Empathy is commonly defined as “putting yourself in another person’s shoes” or “feeling the emotional states of others.” It’s a critical social tool that creates social bridges by promoting shared experiences and producing compassionate behavior.
But can empathy be learned? And can travel help facilitate this learning?
The answer is complicated. “Research has shown that empathy is not simply inborn, but can actually be taught,” writes psychotherapist F. Diane Barth in Psychology Today. While past research has indicated that empathy is an unteachable trait, newer research—including a 2017 Harvard study—suggests that the “neurobiologically based competency” of empathy is mutable and can be taught under the right circumstances.
Whether seeing the world actually opens travelers’ minds—that it makes travelers more empathetic—is up for debate. In a 2018 Harris Poll of 1,300 business travelers, 87 percent said that business trips helped them to be more empathetic to others, reports Quartz. And in a 2010 study, Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky found that travel “increases awareness of underlying connections and associations” with other cultures.
While self-defined empathy and awareness are unreliable measurements, it stands to reason that cross-cultural exposure through travel would at least create conditions for checking conscious and unconscious biases. “If we are to move in the direction of a more empathic society and a more compassionate world, it is clear that working to enhance our native capacities to empathize is critical to strengthening individual, community, national, and international bonds,” writes Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the 2017 report.
But the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the global Black Lives Matter protests have forced an uncomfortable reckoning—that all the travel in the world might not be enough to engender the deep cross-cultural awareness people need now.
This is an excerpt from an article by Ruth Terry, originally published on National Geographic.