University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children
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“How Did You Feel?” Exercise

This is a very simple game that is meant to encourage students to feel empathy—or at least, think about feeling empathy—for their fellow students. And if empathy has any role in moral development (as I think it does), then this exercise, although very simple, is a useful one.

I have students write down on one side of a notecard something that someone did to them. It can be something good or bad, done by a parent, a friend, a stranger, it doesn’t matter. On the other side of the card, they write down how it made them feel.

So, for instance, a student might write on the front of the card, “My mom punished me for something my little brother did.” Or “My friend threw a surprise party for me for my birthday.” Or “My brother promised to keep a secret but he told everyone.”

On the back of the card, the student might write—using the examples from above—“I felt angry.” Or “I felt surprised and happy.” Or “I felt betrayed.”

The class is then divided into two team and I collect the cards, keeping the cards from one team separate from the cards from the other.

Now, imagine the teams have named themselves “The Big Dawgs” and “The Winners.” I then take a card written by a “Big Dawg” and read the “what happened” side to the first team member on the “The Winners.” He or she has to then guess what is written on the “how I felt” side. If the guess is correct, “The Winners” would earn a point.

When I play this game, I’m pretty strict about having the guess match what is written on the “what I felt” side of the card. So, for example, if the card says, “I felt surprised and happy,” but the student guesses “I felt happy,” I won’t give his or her team the point. On the other hand, I’m not draconian about it; if the card says, for instance, “I felt betrayed,” and the guess is, “I felt like he betrayed me,” I will give the point.

The reason for my strictness is twofold. First, it makes the game more exciting and leads to discussions about whether a given feeling really is the same as another. For example, in one class, a student guessed that the person (whose uncle gave him $25.00 for his birthday) would be “happy.” The card, though, read “ecstatic.” This led to a discussion about whether happy and ecstatic are the same; ultimately even the person who guessed incorrectly was willing to admit that they are different.

Second, I really want to encourage students to imagine how another person felt. Empathy is not just a matter of laying one’s own feelings on top of what another person feels; it’s a matter of imaginatively putting oneself in another’s shoes and feeling how that other person feels. And because the ability to do this is, I believe, so important to moral education, I’m fairly particular about students identifying exactly the same feeling as their classmates have written down.

Now, it seems to me there are two ways that someone could object that this exercise isn’t particularly conducive to moral learning.

First, it could be argued that empathy isn’t an important component of moral knowledge. But as far as I can tell, this is just false—at least in practice. While it may be possible, in theory, for someone to be a good person without being empathetic to others, (perhaps Star Trek’s Mr. Spock) I find it hard to imagine that someone who was unmoved by other people’s feelings would consistently do the right thing. And, as a matter of fact, in the real world, most of the awful things people to do each other are a result of their not being sensitive to the feelings of the people they’re doing those awful things to.

Second, one could say that, even if empathy is important, this exercise does little to foster it. To that I can only respond that no doubt an exercise could be devised that does a better job; however, having seen this exercise in action, I’m confident that it succeeds on two counts. First, it highlights the idea of empathy for students and gets them wondering about what it is and how it’s important. Second, it does give them some practice in putting themselves in another person’s emotional shoes. Now, this may only go so far (for many, if not most students) as imagining how they themselves would feel in the same situation—as opposed to imagining how the other person would feel. So granted, that “shoe-putting” does not comprise a complete outfit, but at least it’s a start.