The Terms of Empathy

By Jason Marsh | September 1, 2005 | 0 comments

What does “empathy” mean exactly, and how is it different from sympathy or other emotional experiences? Some scientists differ in how they use the term. Below is a list of definitions of empathy and related terms that Frans de Waal compiled with colleague Stephanie Preston for their 2002 review article, “Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases,” which appeared in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Emotional contagion: The creation of a matching emotional state in one individual, the subject, as a result of perceiving the state in another individual, the object. Sometimes, as in very young children, the distinction is lost between the subject and object—both are affected to a degree precluding appropriate helping responses.

Empathy: The subject has a similar emotional state to the object as a result of perceiving the object’s situation. Empathy preserves the distinction between self and other. The subject’s emotional state is partially focused on the other, often resulting in kind or helping behavior.

Sympathy: The subject feels “sorry for” the object as a result of perceiving its distress. This can be arrived at without a matching emotional response. Authors from before the 1950s often use the word “sympathy” for what is currently referred to as “empathy.”

Cognitive empathy: Apart from being emotionally affected, the subject cognitively understands the object’s predicament and situation. This implies perspective-taking and attribution. Cognitive empathy may be limited to the brainiest animals, such as humans, apes, dolphins, and elephants.

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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