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Empathy Defined

What is Empathy?

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.

Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.

Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.

For more: Read Frans de Waal’s essay on “The Evolution of Empathy” and Daniel Goleman’s overview of different forms of empathy, drawing on the work of Paul Ekman.

What are the Limitations?

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Why Practice It?

Empathy is a building block of morality—for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. It is also a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others. Here are some of the ways that research has testified to the far-reaching importance of empathy.

For more: Learn about why we should teach empathy to preschoolers.

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How Do I Cultivate It?

Humans experience affective empathy from infancy, physically sensing their caregivers’ emotions and often mirroring those emotions. Cognitive empathy emerges later in development, around three to four years of age, roughly when children start to develop an elementary “theory of mind”—that is, the understanding that other people experience the world differently than they do.

From these early forms of empathy, research suggests we can develop more complex forms that go a long way toward improving our relationships and the world around us. Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating empathy from our site Greater Good in Action:

  • Active listening: Express active interest in what the other person has to say and make him or her feel heard.
  • Shared identity: Think of a person who seems to be very different from you, and then list what you have in common.
  • Put a human face on suffering: When reading the news, look for profiles of specific individuals and try to imagine what their lives have been like.
  • Eliciting altruism: Create reminders of connectedness.

And here are some of the keys that researchers have identified for nurturing empathy in ourselves and others:

  • Focus your attention outwards: Being mindfully aware of your surroundings, especially the behaviors and expressions of other people, is crucial for empathy. Indeed, research suggests practicing mindfulness helps us take the perspectives of other people yet not feel overwhelmed when we encounter their negative emotions.
  • Get out of your own head: Research shows we can increase our own level of empathy by actively imagining what someone else might be experiencing.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about others: We feel less empathy when we assume that people suffering are somehow getting what they deserve.
  • Show empathic body language: Empathy is expressed not just by what we say, but by our facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, and eye contact (or lack thereof).
  • Meditate: Neuroscience research by Richard Davidson and his colleagues suggests that meditation—specifically loving-kindness meditation, which focuses attention on concern for others—might increase the capacity for empathy among short-term and long-term meditators alike (though especially among long-time meditators).
  • Explore imaginary worlds: Research by Keith Oatley and colleagues has found that people who read fiction are more attuned to others’ emotions and intentions.
  • Join the band: Recent studies have shown that playing music together boosts empathy in kids.
  • Play games: Neuroscience research suggests that when we compete against others, our brains are making a “mental model” of the other person’s thoughts and intentions.
  • Take lessons from babies: Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program is designed to boost empathy by bringing babies into classrooms, stimulating children’s basic instincts to resonate with others’ emotions.
  • Combat inequality: Research has shown that attaining higher socioeconomic status diminishes empathy, perhaps because people of high SES have less of a need to connect with, rely on, or cooperate with others. As the gap widens between the haves and have-nots, we risk facing an empathy gap as well. This doesn’t mean money is evil, but if you have a lot of it, you might need to be more intentional about maintaining your own empathy toward others.
  • Pay attention to faces: Pioneering research by Paul Ekman has found we can improve our ability to identify other people’s emotions by systematically studying facial expressions. Take our Emotional Intelligence Quiz for a primer, or check out Ekman’s F.A.C.E. program for more rigorous training.
  • Believe that empathy can be learned: People who think their empathy levels are changeable put more effort into being empathic, listening to others, and helping, even when it’s challenging.

For more: The Ashoka Foundation’s Start Empathy initiative tracks educators’ best practices for teaching empathy. The initiative gave awards to 14 programs judged to do the best job at educating for empathy. The nonprofit Playworks also offers eight strategies for developing empathy in children.

What Are the Pitfalls and Limitations of Empathy?

According to research, we’re more likely to help a single sufferer than a large group of faceless victims, and we empathize more with in-group members than out-group members. Does this reflect a defect in empathy itself? Some critics believe so, while others argue that the real problem is how we suppress our own empathy.

Empathy, after all, can be painful. An “empathy trap” occurs when we’re so focused on feeling what others are feeling that we neglect our own emotions and needs—and other people can take advantage of this. Doctors and caregivers are at particular risk of feeling emotionally overwhelmed by empathy.

In other cases, empathy seems to be detrimental. Empathizing with out-groups can make us more reluctant to engage with them, if we imagine that they’ll be critical of us. Sociopaths could use cognitive empathy to help them exploit or even torture people.

Even if we are well-intentioned, we tend to overestimate our empathic skills. We may think we know the whole story about other people when we’re actually making biased judgments—which can lead to misunderstandings and exacerbate prejudice.

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