Q&A

How Does “Empathetics” Teach Physicians to Be More Empathetic?

Empathetics’ approach for teaching empathy to physicians includes three primary components: neuroscience, verbal and nonverbal responsiveness, and mindfulness.

The neuroscience of empathy has demonstrated that empathy is hard-wired into the human brain, yet a well-documented decline in empathy begins during the rigors of medical training and the recovery rate is diminishing post-training. Empathy is a highly valued capacity in health care and patients have been calling for greater patient-centered and compassionate care for the past decade. The medical world has become increasingly technologically advanced, resulting both in highly sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic tools and also greater challenges to the interpersonal relationships with clinicians prized by patients.

Responding to this need, Empathetics has developed evidence-based, interactive empathy training that is grounded in neuroscience and delivered in a web-based format. The training is delivered in a neuroscience framework that shifts the perception of empathy as a “soft science” to a mutable capacity and skill that can be learned and honed. The integration of the neurobiology and physiology of emotions has captured the attention of medical professionals, whose response has been enthusiastic.

Empathetics’ training and education emphasizes self- and other-awareness of nonverbal and verbal skills. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to signs of connection in relationships. This begins early in life when infants search for their mother’s gaze and respond with smiles and delight and happy facial expressions, which are then mirrored back by responsive parents. These signs of attention and empathy are also reflected in tone of voice, posture, touch, and appropriate responses to emotions. When patients suffer, they seek validation and compassion from their caregivers. Empathic behaviors can be learned by reorienting clinicians to the importance of careful listening and reading their patients’ cues.

Self-empathy and mindfulness are also at the core of our training. Clinicians cannot demonstrate empathy fully when physically or emotionally depleted. Care for their own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are essential for mindful practice. We teach breathing and mindful meditation exercises for self-care and self-management.

Empathetics’ training is based on pilot studies and randomized controlled trials that demonstrated a significant increase in patient perception of physician empathy. In today’s health-care setting, where patients seek more empathic care and reimbursements to hospitals are now tied to patient ratings, Empathetics is dedicated to providing a timely solution to this vexing problem.

Dr. Helen Riess is the co-founder, chief scientist, and chairman of Empathetics; the director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital; and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Q&A

Why Would Performing an Extreme Religious Ritual Make People More Generous and Prosocial?

In our recent study, we found that people were more generous in a charity task and reported more inclusive identities after performing an extreme ritual compared with after performing a collective prayer. And the more painful the ritual experience, the higher the donation and the stronger the inclusive identity. Impressively, the prosocial effects of the extreme ritual, which consisted in piercing of the body and carrying heavy objects for miles, extended not only to active performers but also to non-performing attendants of the ordeal. This shows that extreme rituals can increase prosociality for the entire community. In a previous study, we found that heart rate patterns during a fire-walking ritual were synchronized among performers and related spectators, but not unrelated ones, which indicates that membership in the group is a prerequisite for experiencing its effects.

As is usually the case with social phenomena, there is probably more than one factor underlying these results. It is well-established by psychological research that high arousal can increase liking for others and that increased effort can enhance the appreciation of an experience and the group in the setting of which it takes places. Furthermore, costly actions may function as signals of commitment to the community, thus increasing trustworthiness and cooperation among and toward practitioners. Whatever the mechanisms driving them, these effects have long been hypothesized in social science, but this study provides the first direct evidence from a real-life ritual that such extreme ordeals can promote prosocial attitudes and behaviors.

Dimitris Xygalatas is the director of the LEVYNA Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion and an associate professor in the department for the study of religion at Masaryk University, and an assistant professor in the department of culture and society at Aarhus University.

Q&A

What Type of Furniture Would Make Someone Most Honest?

The briefest answer would be any furniture that makes you feel powerful. But let me be clearer.

Every day, our bodies are continually stretched and contracted by our working and living environments (by the seats in our cars, or the desks and workspaces in our offices). We may pay very little attention to such ordinary and seemingly innocuous shifts in bodily posture, but they can have a tremendous impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Research in psychology as well as my previous work on power-posing has already shown that expansive postures can cause individuals to feel more powerful, and that power can lead to greater corruption. In this research, we found that expansive postures incidentally imposed by our environment can cause individuals to feel more powerful, which consequently cause them to behave more dishonestly. However, there are also other ways our environment can make someone feel powerful. For example, sitting in the chair of someone who has high power or driving a high-status automobile or simply sitting in a taller chair than others.

But how does power corrupt? I think it works in two ways: (1) Power causes you to focus on your own goals and act on it! Power causes you to focus on rewards and take risks to achieve those gains. If you hang a carrot in front of a powerful person (assuming they like carrots), they will act on it, take risks, or cheat and do whatever it takes to get it. (2) Power buffers stress. I have another work with Dana Carney that found that power buffers stress and corrupt acts are perceived to be less stressful and costly to the powerful. Thus, taking both explanations together, powerful individuals are often focused and determined to achieve the prize, and they feel less stress while they cheat or take excessive risks to get it.

Lastly, I must qualify by highlighting that power in itself is not evil. The psychology of power is very intricate. Power is like nuclear energy; it can be used for good and it can be used for evil. Although power through expansive postures can cause you to behave unethically, it can also help buffer you from the stress of life and work.

Andy Yap is a postdoctoral associate and visiting assistant professor in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q&A

Why Are People Better Able to Take the Perspective of Others in Certain Temperature Conditions?

The research we report in our article indicates that people experiencing cooler temperatures are better able to take another person’s perspective than are people experiencing warmer temperatures.

Specifically, we base our theorizing on earlier research indicating a strong link between physical warmth and psychological warmth (friendliness, affiliation). This link is most probably learned early in childhood via experiences with caregivers: When our parents cradle us, provide support and hold us, we experience a connection between the comfort provided by this ‘psychologically warm’ behavior and the actual physical warmth of our caregiver’s touch. Consequentially, physical and psychological warmth become associated in our mind. In line with this notion, earlier research showed that people judge others to be friendlier, more affiliative, and, importantly, more similar to themselves when experiencing warmer compared with cooler temperatures.

Our hypotheses built especially on the finding that while we perceive others as more similar to ourselves when being in warmer conditions, we perceive them as less similar to ourselves (i.e. more different from ourselves) when we experience cooler temperature conditions. Perceiving someone as being dissimilar to us, not sharing much with us, can be beneficial for perspective taking because this helps in reducing inadequate over-imputing of our own perspective onto others.

Accordingly, given that cooler temperatures serve as a cue that others are different from us, and given that this perception of dissimilarity can help in reducing egocentrically biased perspective taking, we directly tested in our research whether experiencing cooler temperatures (compared with warmer temperatures) improved perspective taking in a subsequent task. Results of the two studies we conducted support our theorizing. They show that when people have been exposed to cooler (compared with warmer) temperature experiences, they are better able to let their judgments about another person’s perspective not be egocentrically biased.

Claudia Sassenrath is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of social psychology at the University of Ulm in Germany.

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