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The Big Idea: No More Cognitive and Affective Empathy?

The current false dichotomy holds back research and stimulates cherry-picking.

Key points

  • There is a distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy. The first is considered useful at work but the latter to be avoided.
  • However, research shows that in many complex social situations, cognitive and emotional empathy are jointly required to make sense of the world.
  • To do justice to the skill of empathy, people need to stop believing in the dichotomy and embrace body and mind, emotions and cognition.
congerdesign/Pixabay
Source: congerdesign/Pixabay

With two decades of empathy training and research under our belt, one of the responses we get most often when introducing the topic to new publics is this one: “Oh yes, empathy is very important [at work]. I’m a big proponent of empathy in my workplace and I do practise it as much as I can. However, not all empathy is the same. There is a distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy. The first is absolutely useful at work but the latter should be avoided at all costs. We are professionals after all.”

You might agree. That messy business of emotions—the one that gives empathy its soft-skill image—is difficult to handle at home, let alone at work. Nothing new here either. Philosophers have debated the potentially conflicting roles of emotion and reason for centuries and many people continue to see emotion and reason as competing with each other. Research shows that we judge that people who use emotion are less likely to use reason in their decision-making, and vice versa (r = −0.8; Levine et al., 2018). NB: We judge, which does not mean to say that this is so; it only reflects our beliefs about others.

Cognitive versus affective empathy

So what is this distinction between cognitive and affective empathy then? Generally, cognitive empathy involves understanding others’ thoughts and feelings without necessarily reacting emotionally, whereas emotional empathy involves experiencing emotions in response to others’ emotional experiences or expressions (Martingano & Konrath, 2022). Sometimes, a third category, empathic concern, is added to the list of definitions. Empathic concern is a response to the distress of another person which is consistent with the distress you perceive that person to be in. Hence, concern.

It is important to realise, though, that these three definitions are influenced by current trends and limits of science in psychology and social neuroscience. Empathy is explored, understood, and written about in many other disciplines, too. Empathy researchers disagree on whether this two- or three-fold distinction is meaningful, exactly which concepts are classified under which umbrella term, and whether some concepts should even count as empathy at all (Batson, 2009; Hall & Schwartz, 2019).

So let’s think about it for a moment. We encounter someone in need of our empathy. They might be going through a tough time, she might be having a very different opinion than our own or he might be overjoyed because he just discovered he is hired for his absolute dream job. All three circumstances are great reasons to deliberately empathise and dive a little deeper into this person’s experience. Will you be able to understand their experience without any emotional reaction on your part?

Think about it. The person might be in tears in front of you, she might be loudly trying to convince you of her point of view or he might be radiating with joy, beaming his happiness in all directions. And you will not be touched? You’ll just keep your cool, observe from a distance, and draw your conclusions? No. Not likely.

And the same goes the other way around. If you experience emotion in reaction to the person’s experience, you’ll likely want to make meaning of what you sense. You’ll think about what happens and infer where these emotions are coming from and to whom they actually belong.

Empathy requires both emotion and cognition

Indeed, research shows that in many complex social situations, cognitive and emotional empathy are jointly required to make sense of the world. Depending on the available information in a given context, different neuronal networks will be co-activated together with the core empathy-related network (Preckel, Kanske & Singer, 2018). This happens, for instance, for complex evaluations of someone else's feelings such as empathic accuracy, the ability to infer what someone else is feeling (Zaki et al., 2009). In other words, when life gets real, messy, and takes place out of strictly controlled laboratory settings, practising empathy requires a combination of skills and an awareness of both emotion and cognition.

We live in a falsely divided world, which draws too hard a line—or makes a false distinction—between cognitive and emotional empathy. If we want to do justice to the skill that empathy really is, we need to stop believing in this dichotomy and make sure we can handle all: body and mind, emotion and cognition.

References

Batson, C. D. (2009). These things called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 3–15). MIT Press.

Hall JA, Schwartz R. Empathy present and future. J Soc Psychol. 2019;159(3):225-243. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1477442. Epub 2018 Jun 18. PMID: 29781776.

Levine, E. E., Barasch, A., Rand, D., Berman, J. Z., & Small, D. A. (2018). Signaling emotion and reason in cooperation. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 147(5), 702.

Martingano, A. J., & Konrath, S. (2022). How cognitive and emotional empathy relate to rational thinking: empirical evidence and meta-analysis. The Journal of Social Psychology, 162(1), 143-160.

Preckel, K., Kanske, P., & Singer, T. (2018). On the interaction of social affect and cognition: Empathy, compassion and theory of mind. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.07.010

Zaki, J., Weber, J., Bolger, N. & Ochsner K. (2009) The neural bases of empathic accuracy.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 106, pp. 11382-11387.

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