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Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish?

The psychology of empathy and altruism.

Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]

In 1909, psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung [‘feeling into’] into English as "empathy." At that time, German philosophers discussed empathy in the context of æsthetic evaluation, but Titchener advanced that empathy also helps us to recognize one another as minded beings.

Today, empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share in the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. Empathy involves two things: (1) seeing another person’s situation from her perspective, and (2) sharing in her emotions, including, if any, her distress.

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

One cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling, but only with a particular person. To empathize with someone, I need to have at least some understanding of who she is and what she is doing or trying to do: I need to have at least some idea of where she came from and where she is trying to go. As John Steinbeck says, "It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving."

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all reactions to the plights of others. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgment of the plight of its object.

Sympathy ["fellow feeling," "community of feeling"] is care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see her better off or happier. 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 should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached, impartial, and impersonal attitude—akin to the attitude that I might have for my students and neighbours, or that a monarch might have for his or her subjects.

Compassion, or "suffering alongside" someone, is more engaged than simple 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, when she was 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 at what I just said: “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 feel, 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, 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, proclivities, sensitivities, and so on. Theory of mind is innate (‘from up above the Hao’), first appearing at about four years of age. It continues to develop through the years and can be trained both in 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 suggested 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 observe that same action in another. The neurons "mirror" the actions of the other such that they become ours, or as ours, enabling us to infer the beliefs, emotions, and desires that led to them. Mirror neuron abnormalities may underlie certain cognitive disorders such as autism and autism spectrum disorders.

The pros and cons of empathy

From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy is selected for because it promotes parental care, social attachment, and prosocial behaviour, and, by extension, the survival of the nearby 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 people’s actions and reactions, and to respond quickly and successfully to their ever-changing needs and demands. At the same time, to empathize is not to merge: because empathy remains at one remove, it provides a degree of distance or detachment in which to make moral and normative judgments about the person or people being empathized with, and in which to weigh up their best interests.

While empathy promotes prosocial behaviour, it can skew our judgment, 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 avoid "compassion fatigue" and burnout.

But in less pressured circumstances, 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 at work—to say nothing of the benefit to their patients.


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?

Neel Burton is the author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.

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