Empathy's Many Meanings
How to understand the complexity of empathy.
Posted Aug 17, 2020
What is empathy and where does it come from? The history of empathy tells us that it always been defined in a multitude of ways. In 2009, the social psychologist C. Daniel Batson listed at least eight different phenomena identified as empathy including emotional sharing or contagion, knowing another’s internal state, an imaginative understanding of another’s thoughts and feelings, a positive caring response to another; feeling distress at another’s suffering, kinesthetic or bodily mimicry, and two forms of self -projection.
How then do we know that we are talking about the same thing? The short answer is that we don't.
When the word “empathy” was first coined about 100 years ago, its original meaning was that of “feeling-into” objects of art and things in the natural world. We enliven objects by projecting our own feelings and movements into them. This early projective empathy is very different from the therapeutic and social scientific empathy that emerged in mid-century America. After World War II, empathy was predominantly seen as a means to immerse oneself in another’s experience “as if” it were one’s own. Therapists explicitly warned against contaminating this immersion with one’s own judgments, thoughts, and perspectives.
In the 1950s, the first tests of empathy appeared. Empathy scales devised in therapeutic contexts measured emotional response, whereas tests in the social sciences assessed empathy as the cognitive ability to predict another’s preferences. Once the division between emotional and cognitive empathy was made, it stuck. Psychologists and neuroscientists today often narrow the scope of empathy to either its emotional or cognitive components in order to carry out experimental studies. For psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy is limited to an emotional reaction to an individual, and in his view, inherently non-rational. 
In light of empathy's history and its contemporary uses, however, empathy is best understood as a multifaceted capacity that engages not only our feeling but also our thinking and imagining. If I empathize with a friend who has lost a family member, for example, I would share their feelings of grief, but I also would think about what the person who died meant to my friend, and whether they were close or distant. The nature of my empathy would hinge on my knowledge of their family situation. Further, if I am empathizing in the age of COVID-19, I would also imagine how losing someone during a pandemic would be especially challenging. The multifaceted nature of empathy is highlighted by neuroscientists Jamil Zaki and Daniel Ochsner, who argue that empathizers “flexibly deploy multiple, interactive processes when they are relevant to current social goals and cues.”
Empathy can indeed be a complex undertaking. We sometimes rely on our experiences to empathize with others, but at other times we must bracket our own notions to truly listen to an unfamiliar feeling, experience, or thought. When empathizing, we bring to bear our knowledge of the situation, and in some cases, the histories of oppression – in regard to gender, race, sexuality, or religion – to imagine and think through how someone different from us experiences the world. Sociologists in the late 1930s defined empathy as going beyond sensing another’s feelings to grasping their life circumstances. “The investigator attempts to assume the role position of the subject as he responds to his life situations.”
For most of its history, empathy has embraced differences as well as similarities. One of the psychologists who translated the term “empathy” from the German in 1915 described the phenomenon as follows: “As we read about the forest, we may, as it were, become the explorer; we feel for ourselves the gloom, the silence, the humidity, the oppression, the sense of lurking danger; everything is strange, but it is to us that the strange experience has come.”
To empathize with the unfamiliar, we need to stretch our imagination, widen our range of feelings, and extend our contemplative capacity. But some strangeness may remain. Empathy does not resolve the tension between me and you into a seamless unity, instead empathy takes shape from the shifting and unsettling ground of both similarity and difference.
Empathy will not solve all the world’s problems, but it is fundamental to our lives. In its best and most aspirational forms, empathy can help heal conflict, create better communication, and provide a psychological impetus for effective interventions. Empathy’s power lies precisely in its ability to interweave our emotions with our thinking and imaginations to motivate us to act to care for each other and our worlds.
 C. Daniel Batson (2009). These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena” in The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. eds. Jean Decety and William Ickes. MIT Press.
 Paul Bloom (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Ecco.
 Jamil Zaki & Daniel Ochsner (2012). The Neuroscience of Empathy: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 675-679, 678.
 Ernest W. Burgess & Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr. (1939). Predicting Success and Failure in Marriage. Prentice-Hall, Inc., p. 334.
 Edward B. Titchener. (1915). A Beginner’s Psychology. Macmillan. p. 198.