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Bridging the gap: Can empathy be taught?
Empathy
The idea behind a course on poverty, Blair says, is to teach students to be more empathetic. A growing movement in higher education (and even in elementary and secondary schools), is pushing to engage students in understanding poverty. But can empathy for the poor be taught as a life skill, like freshman writing or biology 101? - photo by istockphoto.com

Every semester since 2006, Kevin Blair has taught an introductory course on poverty at Niagara University. And every semester, he finds a business student who is only enrolled in the class to fulfill a social science elective, or simply needed three more credits to graduate -- not because the student is interested in poverty.

But by the end of the semester, Blair sees a change.

“You find that they’re more actively engaged and you see a shift in their attitude,” Blair says. Students become more empathetic, he says, and they start to see both sides of the arguments surrounding increasing minimum wage, where they didn’t before, or how hard it can be to move out of poverty working only part-time jobs.

The idea behind a course on poverty, Blair says, is to teach students to be more empathetic. A growing movement in higher education (and even in elementary and secondary schools), is pushing to engage students in understanding poverty. But can empathy for the poor be taught as a life skill, like freshman writing or biology 101?

For the Shepherd Consortium on Poverty, the answer is yes. An association of 19 universities across the country that includes schools like Notre Dame and Baylor, the consortium’s aim is to get more poverty studies programs into higher education throughout the country.

Can empathy be taught?

A healthy body of research has proven that learning empathy can make a difference in students’ attitudes toward poverty.

In one study, researchers measured college students’ attitudes toward people in poverty before and after a poverty simulation. The study took “students who had led fairly privileged lives” and “hadn’t had much exposure to people in poverty,” says the study’s researcher, Robert Nielsen, a professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Georgia.

For four weeks, students were assigned roles as members of an impoverished household. The students had to figure out how to provide shelter and food, pay for utilities as well as keep their kids safe and clean. The students had to work out their budgets to make ends meet with inadequate incomes, no employment, health emergencies or no transportation. The simulation gave them 15 minutes for each week of a month in which they had to meet these requirements.

At the end of the simulation, Nielsen and his colleagues found “a light softening” of attitudes. Students became more understanding of people in poverty, showing that you can, in fact, teach empathy.

Of course, the simulation is a dramatic oversimplification of real-life poverty, Nielsen says. “The greatest danger is that students walk away thinking that they really know how people are living,” he says.

And even if a four-week poverty simulation weren’t an oversimplification, the process of teaching empathy is somewhat self-selective, Nielsen says. That means many students who choose to take a class on poverty or participate in an internship working with disadvantaged populations are already going to have a certain level of empathy.

But Harlan Beckley, director of the Shepherd Consortium, says that’s OK, as long as students from a broad range of fields are enrolling in these types of classes. The idea isn’t to have more poverty studies majors. Rather, the hope is that greater understanding about poverty will reach students who will contribute to their communities outside of fields like social work and poverty research.

“We’re not trying to create poverty researchers or poverty workers,” Beckley says. “We want them to be doctors, lawyers, business people, educators who understand poverty.”

That’s why the Shepherd Consortium also has an internship program, which sends students who are not studying poverty-related fields to do work in this area, like teaching low-income kids in New Orleans or working at a medical mission in Arkansas.

Why empathy?

Blair says empathy is vital because it leads to action. People like to think of themselves as good, moral people, he says. And when you see someone in need and don’t help, there must be a “cognitive distancing,” or a separation that lets you continue to be a good person in your own mind while still not being helpful.

“In order to hold on to the illusion that you are a good person, you can’t get put in a position that challenges that illusion,” Blair says.

The “cognitive distancing” is created by a belief that people get what they deserve, or that the poor are already getting plenty of help.

With empathy, though, those beliefs are challenged and the distance narrows.

“Empathy makes inaction tougher,” says Blair. When an empathy-building experience changes your paradigm, “the inaction that was justified in your mind is no longer acceptable.”

Nielsen agrees.

“The reason empathy is so important is without some sense of another’s condition, there’s no incentive to work with that person,” he says. “Society’s problems won’t be solved with empathy. But the lack of empathy will keep us from solving them.”

amcdonald@deseretnews.com, Twitter | @amymcdonald89