Empathy is our ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of another person. It enables us to be kind, care for others and develop new bonds & connections.
What Is Empathy?
It is a concept that refers to an array of psychological capacities and tendencies that are considered to be morally and socially crucial for a human being. It is the ability to understand and sense what other people are thinking, feeling and experiencing from their point of view. This allows us to better understand and engage with another individual, share their thoughts and emotions and better care for them. Empathic interaction enables us to place ourselves, mentally and emotionally, “in another’s shoes 1 ”. It is sometimes referred to as parallel emotional responding and emotional contagion.
According to the Mind Journal, “The true essence of empathy is to appropriately understand someone’s feelings. To put it simply, it refers to the awareness of the thoughts & emotions of others.” As it enables us to feel what others are experiencing and allows us to connect with them, it is considered as a primary aspect of emotional intelligence (EI or EQ). Related to a unique and separate brain network, it is a construct of different components. “Empathy allows us to perceive and understand feelings and actions of others in ways that increase our own gratitude, altruism, and forgiveness,” explains a 2019 review.
The trait primarily comprises of three main aspects –
- The competency to accurately identify emotions in others and oneself through various communicative prompts, like speech, facial expressions, body language and behavior.
- The ability to obtain the perspective of another individual while maintaining basic distinction between the other and self through a cognitive process, known as theory 2 of mind or perspective taking.
- The capacity to share the mental and emotional states of another person and experience that same emotions felt by others through an affective component.
In a general sense, empathy refers to an observer exhibiting an emotional or cognitive response to another person’s experience. Empathic responding is an important component for effective social functioning. It also improves prosocial behavior and prevents antisocial behavior in different situations and contexts. Deficits of empathy have been observed in patients of a number psychiatric disorders 3 , such as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD 4 ) and borderline personality disorder (BPD 5 ). “Empathic difficulty is a highly consequential characteristic of antisocial personality structure,” explains a 2012 study. Interventions developed specifically to improve empathic responding can help someone cope with such deficits effectively.
Origin Of The Term
It is believed that the word empathy originated from the Ancient Greek term ‘empatheia’ (ἐμπάθεια), which means passion or physical affection. Later, the german term Einfühlung, meaning feeling into, was adapted from it by German philosophers Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer. Einfühlung was eventually translated into the term empathy in English by psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1909.
It is a vast concept that encompasses our emotional and cognitive reactions to the observed emotions and experiences of others. The term has been commonly defined as the natural capacity to understand and feel the same thoughts and feelings as another person by various disciplines, including psychology, neuropsychology, sociology and philosophy. It is a multidimensional construct that requires us to be aware of the emotional states of others and maintain awareness of our own mental states. Being a foundational element of emotional experience, it plays a crucial role in social interaction. According to a 2015 research paper 6 , processes related to this psychological capacity “motivate prosocial behavior and caring for others, inhibit aggression, and provide the foundation of moral judgment. Empathy is so integral to healthy coexistence that its absence leads to severe social – emotional dysfunctions such as psychopathy.”
Empathic interaction helps us to identify, understand, relate with and share the thoughts, feelings and experiences of other people, animals and even fictional characters. It occurs when two distinct regions of the brain function together. The emotional part of the brain helps to perceive someone’s feelings while the cognitive part helps to understand the reasons for their feelings & how we may help them. It is believed that developing this psychological and emotional capacity is essential for compassionate behavior and building or strengthening relationships. It makes us less judgmental and helps us observe a situation or experience beyond our own limited perspective. By understanding someone else’s point of view, we can become prosocial and be willing to help others instinctively. It allows us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position and feel compassion and sympathy when they are suffering or having some bad experiences.
Where sympathy enables us to feel for someone, empathy allows us to feel with them by envisioning ourselves in their shoes. This emotional capacity also makes us more compassionate and altruistic as it makes us want to help that individual in need. Perhaps, for this reason, it is considered as one of the core pillars of morality. Our capacity to empathically connect with others, be compassionate and to care about their well-being is highly important for the human experience, living a wholesome life and progress as a society. It is believed that empathic responding enables us to be better friends, family members, productive workers and successful leaders. However, it is even more important for our own personal development and a better, humane future for our community.
Empathy Vs Sympathy & Compassion
Although these three terms may be related, they are conceptually different from each other. Empathic responding refers to feeling what another person is feeling. Sympathy means we can understand what someone is thinking and feeling while maintaining emotional distance. Compassion refers to the drive or willingness to help someone overcome their suffering. Sympathy and compassion are related to feeling for or being moved by someone’s distress or difficulties and being aware that the person is suffering. Compassion involves an aspect of action revolving helping that person, which is absent in sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, means accurately recognizing and feeling what someone is experiencing for ourselves. It is like going through their experiences by imagining to be in their place.
The primary difference between sympathy and empathy is while the former is about understanding someone’s feelings, the latter is about actually experiencing those feelings in self through the power of imagination. Moreover, while compassion is a renewable resource, empathic concern can often leave us feeling burned out. However, both sympathy and compassion are related to empathic concern. All these cognitive and emotional responses enable us to realize when someone is in need, care for them and encourage us to help them.
Empathic responses are also different from emotional contagion and even pity. According to a 1999 study 7 , emotional contagion is the phenomenon of sharing the emotions of others, while empathic concern is about being concerned for the well being of others. Emotional contagion 8 refers to having our behaviors and emotions triggered and affected by similar emotions & related behaviors of others. Some animals tend to experience emotional contagion by mimicking the pain of another animal. However, they usually lack self-awareness which is the difference between the other and the self. Empathy involves self-awareness, which may or may not be present in emotional contagion. Moreover, pity refers to the emotions we experience when we realize someone is in distress, difficulties or is suffering. It is about having certain feelings towards someone when they need help as they are unable to solve their problems. Pity is about feeling sorry for others.
Types Of Empathy
Empathic responding can be classified into 3 major types that are typically experienced by most individuals. These include:
1. Affective empathy
This refers to our capacity to understand the emotions of another person, appropriately respond to it and then share the experience of others. This form of emotional awareness and understanding may make you feel concerned for the wellbeing of others. However, being over concerned can lead to feelings of discomfort or personal distress. It can make us experience strong emotions when we see someone else suffering or in pain. According to a 2019 study 9 , “affective empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others, without any direct emotional stimulation to oneself.” Also known as emotional empathy 10 , our capacity for emotionally empathizing with someone is driven by emotional contagion and other’s arousal or emotional state 11 .
This form of empathic interaction involves the following aspects:
A. Empathic concern
Responding with both sympathy and compassion to another person triggered 12 by their pain or suffering.
B. Personal distress
Experiencing anxiety or feelings of discomfort, which are typically self-centered, in response to the suffering of another individual. However, there is no agreement on whether personal distress is a part of empathy or not.
Emotionally empathizing with someone can allow us to immediately identify, understand and share another person’s emotions, especially when someone is distressed. But it can often make us feel overwhelmed by such difficult emotions and prevent us from responding appropriately. This is why it is important to practice emotional self-regulation.
2. Cognitive empathy
This form of empathic response requires the ability to understand the mental states, perception and attitude of another person. It also involves being aware that they are driven by such cognitive states, which can be different from our own. It allows us to understand what the other person may be thinking in a particular situation. This ability is typically identified as theory of mind (ToM 13 ) by psychologists. According to a 2013 study 14 , theory of mind is integral to a person’s success in social encounters as it is “his or her ability to reason about the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of others to predict behavioral responses.” Cognitive empathizing is also known as perspective-taking, mentalizing and social cognition. However, more studies need to be conducted to determine whether these phenomena are equivalent to the theory of mind.
Both affective and cognitive empathic responses are independent from each other. If someone is able to strongly empathize with others on an emotional level, then they may not be necessarily good 15 at understanding their mindset or perspective. “Successful social interactions require both affect sharing (empathy) and understanding others’ mental states (Theory of Mind, ToM),” explains a 2015 study 16 .
This type of empathic responding involves the following elements:
It refers to our capacity of impulsively adopting the psychological perspectives of another person.
B. Strategic or tactical empathizing
This occurs when we intentionally utilize perspective-taking to accomplish desired objectives or goals.
This usually refers to our capacity to identify and understand the thoughts and emotions of fictional characters, like in books or in movies.
3. Somatic or motor empathy
This form of empathic interaction involves experiencing a physical reaction 17 which is triggered by the thoughts, emotions, behavior and experiences of another individual. It is believed that such physical reactions are driven by mirror neuron responses in our somatic nervous system. Most often we tend to physically sense 18 the experiences of another person. For instance, we may blush by seeing another person feel embarrassed or may have an upset stomach or vomit by seeing someone physically hurt or in pain.
Signs Of Empathy
Here are some of the most common signs of an empathic person:
- They are good at listening to others
- They can easily understand how others are feeling
- They always consider how their actions affect others
- They are always keen of helping people who are suffering
- They tend to feel overwhelmed by negative experiences
- They tend to be highly sensitive to sounds, sights, smells and sensations
- They often experience emotional and sensory overload
- People feel comfortable sharing problems with them
- Others often seek advice from them
- They can be highly intuitive
- They can recognize when others are being dishonest
- Social situations can make them feel overwhelmed or drained
- They care genuinely care about others’ well-being
- They find it hard to establish personal boundaries with others
- They are prone to social withdrawal and isolation
The Science Of Empathy
Empathic responding appears to be an instinctive reaction entrenched in our cognitive, emotional and physical existence. Here are some scientific observations related to empathy that we need to consider:
Researchers believe that certain brain regions 19 , such as the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, may play a crucial role in the neurological and cognitive processes behind this experience. According to a 2018 study 20 , the process of empathizing is dynamic and complex as it involves “multiple higher order functions”, including intensity information, constant processing of valence, self-other distinction, multimodal sensory integration and emotion recognition. “In neuroscience, the concept of empathy is considered to include separate affective (sharing others’ emotion) and cognitive (understanding others’ emotion) components,” add the researchers. Hence, various important neurobiological elements are crucial to the experience of empathic interaction.
Functional MRI research further reveals that the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), a part of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the human brain, also plays a vital role in the experience of empathizing with someone. It has also been observed 21 that when this region of the brain is damaged, people tend to have trouble with accurately identifying emotions depicted through facial expressions.
2. Mirror neurons
Most neuroscientists believe that “mirror neurons 22 ” may be one of the main sources of this experience. According to a 2011 study 23 , mirror neurons are involved in empathy and contribute to the relationship between empathizing and imitating. The study explains “the human mirror neuron system (MNS) plays an integral role in mediating empathy.” When the mirror neurons are activated in the brain, we are able to mimic and mirror the emotions of other people and feel what they are feeling as if we are in their situation. The neurons improve our capacity to read, imitate and display various emotional cues mostly through body language and facial expressions enhancing empathic responding. These neurons are believed to be activated when we observe another person exhibiting an emotion or performing an action in a similar way it would get activated if we were in their place.
Another 2011 research 24 reveals that imitative behavior is important for the development of social cognitive skills. “The behavioral links between imitation and social cognition suggest a key role for the MNS not only in understanding the intentions of others but also in sharing the emotions of others,” explain the researchers.
Evidence has been found that there may be a genetic basis to our empathic abilities. Although we can learn to improve or limit our empathic responses, the experience may be influenced by genes, according to studies 25 . One study 26 co-authored by neuroscientist Sarina M. Rodrigues revealed that the peptide hormone and neurotransmitter Oxytocin significantly influences social and emotional processing in our brain and body. The researchers explain “Our results provide evidence of how a naturally occurring genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor relates to both empathy and stress profiles.” Another 2019 study 27 found that there may be neurobiological pathways, particularly genetic polymorphisms, involved in individual empathic abilities. Another 2009 research 28 on mice found that empathy is moderated by our genetic background. It states that the research “provides unequivocal evidence for a genetic contribution to the expression of empathic behavior.”
However, researchers from a 2018 study 29 believe that emotional contagion and empathic abilities are “constructed in the course of development through social interaction” and are not influenced by our genes.
Empathy In Animals
Empathy is believed to be an evolutionary trait and fundamental forms of it can be often observed in various non-human primates 30 , like rats 31 and dogs 32 . One 2016 study 33 explains “Empathetic perspective taking has been observed both in naturalistic and experimental contexts in primates, but also in non-primates species.” In general, empathic interactions and responses in non-human animals “have been found to be more likely to occur with kin 34 and familiar partners,” adds the study.
A 2016 report 35 states that “rodents are capable not only of sharing emotional states of their conspecifics, but also of prosocial behavior driven by such shared experiences.” According to a 2017 study 36 , dogs tend to empathize with humans. The presence of emotional contagion has been observed between humans and their dogs. It was found that dogs may show specific signs of adopting the “current affective state” of their owners. The study states “The results suggested that the owner’s state of anxiety was contagious to their dog and the emotional contagion could be tracked by measuring changes in the dog’s memory performance.”
Another 2018 study 37 observed that non-human animals may use communication and vocalizations to “influence the affective state of surrounding individuals.” Like humans, non-human animals have the capacity to differentiate between vocal expression of emotions. The study explains “vocalizations have the potential to influence the affective states of receivers through direct (e.g. acoustic startle reflex) or indirect effects (e.g. affective learning and learned affect), which could result in state matching.” Vocalizations in different animals like, dogs and zebra finches, plays a significant role in influencing emotion contagion. “Vocalizations could also have an important function in triggering appropriate responses from caretakers,” adds the study.
Development Of Empathy
According to American psychologist Martin L. Hoffman all of us are born with the ability to empathize with others. According to a 2010 study 38 , we are born with the neural circuitry which instruments core affect & binds somatovisceral and sensory information to form comprehensible and relevant representation to safely navigate through our environment. Eventually, with age our ability to understand the emotional states of other people enhances which helps us in “decoding confounded emotions, interpreting situational regulators of affect and understanding ‘unexpressed’ affect.” The study authors state “Empathy typically emerges as the child comes to a greater awareness of the experience of others, during the second and third years of life, and arises in the context of a social interaction.”
1. Empathy during childhood
Human beings start showing signs of concern for others during infancy 39 . Moreover, the ability constantly develops during childhood and adolescence. It has been found that infants and toddlers tend to understand that actions of individuals are determined by their intentions. Babies are also able to act and behave according to such understanding before 18 months of age. They are even found to comfort a parent 40 when they may appear distressed 41 . One 2011 study 42 found that early signs of empathy for others tend to develop from 8 to 16 months in infants and toddlers. The study states “Infants’ responses to maternal simulations of distress and to a peer distress videotape were observed from 8 to 16 months.”
Advanced levels of empathic abilities and reasoning related to the thoughts and emotions of others tend to develop by the age of 4 and 6 years. However, most individuals tend to feel higher degrees of empathy for family members, close relatives, friends and like-minded people and may empathize less with people belonging to other families, communities, religions, races or ethnicities. One study 43 found that children can detect painful expressions, like happiness, anger or sadness, faster than others. “Children high in empathy performed better on searching facial expression of pain, and gave higher evaluation of pain intensity,” adds the study. It has also been found that children of empathic parents 44 , those who model and promote the trait, tend to be more empathetic.
Another 2019 study 45 found that storybooks can also help to promote empathic interactions among children. Based on the developmental psychology, the study establishes an interdisciplinary framework that involves the following 3 premises –
- Book-reading can promote empathic responding if it minimizes in-group/out-group bias and encourages in-group/out-group identification.
- The strongest and most valuable contribution of children’s storybooks to the development of cognitive empathic abilities is the identification with characters that are dissimilar and different from the reader.
- The quality of language makes storybooks for children as “an exceptional, but not exclusive,” form of fictional narratives that help in building this trait.
2. Empathy during adulthood
According to a 2008 study 46 spanning 12 years involving participants between the ages of 10 years and 87 years, older adults seemed to score low in empathic responses as compared to younger adults. However, the study found that “the cross-sectional age-differences reflect a cohort rather than an age effect” as no age-related reduction in empathy was observed in longitudinal analyses. In fact, the researchers found that this psychological capacity develops early in life instead of building continuously during the adult lifespan and remains stable throughout the adult lifespan. The study also found that it is associated with life satisfaction, positive well-being and positive relationships with others. The researchers state “Empathy – or at least its perception and outer presentation – seems to be well-preserved into old age. Despite this stability into old age, the nature of empathy may be different at different ages.”
Why It Is Important?
Empathy enables us to care for and connect with others in a better and more meaningful way. It also helps us gain a different perspective in life, experience what others think or feel and help others. It also allows us to distinguish between the other and the self 47 . Having empathic abilities helps us to understand that cognitive processes and decision making are influenced by different factors. However, from an evolutionary perspective, the trait may have developed as a survival mechanism that helps us detect threats. It can help us identify the intention of others and recognize who may be a friend or a foe. Regardless, it is a crucial psychological capacity that empowers us to build new relationships & friendships, cooperate with and help others and make the right moral decisions 48 .
According to a 2017 study 49 , our empathic abilities are crucial for societal and interpersonal development as it allows the sharing of emotions, experiences and desires among people that encourages prosocial behavior. If we completely relied on the evolutionary theory “survival of the fittest,” we would never empathize with someone who is suffering as our goal would be to dominate. However, our ability to identify and understand other’s pain, feel personal distress and show compassion helps us ensure that our species survives and thrives through mutual aid. This is important to ensure that we survive as a species and a community in the long run. “If we are to move in the direction of a more empathic society and a more compassionate world, it is clear that working to enhance our native capacities to empathize is critical to strengthening individual, community, national, and international bonds,” adds the study.
Lack Of Empathy
Certain individuals can lack empathy which can lead to a number of personal conflicts, adversarial attitudes, antisocial & abusive behavior and poor relationships. In fact, low empathic abilities are associated with a number of psychological disorders. It can be caused by a number of different factors, such as genetics, environmental factors, adverse experiences in early childhood, trauma, psychological or physical damage, diseases etc. Apart from preventing us from understanding or appropriately responding to the experiences of others, poor empathic capacities can also restrict our understanding of our own emotions, needs and experiences, making us feel increasingly isolated and lonely.
A recent 2020 study 50 states “A deficit in empathic abilities, especially affective empathy, is thought to play an important role in psychopathic personality.” Some of the common psychiatric conditions associated with a lack of empathy include the following, according to a 2007 study 3 –
- Antisocial personality disorders (sociopathy/psychopathy)
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder 51
- Borderline personality disorder
- Asperger Syndrome 52
- Bipolar disorder 53
- Autism and Autistic spectrum disorders 54
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease
One 2009 study 55 found that there is a significant association between empathy, psychopathy, & antisocial behavior. The researchers state “individuals who show little arousal to the distress of others likewise show decreased physiological arousal to their own distress; one manifestation of reduced stress reactivity may be a dysfunction in empathy which supports psychopathic-like constructs (e.g., callousness).” Another 2019 study 56 found that a lack of empathy is also linked with certain neurodegenerative diseases as well.
Empathy Deficit Disorder
Lacking empathic abilities if often identified as empathy deficit disorder (EDD). Although not recognized as a medically diagnosable mental health condition, EDD is a popular term used to identify people with extremely low or poor empathic abilities. EDD prevents people from resonating with the emotion of others leading to difficulty in building and maintaining friendships and relationships. Although it typically affects affective empathy, it may also influence the other types depending on the causes.
Individuals with EDD appear uncaring and are incapable of acquiring other’s points of view. They often tend to believe that their expectations, desires and needs are more important than that of others. Usually, narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths tend to suffer from EDD. They tend to criticize others unnecessarily, completely disregard others and fail to appreciate even their family and friends. They fail to realize how their behavior or actions may impact or hurt others around them. Moreover, as they are unable to emotionally connect with anyone, they tend to feel extremely lonely and socially isolated.
A person suffering from this condition may exhibit the following symptoms and behaviors:
- Inability to build strong emotional bonds
- Difficulty making new friends
- Quick to dismiss or criticize others without considering their perspectives
- Difficulty appreciating others, including loved ones
- High expectations and a strong sense of entitlement
- Strong focus on self & unable to listen to others
- Inability to understand other’s pain and suffering
It simply means that someone cares too much about others for their own good. Hyper-empathy syndrome refers to a person’s inherent capability to fully connect with others’ thoughts and feelings. It also makes them highly aware of negative emotions. Being hyper-empathic can often be difficult for the individual as they are more prone to experiencing personal emotional distress 57 . Moreover, by putting others’ perspectives and emotions above their own also makes them vulnerable to feeling alienated and empty. In fact, these individuals are highly likely to suffer from generalized anxiety and even depression 58 .
This condition can often be caused by childhood trauma which leads to an increase in empathy during adulthood. One 2018 study 59 explains “Traumatic events increase the risk of depression, but there is also evidence that adversity can lead to posttraumatic growth, including increased compassion and prosocial behavior.” Some of the most common behaviors and symptoms associated with elevated empathic abilities include:
- Collapse of self identity & social skills
- Prone to developing disorders related to psychosis & compulsion
- Experience rapid mood swings from feeling histrionic happiness to severe depression
- Tend to be caring, helpful, patient and dependent
- Need for constant validation by helping others
- Failure to set boundaries or rejection of boundaries by others
- Overprotective and disregard for the autonomy of others
- Feel misunderstood and not valued enough for their altruism
- Social isolation, resentment and anger due to excessive disappointment
Can Empathy Be Taught & Learned?
Researchers have been trying to understand if empathy is a trainable trait. As it is a genetic trait, most people tend to believe that either we are born with it or we are not. However, recent researchers consider this trait as an important communication tool and they believe that empathetic communication 60 is a teachable & learnable skill. According to a 2003 scientific analysis, “many medical schools have developed curricula with a strong focus on physician-patient communication and empathy,” which enables medical students to practice empathetic communication with patients effectively.
One 2016 study 61 states “Review of studies revealed that empathy can be taught… Once learned, these skills become the part of acquired behavior and enhance ability to relate across the various situations.” Another 2006 study found that “empathy may be amenable to positive change with a range of interventional strategies.”
How To Cultivate Empathy?
As empathy is a communication skill that can be learned, we can take certain steps to develop and improve our empathic abilities. Here are a few steps that can enable you to strengthen your empathic responses:
- Open yourself to gaining new perspectives and changing your mind
- Avoid making assumptions about others based on your personal experiences
- Actively listen to others without interrupting, judging or criticizing them
- Focus on nonverbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions and hand gestures
- Pay attention towards understanding the opinions and perspectives of others, even though you may disagree with them
- Ask adequate questions to others to learn about their thoughts, emotions and lives
- Use your power of imagination to put yourself in someone else’s position or “shoes”
- Talk to a lot of new people to gain new perspectives
- Try someone else’s way of doing things and observe how different it feels
- Work in groups to accomplish a shared cause and be a team player
- Read different fiction and nonfiction books to open your mind
- Support and help others to make them live a better life, even when it may not directly affect your life
- Teach empathy to children and help them identify emotions in themselves and others
Empathy is essential for psychological, emotional, interpersonal and social interaction in different phases of life. Although some people lack the ability to empathize with others, most of us can experience what others are thinking and feeling in different situations, especially when they are suffering. It empowers us not only to understand others but also to take necessary action to relieve them from their suffering. This unique trait of identifying, relating and sympathizing with others plays a significant role in societal development.
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