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6 Things You Need to Know About Empathy

4. We're born with the capacity for empathy, but it's learned behavior.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Empathy. It’s the bedrock of intimacy and close connection; in its absence, relationships remain emotionally shallow, defined largely by mutual interests or shared activities.

Without empathy, we could live and work side by side with other people, and remain as clueless about their inner selves and feelings as we are about those of strangers on a crowded subway car. Empathy isn’t just the engine for closeness and prosocial behavior; it also puts on the brakes when we are behaving badly and become aware of the pain we’re causing. Those of us who’ve had the misfortune of being intimate with someone high in narcissistic traits, combined with impaired empathy, know the devastation that can ensue. When there are no brakes and an excess of self-interest, you end up with scorched earth.

Yet for all the emphasis and value our culture places on empathy—especially as an antidote to bullying and other anti-social behavior—there’s real confusion about what it is and isn’t. Here’s what science knows about empathy:

1. Empathy and sympathy aren’t synonyms.

People often use the words interchangeably, but they are, in fact, separate processes. When you feel sympathy for someone, you identify with the situation that the person finds him or herself in. This can be a perfectly genuine feeling; you can feel sympathy for people you’ve never met and for a plight you’ve personally never experienced, as well as for people you know and scenarios that are familiar to you.

But feeling sympathy doesn’t necessarily connect you to the person or what he or she is feeling. You can be sympathetic to someone’s situation while being completely clueless about his feelings and thoughts. Sympathy rarely compels you into action except, perhaps, writing a check when you see heartrending photos of abused dogs set to weepy music on television commercials. Sympathy doesn’t build connection.

The emotional process called empathy is something else; it involves identifying with what someone is feeling and, additionally, actually feeling those feelings yourself. This isn’t a metaphor like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, but more literal than not, as neuroscience has shown. Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them.

2. Empathy isn’t about intuition.

Research shows that most people think of empathy as intuitive, more of a gut reaction than a function of reasoning, somehow connected to feeling or associated with the popular term “mindfulness.”

Psychologists Jean Decety and Claus Lamm suggest that empathy consists not just of emotion sharing (a largely unconscious process), but executive control to regulate and modulate the experience. Both are supported by specific and interacting neural systems. Research shows that mimicry is part of human interaction, and it happens on an unconscious level; we mimic the facial expressions of those we interact with, along with their vocalizations, postures, and movements. Talk to a frowning person and you’ll probably end up with a frown on your face too. This unconscious mimicry probably helped early humans communicate and feel kinship; it’s the component that precedes empathy. Neuroscience also confirms that seeing someone in pain activates the parts of your brain that register pain.

Being able to take on the perspective of someone else—a cognitive function—is also part of empathy; it’s thought that children begin to see how others see them around the age of four and, in turn, they are able to see others by shifting perspective. Finally, the ability to regulate and modulate emotion is part of empathy. Since science knows that moods can be “contagious,” the ability to self-regulate stops us from going down for the count when we empathize with someone who’s suffering. Clearly being thrust into the depths of emotional turmoil yourself would be a deterrent to empathizing with anyone.

An interesting series of experiments at Harvard didn’t just look at the belief that empathy is intuitive; they also compared empathic accuracy when intuitive and systematic ways of thinking were employed. The participants in these studies were largely seasoned, high-level business professionals. In the first study, they asked participants whether, if they were specifically hiring for people good at assessing other people’s emotional and mental states, they would coach employees in an intuitive and instinctive way, or if they'd use systematic and analytical thinking. Three-quarters chose intuitive coaching! But three following studies showed that individuals who used systematic thinking were better able to read other people—whether in a dyadic interview, interpreting expression and emotion in a photograph, or other situations.

3. Empathy engages specific neural circuitry in the brain.

Experiments in neuroscience, using MRI imaging, provide physical evidence that bolsters the theoretical understanding of empathy by pinpointing the parts of the brain involved. That’s what research by Boris C. Bernhardt and Tania Singer showed in an extensive review of the scientific literature, including their own work. Mimicry and mirroring—key parts of the theoretical understanding of empathy—actually take place in specific areas of the brain as well.

4. Empathy is learned behavior even though the capacity for it is inborn.

The best way to think about empathy is an innate capacity that needs to be developed, and to see it as a detail in a larger picture. Infants learn to identify and regulate their emotions through successful dyadic interactions with their caretakers, primarily their mothers. An attuned mother who’s receptive to her child’s needs and cues is one who permits her baby to thrive and develop emotionally. By having his or her emotional states recognized and responded to, the groundwork is laid not just for the child’s sense of self but sense of other. In time, that seed grows into empathy and the capacity for intimate connection. (This is called secure attachment.)

Children who don’t experience this kind of dyadic interaction have a diminished sense of self, difficulties managing and regulating emotions, and sometimes an impaired capacity for empathy. The avoidantly attached individual isn’t comfortable in intimate settings, and has trouble recognizing his or her own emotions, as well as those of others. The anxiously attached adult may lack the ability to moderate emotions and may end up being swept up in someone else’s emotions. That isn’t empathy.

5. The capacity for empathy varies from one person to the next.

Not surprisingly, the extent of your own emotional intelligence—your ability to know what you’re feeling, to accurately label and name different emotions with precision, and to use your emotions to inform your thinking—will make it easier or harder for you to be empathic. The more connected you are to your own emotions, the greater your ability to feel for others. Again, once you realize that empathy has a cognitive component, this makes perfect sense. It should come as no surprise that research shows adolescents who consider friendships and social connections important and are “embedded” in their social networks are more likely to display empathy than those who don’t and consider themselves outsiders. And for all the press focused on the exclusionary chivvying of mean girls, it turns out that girls value social networks and friends more than boys.

6. Empathy might be dyadic and not just about the individual.

That’s the contrarian point of view put forth by anthropologists who underscore that psychology’s way of looking at empathy—as an individual’s trait—has its limitations. A study by Simone Roerig and others emphasized that anthropologists view empathy as depending on “what others are willing or able to tell about themselves.” By seeing the dynamic as dyadic, the point is made that the character of the person who’s the target of empathy is as important as the empathizer. Additionally, they stress that cultural and social norms also act as moderators of empathy. In a study of Dutch school children, they found that kids were more empathetic when reminded by a teacher to “be a good classmate,” but that empathy declined when it came to choosing sides for a game. Friends who were chosen last and were upset about it were comforted; mere classmates who felt this way were labeled “crybabies.” Social convention and contexts play a role in how empathic a person is in a given situation, regardless of the individual capacity for empathy.

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Copyright ©2017 by Peg Streep.


Decety, Jean and Claus Lamm,” Human Empathy Through the Lens of Social Neuroscience,” The Scientific World Journal (2006), 6, 1146-1163.

Ma-Kellams, Christine and Jennifer S. Lerner, “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully?: Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2016) vol. 111, no.55,674-685.

Wölfer, Ralf, Kai S. Cortina, and Jurgen Baumert,” Embeddedness and empathy: How the social network shapes adolescents’ social understanding.” Journal of Adolescence (2012), 35, 1295-1305.

Bernhardt, Boris C. and Tania Singer, “The Neural Basis of Empathy,” Annual Review of Neuroscience (July 2012), 35 (1), 1-23.

Roerig, Simone, Floryt van Wesel, Sandra J.T. Evers, and Lydia Krabbendam, “Researching children’s individual empathic abilities in the context of their daily lives: The importance of mixed methods.” Frontiers in Neuroscience (July 2015), vol. 9, article 261, 1-6.

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