Cultures of Empathy: Unlocking the Key to Empathic Intelligence

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    February 7, 2020 - April 6, 2022

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:


  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Alecia Carter

Institution: University College London

Empathy—the capacity to share and understand the feelings of others, and to respond to them with care—is often considered the foundation of healthy social bonds. Some have argued that our ability to empathize with others is the single most important element of moral character: the cornerstone of virtue and the foundation of morality. But recent research suggests that empathy may have hidden negative consequences. This is because empathy is not impartial, but biased by factors such as social similarity and closeness. As such, empathy can hinder moral ideals like equality and justice.

How do we foster intelligent empathy while avoiding its negative potential? The answer to this question may lie in recognizing that empathy is a skill that is socially learned, as exemplified by cultural variation in empathy’s affective, cognitive, and motivational signatures. But when in children’s development does variation in empathic expression arise? What are the features of a particular society that promote the expression of empathy? To date, our understanding of empathy is heavily confined to research on Western societies, demanding cross-cultural approaches.

The aim of this Diverse Intelligences project, directed by Alecia Carter, is to understand when cultural differences in the expression of empathy emerge over the course of individual development, applying novel predictive frameworks from behavioral ecology to illuminate social conditions and constraints on empathy’s expression in different human societies. Dr. Carter’s team aims to (1) systematically study cultural divergences in the development of empathy in 10 diverse cultures in Indonesia and (2) initiate a collaborative, global database documenting cultures of empathy from around the world. This global approach will provide evidence-based avenues for promoting a socially learned empathy that contributes to both individual and societal flourishing across an array of human cultural contexts.


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