role in law?” is made clear early on. This question is driven home as he steers his way to a conclusion that expresses his opinion: Empathy does have a place in law, but its weighted importance should only come to only render itself useful within the parameters of specific cases. Such cases regarding Constitutional Rights for example, as opposed to one that would simply require empathy to be used as a tactic intending to sway the jury’s opinion of a defendant. Hoffman valiantly compliments this conclusion by introducing several examples where empathy induces favorable outcomes, as well as not-so-favorable outcomes. To highlight some of the positive outcomes, he mentions events such as: Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her use of words to elicit empathy in her readers which inevitably contributed to the abolition of slavery. Brown v. Board of Education, where the legalization of segregation was overturned due to the roles in which empathy played. Roe v. Wade, in which during an apparently controversial decision was made that allowed women the legal right to obtain and use birth control. When Hoffman recedes from the positive events that have occurred, he mentions the story of a British Nanny, who after having been sentenced to life imprisonment for 2nd degree murder, she is released some months later on account of empathic psychological and cultural influences. He goes on to explain the limitations empathy has in the courtroom, most notably in the form of victim impact statements, and empathic biases. In short, he regards empathy as being most complimentary in law when it is exerted in conjunction with lawful principles, and not cases where a defendant is merely grasping at straws.

In keeping within the scope of psychology, Hoffman makes a clear distinction between two types of empathy: affective empathy, and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy being the ability to connect with someone on an emotional level about what that individual is going through, and cognitive empathy, being able to imagine, or understand what someone is going through. By deconstructing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Hoffman identifies that she is able to share a connection with the characters via cognitive empathy and possibly even affective empathy as well, as stated in the quote: “The high level of detail in depicting slaves’ harsh living conditions, their personalities, and their anguish clearly shows cognitive empathy and suggests the likelihood of empathic feeling as well.” This distinction between cognitive, and affective empathy is important in this essay, because it reveals variability in how a person can empathize with another individual. In the context of law, that becomes important information when dealing with the many different scenarios seen in the courtroom, from the perspectives of the judge and jury being of most prominence.


Work Cited:

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, justice, and the law.” Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives., Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2014.