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Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish?

The psychology of empathy and altruism.

Source: Pixabay

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung [‘feeling into’] as ‘empathy’. At that time, German philosophers discussed empathy in the context of artistic or aesthetic evaluation, but Titchener proposed that empathy can also help us to recognize one another as minded beings.

Today, empathy might be defined as a person’s ability to identify and share in the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. Empathy involves two things: (1) seeing another person’s situation from their point of view, and (2) feeling, to a greater or lesser degree, the same emotions as they are feeling.

For me to share in another person’s point of view, it is not enough merely to put myself into her position or situation. Instead, I must go further still and imagine myself as her, and, more than that, imagine myself as her in the situation in which she finds herself.

One cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling, but only with a particular person. To empathize with this person, I need to have some understanding of who she is and what she is doing, or trying to do. I need to have some idea of where she came from and where she wants to go. As John Steinbeck (d. 1968) wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy Versus Pity, Sympathy, and Compassion

Empathy is easily confused with the likes of pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all also prosocial reactions to the plights of others. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and usually carries paternalistic or condescending overtones. Inherent in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and is incapable of preventing or overturning it. Pity is less engaged than sympathy, empathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy [Greek, ‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’] is care or concern for someone, often someone close or relatable, accompanied by a wish to see them better off. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities and deeper personal engagement. But unlike empathy, sympathy does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.

Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with a hedgehog, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with it. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to ensnare and torture them.

Sympathy might also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impersonal attitude—akin to the attitude that I might have towards my students or neighbours, or that a monarch might have towards his or her subjects.

Compassion [Lat. ‘suffering alongside’], is more engaged than empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Needless to say, pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and altruism often blur and overlap.

The Empathy Paradox

My friend tearfully confides that, as a child, she was sexually abused by her father. Moved by her plight, I try to comfort her: “I know just how you feel.” To my surprise and alarm, she snaps back: “No, you don’t know how I feel! How could you?”

Notice that, in claiming that I cannot know how she feels, my friend is implying that she knows how I feel—or, at least, that however I might be feeling, it is not how she feels. But if she is correct in asserting that I cannot know how she feels, how can she know how I feel, or that how I feel is not how she feels?

A similar paradox is raised in the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd century BCE), which is one of the two foundational texts of Taoism:

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. Zhuangzi said, ‘Out swim the minnows so free and easy, this is the happiness of fish.’ Hui Shi said, ‘You are not a fish. Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Zhuangzi said, ‘You are not me. Whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?’ Hui Shi said, ‘Granted that I am not you, I don’t know about you. Then granted that you are not a fish, the case for your not knowing the happiness of fish is complete.’ Zhuangzi said, ‘Let’s trace back to the root of the issue. When you said, ‘Whence do you know the fish are happy?’, you asked me already knowing I knew it. I knew it from up above the Hao.

Theory of Mind

Empathy rests on ‘theory of mind’, that is, on the ability to understand that, being different, different people see things from a different perspective, and have different beliefs, desires, sensitivities, and so on. Theory of mind is innate (‘from up above the Hao’), first appearing at about four years of age. Thereafter, it continues to develop, and can be trained in both reach and accuracy. Crucially, theory of mind enables us to posit the intentions of others and to explain and predict their actions.

It has been posited that the neural basis of theory of mind resides in ‘mirror neurons’, which fire when we carry out a particular action, and also when we witness that same action in someone else. The neurons ‘mirror’ the actions of the other person so that they become ours, or as ours, enabling us to infer the thoughts, emotions, and desires that led to them.

The Pros and Cons of Empathy

From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy is selected for because it promotes things like parental care, prosocial behaviour, and non-verbal communication, and, by extension, the survival of the proximal gene pool. By facilitating social interaction, collective enterprise, resource redistribution, teaching and learning, and storytelling and other art forms, empathy increases the strength, stability, and resilience of a society and its members.

Empathy enables us to anticipate the actions and reactions of others, and to respond effectively to their ever-changing needs and expectations. At the same time, to empathize is not to merge: because empathy remains at one remove, it provides a degree of distance in which to make normative judgements about the person or people being empathized with, and in which to weigh up their best interests.

That said, empathy can skew our judgement, leading us to violate moral principles to favour the one or the few over the many. Empathy can also be distressing or exhausting. Doctors and nurses who are surrounded by human distress tend to constrain or regulate their empathetic faculty, not out of callousness or unconcern but to guard against ‘compassion fatigue’ and burnout.

But in less pressured environments, the exercise of empathy is often rewarding and even revitalizing. Doctors and nurses who are able to empathize with their patients, although not so much that it prevents them from resting and recuperating, are more likely to feel fulfilled in their work—to say nothing of the benefit to the patients themselves.


Empathy leads to compassion, which is one of the main motivators of altruism. Another, less flattering, motivator of altruism is fear or avoidance. In this case, altruism is an ego defence, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with her problems and anxieties by stepping outside herself and helping others. By concentrating on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as nursing and teaching may be able to push their own needs into the background, where they can more easily be ignored or forgotten. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress, akin to "empty nest syndrome," when this role is suddenly removed from them.

It could be argued that this kind of defensive altruism is not true altruism, not least because of the eventual personal costs. But putting these complications to one side, altruism has many benefits for the altruist. Carrying out an altruistic act leaves us with a feeling of euphoria, the so-called helper’s high. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. Kinder people are happier, and happier people are kinder, establishing a virtuous circle of altruism.

On a more social level, altruism serves as a signal of cooperative intentions, and also of resource availability and, by extension, of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging others to reciprocate with resources and opportunities that are potentially of much greater value to us than those that we felt able and ready to part with. More broadly, altruism helps to establish and maintain the social fabric that nurtures and protects us, that keeps us alive and, much more than that, makes our life worth living.

No surprise, then, that many psychologists and philosophers argue that there can be no such thing as true altruism, and that so-called empathy and altruism are mere tools of selfishness and self-preservation. On this account, the acts that people call altruistic are performed because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction, the expectation of honour or reciprocation, or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if none of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely for its faulty logic: "People who perform altruistic acts benefit from those acts, therefore altruistic acts are performed for the benefit of the people who perform them." The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an "altruistic" act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or validation or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the "selfish" element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then un-determining.

Only one question remains: How many so-called altruistic acts can meet these criteria for true altruism?

Read more in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

More from Neel Burton M.A., M.D.
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