Research shows that empathy is currently declining in the world but the great news is that empathy can be learned anytime by anyone through storytelling and purposeful training.
Defining Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
Empathy is feeling another’s experience. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is feeling pity for another. Compassion is being motivated to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves.
Having empathy for humans, animals, and the environment, recognizing that they are interconnected
Empathic Thought Processes
- Radical Empathy: Thinking from an opposing point-of-view
- Critical Empathy: Engaging in critical thinking about the topic
- Intersectional Empathy: Crossing gender, race, borders
Here are a few elements that play a crucial role in actionable empathy:
Psychologists define 3 types of empathy
Cognitive Empathy: By thought – by taking another’s perspective
Practicing cognitive empathy requires being able to put yourself into someone else’s place, and see their perspective. Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking. It’s empathy through thought more than through emotion. It is a useful skill, particularly in negotiations for example, or for managers. A much more rational and logical process.
Emotional Empathy: Feeling another’s emotions alongside them
When you experience emotional empathy, you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. We catch another’s feelings and sometimes even physical sensation as we engage the mirror neurons in our brains. This can increase our connection to others, but it can also be overwhelming and can cause distress.
This ‘emotional contagion’ is probably the first type of empathy that any of us feel as children. It can be seen when a mother smiles at her baby, and the baby ‘catches’ her emotion and smiles back. Less happily, perhaps, a baby will often start to cry if he or she hears another baby crying. Emotional empathy is vital for those in caring professions, such as doctors and nurses, to be able to respond to their patients appropriately. It also allows us to compassionately respond to friends and others when they are distressed. However, because it is possible to become overwhelmed by these emotions, sometimes referred to as empathy overload, it is important for one to have the tools and knowledge to self regulate.
Compassionate Empathy: Feeling another’s pain and taking action to help
Compassionate empathy allows one to not only understand a person’s predicament and feelings, but to be spontaneously moved to help them, if needed.
Compassionate empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to effectively respond to the situation with loving detachment. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem.
Compassionate empathy is usually the most appropriate. As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly don’t need you just to feel their pain or, worse, to burst into tears alongside them (emotional empathy). Instead, they need you to understand and sympathize with what they are going through and, crucially, either take, or help them to take, action to resolve the problem. With compassionate empathy, we can find the right balance between logic and emotion and we can make better decisions and provide appropriate support when and where it is necessary.
What is Empathy?
Empathy can be better understood by breaking it down into three parts (1). Cognitive empathy allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand how they are thinking and feeling from their perspective. Building upon this is emotional empathy, which is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling as if it were contagious. Finally, compassionate empathy is feeling compelled to act on this and help if needed.
- How We Are Built for Empathy
- Roadblocks to Empathy
- How to be More Empathic
- Empathy for Animals and the Environment
- Limitations of Empathy
- Benefits of Empathy
How We’re Built for Empathy
Roadblocks to Empathy
How to be More Empathic
(And Help Grow Empathy in Others Too)
- Acknowledge your own biases.
- Note that not everyone grows up the same. Some people are more privileged than others. We experience different challenges and setbacks.
- Participate in community groups/ events you are not normally part of to see what they are all about and learn what is important to them.
- Try being someone else for a day, Undercover Boss style! In the show Undercover boss, CEO’s from big companies go undercover and pretend to be a new frontline employee. They discover what it is like to be one of the people that works for them. They are often surprised at how hardworking and invaluable the employees are.
- Learn about other cultures.
- Try diversity training.
- Discover commonalities with people different from you.
- Try mentalizing. Imagine what a daily routine is like for others; from close family members (including companion animals!) to acquaintances to people in other nations. How do you think they feel in different situations in their daily life? What do you think they are thinking? Why?
- Be an active listener. Rather than being critical of someone’s emotions, it is more effective to validate their emotions18. Encourage them to talk it out and come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviour. You might also want to let them know you understand that they are feeling a certain way. For example, saying something like “I understand you are angry, I would be too.”
- Build bridges between groups. Help groups that feel threatened understand that another group’s existence is not a threat to their identity. Show friendly, unlikely friendships between groups16.
- Give victims a face and share their personal story, rather than just including them in statistics.
- Show the benefits of change when people are afraid of change.
- Connect better with others by appealing to people’s emotional brain, not just their rational brain.
- Help guide troubled youth (or others) by using positive reinforcement. This is the hallmark of the very successful Decompression Model in psychotherapy.
- When someone is angry, know that there are many other reasons and emotions underneath this. Think of it like an iceberg. Above the water, we only see 10% of the iceberg, representing the anger. Below the water is the other 90% of the iceberg, representing all sorts of other feelings that we might not see such as fear, hurt, grief etc.
- When arguments occur, think backwards and try to recall verbal and non-verbal cues leading up to the heat of the argument. This does not make conflict okay nor is it meant to place blame on anyone. It can, however, help us to recognize triggers and be better prepared to handle situations next time.
- Try the grounding technique. Take deep breaths and focus on your surroundings and all your senses. This may help with mindfulness and staying calm in tense situations.
- Teach Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to children starting from a young age.
- Expanding our circle of empathy to include others who can suffer, even if we hadn’t considered them previously. Assign value to their welfare.
- Make empathy fun! People tend to avoid empathy if they think it is going to take too much effort19. Creative ways to make empathy fun include cultural events and empathy games and activities.
Empathy for Animals and the Environment
Time and time again, studies have shown that animals are sentient beings, full of feelings and their own preferences and personalities21. Animals even display empathy20 and altruism22 towards people and other animals. They are indeed very much like us, especially with the main emotions animals have which are known as the blue ribbon emotions21, 23: seeking, rage, fear, panic, lust, care, and play.
The five freedoms of animal welfare recognized as a global standard are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
Note that these freedoms are a bare minimum, but enrichment is desirable just as it would be for a human. For example, simple things we often take for granted like enjoying the sun and nature, or being with family.
Since we are highly interconnected with the environment, it makes sense to care for it as it essentially means taking care of ourselves. However, this thinking still relies on an anthropocentric view that we only need to care about humankind. Instead, the ecocentric view acknowledges that the environment has intrinsic value, meaning that it holds value on its own, not just because it provides for us. Deep ecology takes a holistic view and acknowledges that we should structure human activity on Earth in a way that respects nature and its complexity. Studies have shown that when children learn about how interrelated people, animals, and the planet are, they understand consequences, assign intrinsic value to others, and will make decisions that respect the environment24.
Limitations of Empathy
Benefits of Empathy
- People who empathize and read other peoples’ emotions fare better in negotiation, credibility, and trust building27, 28. Plus, the top 10 skills employers are looking for are emotional skills29.
- Improve relationships with family and friends.
- It reduces violence10.
- Volunteering/ taking action to help victims releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps with stress regulation30. It is also known as the helper’s high, which can be key to a joyful life and is associated with greater health and increased longevity31.
- Caring for animals and the environment protects human health, natural resources, the economy, ecosystems, and the climate; both for those of us here now and the many people and animals of the future.
- Instrumental empathy (sometimes known as impact anthropology) allows you to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of your opposition32. This knowledge can help you convince the opposition of your stance.
- Goleman, Daniel. “When Can Empathy Move Us to Action?” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley. 2008 March 1. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hot_to_help
- Rifkin, Jeremy. “Jeremy Rifkin Weighs in on the Empathic Civilization”. Goodnet. 2012, December 17. www.goodnet.org/articles/741
- Lutz, Antoine. et. al. “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise”. PLOS ONE. 2008 March 26. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897
- Adolphs, Ralph. “What does the Amygdala Contribute to Social Cognition?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1191,1 (2010): 42-61. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05445.x
- Simon-Thomas, Emiliana et. al. “The Voice Conveys Specific Emotions: Evidence from Vocal Burst Displays”. Emotion, 9(6), 838–846 (2009). DOI: 10.1037/a0017810
- Cardaro, Daniel, T. et. al. “The Voice Conveys Emotion in Ten Globalized Cultures and One Remote Village in Bhutan.” 16 (1) 2015 September. Emotion. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000100
- Cowen, Alan, S. “Sixteen Facial Expressions Occur in Similar Contexts Worldwide.” Nature. 2020 December 16. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-3037-7
- Stellar, Jennifer E et al. “Affective and Physiological Responses to the Suffering of Others: compassion and vagal activity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol. 108,4 (2015): 572-85. doi:10.1037/pspi0000010
- Porges, Stephen W. “The Polyvagal Theory: New Insights into Adaptive Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System.” Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine vol. 76 Suppl 2,Suppl 2 (2009): S86-90. doi:10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
- Pinker, Steven. Steven Pinker on Empathy. Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. http://cultureofempathy.com/References/Experts/Steven-Pinker.htm
- Hoffman, Kelly M et al. “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 113,16 (2016): 4296-301. doi:10.1073/pnas.1516047113
- Sophie Trawalter, Sophie et. al. “Racial Bias in Perception in Others’ Pain.” PLOS ONE. 2012 November 14. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048546
- Han, Shihui. “Neurocognitive Basis of Racial Ingroup Bias in Empathy.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 22,5 (2018): 400-421. DOI:10.1016/j.tics.2018.02.013
- Elfenbein, Hillary Anger, and Nalini Ambady. “Universals and Cultural Differences in Recognizing Emotions.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 12, no. 5, Oct. 2003, pp. 159–164, doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01252.
- 15.) Lumen Learning. “Cultural Similarities and Differences.” Introduction to Sociology. Module 3: Culture. Cultural Similarities and Differences | Introduction to Sociology (lumenlearning.com)
- Inspire Solutions. “How Categorical Thinking Creates a Biased View of the World.” Dawson College. 2013 November 13. https://inspire.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/2013/11/13/how-categorical-thinking-creates-a-biased-view-of-the-world/
- Huston, Matt. “The Psychology of Us Vs. Them.” Psychology Today. 2019 August 9. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/finding-new-home/201908/the-psychology-us-vs-them
- Tian, Xi et. al. “How the Comforting Process Fails: Psychological Reactance to Support Messages.” Journal of Communication, Volume 70, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 13–34, DOI: 10.1093/joc/jqz040
- American Psychological Association. “Empathy Often Avoided because of Mental Effort: People Don’t Want to Feel Empathy Unless they Think they are Good at it, Study Finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 April 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190422090847.htm.
- Waal, De Frans. “The Evolution of Empathy”. Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley. 2005 September 1. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_evolution_of_empathy
- Hess, Ursula and Thibault, Pascal. “Darwin and Emotion Expression.” American Psychologist Association. Vol 64 (2) 120-128. 2009 February – March. DOI: 10.1037/a0013386
- The Brain From the Top to Bottom. “Sharing Other People’s Pain.” McGill University. https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_03/d_03_s/d_03_s_dou/d_03_s_dou.html
- Schmidt, Maren. “Understanding Core Emotions.” 2014 February 8. https://marenschmidt.com/2014/02/understanding-core-emotions/
- Lithoxoidou, S. Loukia et. al. “‘Trees have a soul too!’ Developing Empathy and Environmental Values in Early Childhood.” The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 5(1), p. 68. 2017, April 17. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1158501.pdf
- Riess, Helen. “The Science of Empathy.” Journal of Patient Experience vol. 4,2 (2017): 74-77. DOI:10.1177/2374373517699267
- Suttie, Jill. “Can a Psychopath Learn to Feel Your Pain?” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley. 2014 February 4. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_a_psychopath_learn_feel_pain
- Ickes, William. (2015). Empathic accuracy: Judging thoughts and feelings. The social psychology of perceiving others accurately (pp.52-70). Cambridge University Press. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273202952_Empathic_accuracy_Judging_thoughts_and_feelings
- Zaki, Jamil et al. “It takes two: the interpersonal nature of empathic accuracy.” Psychological science vol. 19,4 (2008): 399-404. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02099.x
- Jambor, Caige. “How Social Emotional Learning Benefits Everyone.” TEDx Talks. 2019 February 12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGa9yieENKM
- Pepitone, Julianne. “Watching Bad News Can be Good for Your Brain.” Video embedded. NBC News. 2019 August 28. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/can-empathy-be-taught-ncna878211
- Dossey, Larry. “The Helper’s High”. Explore. Vol 14(6) pp. 393-399. November 2018. DOI:10.1016/j.explore.2018.10.003
- Krznaric, Roman. “Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People.” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley. 2012 November 27. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_empathic_people1
- Mechanisms of Disinhibition (MoD) Laboratory. “Can Psychopaths be cured?”. Yale University. https://modlab.yale.edu/news/can-psychopaths-be-cured