Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Spring Speaker Series: Professor Jennifer Sellers and the Psychology of Empathy

The cultivation of empathy is often seen as a foundational step in spreading social entrepreneurship. Methods of nurturing empathy have cropped up everywhere from small educational initiatives, such as the MindUP Program, to large foundations like Ashoka.

These initiatives leave room for debate: can empathy be nurtured, or is it inherently part of our biological nature?

Visiting Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Sellers’s research on empathy, testosterone, and leadership supports both sides of the debate. As Sellers explained to a full room of students, faculty and staff on Friday, April 12, all humans are capable of empathy, but some of us are better equipped than others.

Sellers stated that empathy is undoubtedly in our nature; in fact, elements of empathy are present at birth, as demonstrated by a baby’s ability to imitate facial expressions. This feeling continues to develop throughout life, causing the grimace we make when we see others in physical pain and our ability to become “lost” in a movie.

However, the capacity for empathy is not equal for all. Sellers discussed her research on testosterone, which she studies as a personality trait — a biological marker of the desire to have status. According to pre-existing research, people high in testosterone have better cognitive performance, a lower heart rate, and more emotional stability when in high-status situations.

Sellers then presented a hypothesis: people who have higher status have less empathy. “If you have high status, you don’t have to consider other people,” suggested Sellers.

To test this hypothesis, Sellers examined the possibility of testosterone as a social inhibitor. Sellers said her previous research “led [her] to wonder whether we could use language as a way to determine how people high and low in testosterone think about the world.”

Sellers measured the use of the pronouns “I” and “you” in emails and diaries of people with differing levels of testosterone. Sellers found that those with high levels of testosterone used “I” and “you” significantly less than those with lower levels.

Testosterone’s ability to inhibit social connectedness, according to Sellers, has significant implications for empathy.

“You can’t empathize with someone if you’re not even considering them from the outset,” said Sellers.

Sellers added that the leadership effects of testosterone are exacerbated in situations of stress. During an experiment wherein participants had to volunteer to lead a contentious focus group about family planning initiatives, those with higher levels of testosterone were consistently more willing to lead, even in a contentious atmosphere.

Sellers explained the implication of these results: “the people who most willing to lead in difficult times are those who are the least able to consider and correctly identify the perspectives of others.”

“To go through all that strife and difficulty you have to in some way be able to distance yourself emotionally from another person,” added Sellers.

At the end of the lecture, Sellers returned to a quote by the Dalai Lama:

“We must recognize that the suffering of one person or one nation is the suffering of humanity… that the happiness of one person or nation is the happiness of humanity.”

Sellers cited the Dalai Lama as a leader who disproves her hypothesis.

“The Dalai Lama is a leader and I would never accuse him in lacking empathy whatsoever,” she said.

Sellers acknowledged that her conclusions may seem grim, but she remains hopeful.

“Leaders have the capacity to make that connection with other people, we just have to figure out how they do it.”



Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.