What is empathy, exactly?

Empathy is one of those concepts that are often quite sloppily thrown around and generally used to denote something fuzzy and warm and – usually – unequivocally good. When asked about what the word actually means, people tend to gravitate to vague definitions involving caring, acting prosocially or being emotionally involved in someone else’s state of mind.

Given the large existing vocabulary that describe similar and related phenomena (think empathy, care, compassion, sympathy, altruism, other-regard, prosociality etc), it makes sense to delineate the specific concept of empathy vis-à-vis other concepts. So how is the word empathy actually used in the scientific literature?

Many have argued that empathy can be fruitfully divided into two distinct categories that capture different and non-overlapping neural phenomena (for an excellent overview, see Goldman, 2011). The first category has been referred to interchangable using many different words, such as empathic concern, emotional empathy, affective empathy, emotional contagion or lower-level empathy. This, broadly speaking, is a type of neural mechanism, likely involving mirror neurons, that is somewhat automatic and induces an emotion (or state of mind) in an agent that is congruent with an observed subject. In short: I observe you being sad, and I consequently feel sad. I observe you being physically hurt, and my facial expression automatically turns into a painful grimace. This is a mechanism that most people are born with, but that is noticably absent in, for example, psychopaths – and also in some people with autism-spectrum disorders.

Lower-level empathy likely evolved first as a way of safeguarding sufficient involvement in the survival of one’s offspring (Preston, 2013), and secondarily perhaps also as a way of solidifying in-group commitment and bonding. That second likely evolutionary benefit of lower-level empathy is revealed by the fact that the peptide hormone oxytocin (to the extent that this will turn out to be replicable – it might not) appears to simultaneously generate increases in emotional empathy – but also spite for, and discrimination of, out-group members (De Dreu, 2012. A similar distinction has been shown to apply to the empathogenic drug MDMA – Kirkpatrick et al, 2015).

The other type is often called cognitive empathy, perspective taking or simply, high-level empathy. As the names imply, this is a mechanism that involves actively thinking about what it is like to be in someone elses situation, and thereby cognitively or intellectually obtaining an understanding of what another person is experiencing. Unlike lower-level empathy it requires effort, and also (analytically speaking) lacks automatic emotional involvement. It is a skill, in the sense that it also needs practice, and is something we can become better at if we try hard. Also unlike lower-level empathy, psychopaths, depending on general cognitive capacity, can possess this type of empathy.

Colloquially, we tend to rely on the first type – lower-level empathy – when the word comes up in daily conversation. This sometimes leads to discussions that are hopelessly confused. Can a generally unemotional but highly cerebral and analytical person be empathic? This person may feel that s/he can very well understand how others feel in different situations – but a more emotionally inclined person may perceive him/her to be hopelessly lacking in empathy (and vice versa). Of course, these two people possess different types of empathy. In short, these two types can coexist in the same person (and frequently do), but it is also entirely possible to have a lot of one and very little of the other.

What is empathy not?

There are a few things that empathy is not. To begin with, there is the class of deliberate motivations that humans possess. One such is compassion, care or sympathy. This involves feeling for, rather than like someone else. In short, all of the psychological phenomena that describe a motivation or feeling that is not congruent (or isomorphic, to put it in technical terms) with the mental state of someone else, are not empathy. They may be just as important, and worthy of just as much attention, but they should not be gathered under the umbrella of empathy. A second is other-regard, altruism or prosociality in general, which denotes an actual motivation, or desire, to increase the welfare of someone other than oneself. While these can be driven by empathy, they can also be driven by the above category of motivations, or even in some cases by pure self-interest.

Is empathy good?

Empathy as a driver for moral behavior is very much a double edged sword, as has been argued by for example Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy, or the prominent philosopher Jesse Prinz (2011). Bloom in particular has made a convincing argument that empathy is a bad guide for moral behavior. Several reasons can be given for this. First, (primarily emotional) empathy is a blunt tool that highly disproportionally applies to a very limited subset of people – namely those who are like us, or are related to us (see for example Maner & Gailliot, 2007). Being a generally parochial trait, it can actually be a driver of racism and other highly immoral behaviors. People who engage in what we should all consider abhorrent moral transgressions, like discrimination, theft or even, in extreme cases, crimes against humanity such as genocide, can very well be driven by a very high degree of empathy for someone else than their victims. In short, highly empathic people may be just as capable of atrocities as people with no empathy at all.

Second, empathy is not necessarily followed by action. Rather, emotional empathy is often a very poor motivator. When I see you in distress and in need of urgent help, the appropriate reaction is not for me to feel distressed but to be focused, calm and motivated. As Jesse Prinz has argued, a certain amount of anger is probably better at accomplishing this than empathy is. Cognitive empathy on the other hand may very well lead to an increased understanding of what a person in need actually needs, but does not in itself motivate any action on their behalf.

The goodness or badness of empathy is a subject at the forefront of a lot of research in ethics as well as moral psychology, and cannot be adequately exhausted in a blog post. However, as soon as we have a slightly more well-defined nomenclature outlined, any discussions immediately become vastly less confusing and more tractable. I’ll return to the subject in the future (perhaps when some of my research touching on it is published) – but this is all for now!


De Dreu, CKW. (2012). Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: An integrative review and research agenda. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 419-428.

De Dreu, CKW., Greer, LL., Van Kleef, GA., Shalvi, S. & Handgraaf, MJJ. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proc NAtl A Sci USA, 108, 1262-1266.

Goldman, AI. (2011). Two Routes to Empathy: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience. In: Coplan, A. & Goldie, P., eds. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press.

Maner, JK. & Gailliot, MT. (2007). Altruism and egoism: Prosocial motivations for helping depend on relationship context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37:347-358.

Kirkpatrick, M., Delton, AW., Robertson, TE. & de Wit, H. (2015). Prosocial effects of MDMA: A measure of generosity. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(6):661-668.

Preston, SD. (2013). The Origins of Altruism in Offspring Care. Psychological Bulletin, 139(6), 1305-1341.

Prinz, J. (2011). Is empathy necessary for morality? In: Coplan, A. & Goldie, P., eds. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press.

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