What is Empathy?

Empathy is used to describe the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, ie, the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes. The English word is derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), “physical affection, passion, partiality” which comes from ἐν (en), “in, at” and πάθος (pathos), “passion” or “suffering”. The term was adapted by Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer to create the German word Einfühlung (“feeling into”), which was translated by Edward B. Titchener into the English term empathy.

Empathy has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.

Compassion and sympathy are two terms that many associate with empathy, but all three of these terms are unique. Compassion is an emotion we feel when others are in need, which motivates us to help them. Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for someone in need. It can also be understood as having the separateness of defining oneself and another blur.

In the field of positive psychology, empathy has also been compared with altruism and egotism. Altruism is behavior that is aimed at benefitting another person, while egotism is a behavior that is acted out for personal gain. Sometimes, when someone is feeling empathetic towards another, acts of altruism occur. However, many question whether or not these acts of altruism are motivated by egotistical gains. According to positive psychologists, people can be adequately moved by their empathies to be altruistic.

Since empathy involves understanding the emotional states of other people, the way it is characterized is derivative of the way emotions themselves are characterized. If, for example, emotions are taken to be centrally characterized by bodily feelings, then grasping the bodily feelings of another will be central to empathy.

On the other hand, if emotions are more centrally characterized by a combination of beliefs and desires, then grasping these beliefs and desires will be more essential to empathy. The ability to imagine oneself as another person is a sophisticated imaginative process. However, the basic capacity to recognize emotions is probably innate and may be achieved unconsciously. Yet it can be trained and achieved with various degrees of intensity or accuracy.

Empathy necessarily has a “more or less” quality. The paradigm case of an empathic interaction, however, involves a person communicating an accurate recognition of the significance of another person’s ongoing intentional actions, associated emotional states, and personal characteristics in a manner that the recognized person can tolerate. Recognitions that are both accurate and tolerable are central features of empathy.

The human capacity to recognize the bodily feelings of another is related to one’s imitative capacities and seems to be grounded in an innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions one sees in another with the proprioceptive feelings of producing those corresponding movements or expressions oneself. Humans seem to make the same immediate connection between the tone of voice and other vocal expressions and inner feeling.

Major Theories and Findings on Empathy

Research investigating the social response to natural disasters looked at the characteristics associated with individuals who help victims. Researchers found that cognitive empathy, rather than emotional empathy, predicted helping behavior towards victims.

Others have posited that taking on the perspectives of others (cognitive empathy) allows these individuals to better empathize with victims without as much discomfort, whereas sharing the emotions of the victims (emotional empathy) can cause emotional distress, helplessness, victim-blaming, and ultimately can lead to avoidance rather than helping.

Yet, despite this evidence for empathy-induced altruistic motivation, egoistic explanations may still be possible. For example, one alternative explanation for the problem-specific helping pattern may be that the sequence of events in the same problem condition first made subjects sad when they empathized with the problem and then maintained or enhanced subjects’ sadness when they were later exposed to the same plight. Consequently, the negative state relief model would predict substantial helping among imagine-set subjects in the same condition, which is what occurred.

An intriguing question arises from such findings concerning whether it is possible to have mixed motivations for helping. If this is the case, then simultaneous egoistic and altruistic motivations would occur. This would allow for a stronger sadness-based motivation to obscure the effects of an empathic concern-based altruistic motivation. The observed study would then have sadness as less intense than more salient altruistic motivation. Consequently, relative strengths of different emotional reactions, systematically related to the need situation, may moderate the predominance of egoistic or altruistic motivation (Dovidio, 1990).

But it has been shown that researchers in this area who have used very similar procedures sometimes obtain apparently contradictory results. Superficial procedural differences such as precisely when a manipulation is introduced could also lead to divergent results and conclusions. It is therefore vital for any future research to move toward even greater standardization of measurement. Thus, an important step in solving the current theoretical debate concerning the existence of altruism may involve reaching common methodological ground.

Contemporary neuroscience has allowed us to understand the neural basis of the human mind’s ability to understand and process emotion. Studies today enable us to see the activation of mirror neurons and attempt to explain the basic processes of empathy. By isolating these mirror neurons and measuring the neural basis for human mind reading and emotion sharing abilities, science has come one step closer to finding the reason for reactions like empathy. Neuroscientists have already discovered that people scoring high on empathy tests have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brains.

Empathy is a spontaneous sharing of affect, provoked by witnessing and sympathizing with another’s emotional state. In a way we mirror or mimic the emotional response that we would expect to feel in that condition or context, much like sympathy. Unlike personal distress, empathy is not characterized by aversion to another’s emotional response.

Additionally, empathizing with someone requires a distinctly sympathetic reaction where personal distress demands avoidance of distressing matters. This distinction is vital because empathy is associated with the moral emotion sympathy, or empathetic concern, and consequently also prosocial or altruistic action. Empathy leads to sympathy by definition unlike the over-aroused emotional response that turns into personal distress and causes a turning-away from another’s distress.

In empathy we feel what we believe are the emotions of another, which makes it both affective and cognitive by most psychologists. In this sense, arousal and empathy promote prosocial behavior as we accommodate each other to feel similar emotions.

For social beings, negotiating interpersonal decisions is as important to survival as being able navigate the physical landscape. Emotions motivate individual behavior that aids in solving communal challenges as well as guiding group decisions about social exchange. Additionally, recent research has shown individuals who report regular experiences of gratitude engage more frequently in prosocial behaviors than their lesser counterparts.

Positive emotions like empathy or gratitude are linked to a more positive continual state and these people are far more likely to help others than those not experiencing a positive emotional state. Thus, empathy’s influence extends beyond relating to other’s emotions, it correlates with an increased positive state and likeliness to aid others. Measures of empathy show that mirror neurons are activated during arousal of sympathetic responses and prolonged activation shows increased probability to help others.

Another growing focus of investigation is how empathy manifests in education between teachers and learners. Although there is general agreement that empathy is essential in educational settings, research has found that it is difficult to develop empathy in trainee teachers.

According to one theory, there are seven components involved in the effectiveness of intercultural communication; empathy was found to be one of the seven. This theory also states that empathy is learnable. However, research also shows that it is more difficult to empathize when there are differences between people including status, culture, religion, language, skin colour, gender, age and so on.

In order to achieve intercultural empathy, psychologists have employed empathy training. One study hypothesized that empathy training would increase the measured level of relational empathy among the individuals in the experimental group when compared to the control group.

The study also hypothesized that empathy training would increase communication among the experimental group, and that perceived satisfaction with group dialogue would also increase among the experimental group. To test this, the experimenters used the Hogan Empathy Scale, the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory, and questionnaires. Using these measures, the study found that empathy training was not successful in increasing relational empathy.

Also, communication and satisfaction among groups did not increase as a result of the empathy training. While there didn’t seem to be a clear relationship between empathy and relational empathy training, the study did report that “relational empathy training appeared to foster greater expectations for a deep dialogic process resulting in treatment differences in perceived depth of communication”.

The environment has been another interesting topic of study. Many theorize that environmental factors, such as parenting style and relationships, play a significant role in the development of empathy in children. Empathy promotes pro social relationships, helps mediate aggression, and allows us to relate to others, all of which make empathy an important emotion among children.

A study done by Caroline Tisot looked at how a variety of environmental factors affected the development of empathy in young children. Parenting style, parent empathy, and prior social experiences were looked at. The children participating in the study were asked to complete an affective empathy measure, while the children’s parents completed the Parenting Practices Questionnaire, which assesses parenting style, and the Balanced Emotional Empathy scale.

This study found that a few parenting practices – as opposed to parenting style as a whole – contributed to the development of empathy in children. These practices include encouraging the child to imagine the perspectives of others and teaching the child to reflect on his or her own feelings. The results also show that the development of empathy varied based on the gender of the child and parent. Paternal warmth was found to be significantly important, and was positively related to empathy within children, especially in boys. Interestingly, however, maternal warmth was negatively related to empathy within children, especially in girls.

Development of Empathy

When children are shown videoclips with situations where they see people suffering pain by coincidence, neural circuits related to pain are being activated in their brain.

By the age of two years, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person’s emotional state. Even earlier, at one year of age, infants have some rudiments of empathy, in the sense that they understand that, just like their own actions, other people’s actions have goals.

Sometimes, toddlers will comfort others or show concern for them at as early an age as two. Also during the second year, toddlers will play games of falsehood or “pretend” in an effort to fool others, and this requires that the child know what others believe before he or she can manipulate those beliefs.

According to researchers at the University of Chicago who used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), children between the ages of 7 and 12 years appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain. Their findings are consistent with previous fMRI studies of pain empathy with adults. The research also found additional aspects of the brain were activated when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual, including regions involved in moral reasoning.

Despite being able to show some signs of empathy, including attempting to comfort a crying baby, from as early as 18 months to two years, most children do not show a fully fledged theory of mind until around the age of four.

Theory of mind involves the ability to understand that other people may have beliefs that are different from one’s own, and is thought to involve the cognitive component of empathy. Children usually become capable of passing “false belief” tasks, considered to be a test for a theory of mind, around the age of four. Individuals with autism often find using a theory of mind very difficult (e.g. Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1988; the Sally-Anne test).

Empathetic maturity is a cognitive structural theory developed at the Yale University School of Nursing and addresses how adults conceive or understand the personhood of patients. The theory, first applied to nurses and since applied to other professions, postulates three levels that have the properties of cognitive structures. The third and highest level is held to be a meta-ethical theory of the moral structure of care. Those adults operating with level-III understanding synthesize systems of justice and care-based ethics.

Neurological Basis of Empathy

Research in recent years has focused on possible brain processes underlying the experience of empathy. For instance, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been employed to investigate the functional anatomy of empathy.

These studies have shown that observing another person’s emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust, touch, or pain.

The study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following the target paper published by Preston and Frans de Waal, following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it.

In their paper, they argue that attended perception of the object’s state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses (idea of perception-action-coupling), unless inhibited. This mechanism is similar to the common coding theory between perception and action. Another recent study provides evidence of separate neural pathways activating reciprocal suppression in different regions of the brain associated with the performance of “social” and “mechanical” tasks. These findings suggest that the cognition associated with reasoning about the “state of another person’s mind” and “causal/mechanical properties of inanimate objects” are neurally suppressed from occurring at the same time.

Further Reading:

Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics, entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., et al. (2009). Fetal testosterone and autistic traits. Br. J. Psychol., 100, 1–22

Amy Coplan, Peter Goldie (2014) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives Oxford University Press

Iain King (2008). How to Make Good Decisions & Be Right All the Time Solving the Riddle of Right & Wrong. Continuum.

Bar-On, Reuven; Parker, James DA (2000). The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence : Theory, Development, Assessment, and Application at Home, School and in the Workplace. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass