Empathy is the sensing of another's emotions and ability to imagine how they are feeling, a quality that seems in pretty short supply in large parts of today's world.

The good news is, we might be able to spread empathy and compassion through social interaction. That's the conclusion of a new study from an international team of researchers which conducted four separate experiments designed to measure shifts in empathy based on the actions of more than 50 volunteers.

Assessments of the participants showed empathy levels based on both self-reporting and brain scans tended to change after observing the reactions of others, suggesting that care and concern for others could spread through communities if enough people demonstrate it. If this study is anything to go off, a lack of empathy can be 'contagious' too.

"Depending on whether empathic or non-empathic reactions were observed, empathy ratings increased or decreased," says neuroscientist Grit Hein, from the University of Würzburg in Germany.

Across all four experiments, individual empathy levels were first measured after participants watched a video of a demonstrator receiving painful stimulation to their hand, setting a baseline. They were then shown other individuals responding to the same videos, and their empathy levels were measured again.

Seeing others respond empathetically tended to increase the signs of empathy in the participants, whereas seeing ambivalence decreased them. In other words, the empathy we show seems to be pretty fluid, and can be affected by the people and the environment around us.

One test featured functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which enabled the researchers to measure the neural activity of specific regions of the brain. Changes were noticed in the anterior insula region, which has previously been linked to empathy. With the help of some mathematical models, the team showed that empathy shifts likely have a basis in actual learning rather than imitation or people-pleasing.

"The good news from our studies is that we have the means to shape empathetic ability in adults through appropriate measures in both directions," says Hein.

Empathy is a complex characteristic, facilitating altruistic bonds and building social ties while potentially giving some an edge over their friends and neighbors. Being able to understand the perspective of others may even be responsible for the very foundations of modern civilization, some research has suggested.

This isn't the first study to suggest empathy (or a lack thereof) could be contagious, and the findings can be useful in all kinds of scenarios – not least in the workplace. An atmosphere that lacks empathy has the potential to make employees less considerate and less likely to think about others, for example.

"For empathy to thrive long-term, it requires an atmosphere of mutual respect," says Hein. "One can respect someone without having empathy for that person, but it is challenging to develop empathy if the other person is not respected as a human or if disrespect is accepted in society."

The research has been published in PNAS.