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Empathy and the Process of Socialization - S. Hein

It is likely that the correlation between emotional intelligence (EI) and empathy decreases with age. In other words I suspect that a) children are by nature relatively empathetic and they slowly lose their feelings of empathy, and b) empathy is a relatively larger component of EI in children. Research on adolescents and adults seems to support this hypothesis. (See Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence.)

Here is what is probably happening. First there is the socialization process which may lead to a drop in empathy. This could be happening for several reasons. For instance, I have noticed that I cannot feel empathy for someone if I am feeling defensive or if I am preoccupied with my own needs. It makes sense, then, that if children are consistently put on the defensive, or if they grow up with many unmet emotional needs, these children will slowly become more concerned with self-defense and with their own interests in general, and less able to empathize with the troubles of someone else. From my observations, this is in fact what is happening to the majority of children in many of the countries I have lived in and visited. Besides the more obvious forms of physical and sexual abuse, I see children regularly criticized, over-controlled, disapproved of, underestimated, judged, ignored, threatened, punished, verbally attacked, humiliated, mocked, etc.

Another factor that could be contributing to a drop in empathy is the general low value which society places on feelings and emotions. Until very recently few people seem to have appreciated or even ever thought of the evolutionary value of our feelings and emotions. I can certainly say that this concept certainly was never introduced to me in my formal education.

Speaking of education, the higher one goes in the formal education system the more emphasis is placed on the intellectual, cognitive brain. Generally, this seems to be at the expense of the development of the emotional brain. University students then might be expected to score higher on the more cognitive parts of the MEIS and MSCEIT tests and lower on the empathy scales. This would result in a lower correlation between EI and empathy.

Finally, beginning when we are children we are instructed to control our feelings and the expression of emotion. We are told that this is part of what it means to be "mature." We are led to believe that emotions are irrational, signs of weakness, femininity, etc. All of this would tend to lower our empathy and increase our score on the regulation of emotion part of the EI tests, which would be another reason the correlation between empathy and EI scores (as EI is currently being measured) might drop with age.


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