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Last modified: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

IU team receives grant to study empathy from many angles

May 12, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An interdisciplinary team of Indiana University researchers from the humanities, life sciences, information sciences, and social sciences has received a $199,617 grant from the University of Chicago to study the virtue of empathy.

The project, "Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Perspectives," is one of 19 awardees chosen from nearly 700 applications in a competition sponsored by the University of Chicago. It is part of a larger $3 million research program exploring a "New Science of Virtues." The larger project is designed to examine how the humanities and the sciences might cooperate to develop understandings of virtue in modern societies. The two-year initiative is supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

Richard Miller

Photo by Ivona Hedin

Richard Miller

Richard B. Miller, professor of religious studies and director of the the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, a research center on the IU Bloomington campus, is leading the project.

"This funding supports an ambitious collaborative and interdisciplinary study of an emotion that is as widely valued as it is under-theorized," says Miller.

Empathy, generally speaking, is the ability to "place oneself in another's shoes" -- that is, to be aware of and understand another's feelings and frame of mind. It's a quality of major significance to mental health, moral development, resolving conflicts and relationships with others.

From fall 2010 to spring 2012, the IU research team plans to examine empathic qualities as a virtue, which Miller defines as "a disposition of good judgment, feeling, and action." The researchers will also examine empathy's intellectual roots in Western and East Asian thought as well as empathy's potential to connect us with past and future generations. Finally, the team will explore how to distinguish virtuous empathy from less praiseworthy varieties. "A sadist can be empathic," Miller points out.

"These outstanding researchers from a number of fields will bring a variety of perspectives to a fascinating set of questions," says IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson. "This interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature and import of empathy promises to shed light on important moral matters and to serve as a model of work that bridges the sciences and the humanities."

The eight-member IU team includes faculty from cognitive science, psychological and brain sciences, East Asian languages and cultures, Germanic studies, history, philosophy, religious studies and the School of Education. The team's findings will be disseminated through a workshop, a tutorial session on empirical work in neuroscience, a symposium, an annotated bibliography and a series of scholarly essays.

Additional support for the project is being provided by the Office for the Vice Provost for Research, the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, and the IU Institute for Advanced Study directed by John Bodnar. Bodnar, who is Chancellor's Professor of hstory, will be exploring empathy and public memory as part of the empathy project research team.

"I am delighted that one of IU Bloomington's excellent research centers has received this well-deserved award," says Vice Provost for Research Sarita Soni. "The Poynter Center has a long tradition of fostering interesting interdisciplinary work, and this project is no exception."

Additional members of the project's team are Kate Abramson, assistant professor of philosophy; Colin Allen, professor of cognitive science and history and philosophy of science; Bennett Bertenthal, Rudy Professor of psychology and brain sciences; Fritz Breithaupt, associate professor of Germanic studies; Lisa Sideris, associate professor of religious studies; and Aaron Stalnaker, associate professor of religious studies and East Asian languages and cultures.

For more on the Poynter Center, visit