Chapter 1 — CLaims & Ratings
Overall: Several claims in this chapter, such as the genetic and environmental determinants of empathy, are backed up by a great deal of interdisciplinary research. However, other claims concern research that is either so new it has yet to be replicated or claims for which a consensus is still emerging.
Claim 1.1: IQ/intelligence can change with experience.
Although there is some debate in the field regarding the validity of IQ measurement, generally the idea that IQ/intelligence can change with life experience, such as access to education and exposure to a developmentally-stimulating home environment, is well supported. This evidence is supported by research in a wide variety of contexts as well as several meta-analyses on the subject.
Claim 1.2: Empathy is, in part, genetically determined.
A plethora of research supports the concept that individual differences in empathy are, in part, genetically determined and inherited. Much of this research suggests that genetic links to oxytocin play an important role in the genetic determinants of empathy.
Claim 1.3: Children’s environments impact their levels of empathy.
Ample evidence exists supporting the idea that when children see empathic behaviors modeled in their environment they are more likely to display empathy themselves. It should be noted, however, that much of this research concerns parental displays of empathy and their relation to children's displays of empathy; as such, many of these studies are unable to tease apart the relative contributions of genetic vs. environmental influences on empathy. Studies that do tease these concepts apart support the idea that the environment plays a substantial role in the development of children's empathy.
Claim 1.4: People who carry out necessary evils (such as giving bad news) experience reduced empathy.
A multitude of studies in various contexts, including medicine, employment, and the military, support the idea that individuals who are forced to harm others suffer as a result of doing so, even when such harm is unavoidable.
Claim 1.5: People who undergo intense suffering often become more prosocial as a result.
There is ample evidence to support the claim that intense suffering can lead to increased empathy and prosociality. But in other cases, the opposite is true—violence begets violence, and suffering can make people crueler or abusive. Several review papers outline well-articulated theories of when and why suffering should lead to positive outcomes, rather than downward cycles, but further research is needed to test these theories.
Claim 1.6: Mindsets about the malleability of empathy influence people’s empathy.
Our work cited in this chapter is the first examining mindsets about empathy, and it has yet to be tested in many independent replication studies. Two projects have examined the construct of empathic mindsets in tangentially related ways. One found that people low in empathy tend toward aggression, but not if they hold a malleable mindset. Another found that inducing a malleable mindset did not increase the likelihood that participants would forgive prisoners for their crimes. Overall, more research on this topic is needed to confirm the effects of mindsets about empathy we documented.