Why do we have empathy for certain people but not others

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Why did the man run?

After attacking a whole family inside their house with the goal of robbery the terrorist asked the whole family to stand in one line while pointing a gun at them. His plan was to shoot everyone in the house, including the kids, before he leaves but as he was about to pull the trigger at the first family member (a young boy) he saw a 7 years old girl coming out of the room with a doll in her hand.

At this same moment he dropped the gun, ran away without killing anybody and even left all the money he stole behind.

This sounds like a familiar scene in Hollywood movie right? In fact its a familiar scene in our daily lives that happen almost everyday but in different forms.

How many times you saw someone treating people badly only to do the opposite when he sees a certain person?

Why do we experience different levels of empathy with different people?

Why do we have empathy for certain people only

The terrorist in the previous story was abandoned by his mother at the age of 10 and he never knew who his real father was. The only family member who was left for him was his 5 years old sister.

Back then when he was 11 years old he used to look after his little sister who always carried her little doll. Even though his sister grew up now his subconscious mind never managed to forget the looks on her helpless face when she was a motherless little girl.

Now when that man was about to shoot a whole family including a young boy he suddenly saw that little girl coming out of the room who happened to unconsciously remind him of his sister. That's why the man felt guilty and responsible then ran away.

We experience empathy when we see someone who reminds us of the people we wanted to be kind to. If you used to treat your dad in a mean way then he passed away before you could be kind to him then you might automatically become overly emotional whenever you see an old man who resembles him even if you were a ruthless person.

Empathy and identifying with people

We also experience an additional amount of empathy when we see someone or something that reminds us of ourselves. The reason you sometimes get really emotional while watching some movies is you identify with the hero who reminds you of yourself (most probably because you have the same common problems). (see also Why do people like action and fantasy movies)

This is also why most people don't identify with evil villains or feel sorry for them. Apart from the fact that they are evil people who deserve a bad ending people also find it hard to relate to them and so empathy never happens.

In short if you can't really understand what a person is going through or if you don't understand how does it feel like to be in his place then you will certainly have no empathy for him. This is why we experience different levels of empathy when we meet different people.

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