This website uses cookies. Please check our Cookies information page
Configure Accept all

Can empathy improve creativity?

In the workplace, “soft skills” are becoming increasingly important and encouraged, and social and emotional skills can be counted among them. This awareness is nothing new; as the authors this study remind us, John Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist of the first part of the 20th century, understood the importance of teaching these skills from very early on. “There is no education when ideas and knowledge are not translated into emotion, interest and volition.” Nearly a century later, the research team at Cambridge (England) questioned whether teaching empathy could be beneficial for learning, and more specifically for creativity.

For the past two decades, research has already highlighted the importance of social and emotional skills related to empathy. This generally takes two forms: emotional (feeling the same emotions as others) and cognitive (appreciation, understanding another's point of view, without necessarily having an emotional implication). With its dual nature, empathy can lead individuals to act in order to improve a situation (for example by consoling someone or helping him or her to relax before an important exam). In young children, empathy generally develops between 18 and 24 months. Believing that empathy and creativity possess similar traits, the team of researchers wanted to prove the benefits of the former on the latter.

So what do empathy and creativity have in common? The authors believe the two share the characteristics of an open mind, an absence of judgment, a flexible ego, and even a desire to work beyond one's limits.

To test their hypothesis, the team of scientists studied the impact of teaching empathy on the social and emotional skills of creativity by collecting data from students in the Design and Technology department in three inner London schools. Students ages 13 to 14 at all three of the schools were assessed for creativity at the beginning and the end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT). In the second school, the students took the same test, but in addition to the traditional curriculum, they followed a creativity course called Designing Our Tomorrow (DOT), which involves teaching empathy. In the third school, students ages 11-12 only followed the DOT curriculum and were asked about their creative learning experiences.

The students included in the research were given the challenge of designing an asthma treatment package for children aged six and under. Pupils who completed the DOT classes then had access to ‘empathic tools,’ such as a video showing a child in crisis, data on asthma-related deaths, etc. They were asked to explore the issues and test their design ideas through role-plays (pretending to be the patient, caregiver, and doctor).

Quantitatively, the results indicate that the DOT courses enabled students to achieve better TTCT results. The results were in fact quite significant as, by the end of the year, their creativity scores were on average 78% higher than the students that had followed the classic curriculum. This was particularly evident in the "emotional expressiveness” and “open-mindedness” categories. This shows that incorporating empathy into lessons enhanced creativity. As for the qualitative interviews, the younger pupils also demonstrated improvement under the DOT method, as illustrated by the comments from participants. Here are two examples:
- It showed how not only is the person having asthma affected, it’s the people around them, like their parents, brothers, sisters, you know. And it showed how each one’s needs, need to be met and just... yeah, think about them as well.
- It was really important. . . stepping in someone else’s shoes. . . you understood how the parent feels, how the child feels and what you can do to help them. And it helps you to generate ideas... because you sort of understand what the child feels and then you sort of knew what their needs are.

The study’s co-authors, H. Demetriou and B. Nicholl explain: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

For them, the research shows the need for teaching "emotionally intelligent learners."
Source: Helen Demetriou, Bill Nicholl. “Empathy is the mother of invention: Emotion and cognition for creativity in the classroom”, in Improving Schools, February 2021 // Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & Co Publishers


Please type in your email address below:

LoadingPlease wait... Loading...
Close Log in
Password forgotten

Please enter the email address you are using with HAPPYneuron.
Instructions to reset your password will be sent to this email address.

LoadingSaving data...
Log in

It seems that you have forgotten your password. What do you wish to do?

Free Registration

Try the HAPPYneuron program for free for 7 days.

Type the characters you see in the picture below.

Reload security image
Captcha image
Terms of Service
Terms of Use
Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest information and news about the brain and our special offers twice a month for free.