How Empathic Are You, Really?

Test which type of empathy you possess.

Posted Oct 10, 2020

You might consider yourself to be someone who is very empathic. You have a “heart” and care about others when they experience misfortunes. But empathy is more complex than just being concerned about others. Research has suggested that empathy can take different forms, and that there are three important types. Let’s see what type you possess.

Answer the questions below with numbers from 1 to 5, using this scale: 1 = “Does not Describe Me Well” 5 = “Describes Me Very Well”

  1. I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.
  2. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.
  3. When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to “put myself in their shoes’ for a while.
  4. In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease.
  5. When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces.
  6. I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of an emotional situation.
  7. When someone is upset or angry, I find that it makes me upset or angry, too.
  8. I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
  9. I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person.
  10. I am often quite touched by the things I see.

Rationally Empathic. Sometimes referred to as “cognitive empathy” or “perspective-taking,” this is an intellectual form of empathy in which you understand what other people are feeling and decipher their feelings by seeing yourself in their situation. Items 1-to-3 above measure this rational form of empathy. High scores suggest that you are good at seeing things from others’ perspectives, but it’s a more cognitive/intellectual form of empathy: “I see your pain.” Although this is an important characteristic—seeing things from others’ perspectives—it isn’t what an emotionally distressed individual might be seeking.

Emotionally Vulnerable. This is the type of empathy that is characterized by the phrase “I feel your pain.” This form of empathy is sometimes called “personal distress,” and it involves the well-documented process of “emotional contagion.” Some people are simply more prone to this emotional contagion process, and when a friend or loved one is experiencing pain, sadness, or any other emotion (even happiness) a person who is emotionally vulnerable vicariously experiences that same emotion. Items 4-to-7 above measure this type of empathy.

The problem with emotional vulnerability is that, although you may share the other’s emotional state, you may not be able to help solve it (if it is a negative emotion). Instead, the two individuals simply share the negative (or positive) state.

Empathically Concerned. Items 8-to-10 assess empathic concern, which is what we most often think about when we imagine a person who is empathic, supportive, and helps us deal with difficult emotions. This “ideal” type of empathy involves both head and heart: We see another’s distress, we’re concerned about it, and we want to help.

Years ago we conducted a study with hospice nurses caring for terminally-ill patients. What we found was that possessing the third type of empathy—empathic concern—was positively related to the nurses' performance, but the second type—being emotionally vulnerable—was negatively related. We surmised that if hospice nurses felt their patients' pain (and family members' distress as well), it made them less able to do their job of providing comfort to the patient and family because they also had their own emotions to deal with.

We all have some level of each of the types of empathy. The key is to understand the ways that we are empathic with others, and to realize the strengths and limitations of each type of empathy.

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References

Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.

Riggio, R.E. & Taylor, S.J. (2000). Personality and Communication Skills as Predictors of Hospice Nurse Performance, Journal of Business and Psychology, 15, 351-359.