Editor’s note: Catherine Reynolds is senior vice president and partner, and Natasha Kennedy is global managing director, at research firm TRUE Global Intelligence, New York. 

Empathy is at the heart of who we are because we are naturally hard-wired for social connection over self-centeredness, argues Roman Krznaric, co-founder of The School of Life and a prominent researcher and speaker on the topic.1 Yet if you watch the news or spend any time on social media, you might believe that our society is facing an empathy deficit: 70 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment and shouting matches have become par for the course on cable news, particularly in political coverage.

Despite what we’re seeing politically and the increasing vitriol on social and traditional media, it is incorrect to assume that we’re careening toward a compassionless future. There is evidence to suggest that empathy is an emerging societal need.

Empathy, it should be noted, is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is internally focused; feeling sorry for another as a result of perceiving his or her distress. Empathy is externally focused. It’s an understanding and ability to vicariously experience the feelings and experiences of others, based on an accurate perception of another’s situation, without having those feelings/experiences communicated in an objectively explicit way.

To understand the differences between sympathy and empathy in society, political and social theorists Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres developed the metaphor of The Miner’s Canary. It isn’t until the canary dies that people realize there is a serious problem that needs to be solved. A sympathetic response is to give the canaries a gas mask. An empathetic response sees the canary’s death and asks, Why am I operating in a way that puts anyone in danger of dying?2 Empathy works to understand the whole by seeing beyond itself. Its aim is to build ...