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Science of Empathy

Empathy 101

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.

  • Empathy: Feeling another’s experience
  • Sympathy: Feeling pity for another
  • Compassion: Being motivated to help the physical, mental, or emotional pain of another

Holistic Empathy

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:

  • Each layer of difference between us and another can be difficult for our brains to comprehend, that’s why we have an easier time having empathy for those who share similarities with ourselves.
  • When we attempt to see from another’s perspective, our brain automatically sends off signals as the variables of these differences can be so unknown. For example, when we try to imagine being someone of a different gender, race, socio-economic level, or dare we say, even species, we are confronted with a mental and emotional challenge. But when we can sit through that discomfort and allow ourselves to simply do our best to understand another, we start building bridges. The capacity to endure discomfort plays a crucial role in empathy.
  • Imagine this – at a grocery store we can either pick up regular coffee, or we can choose to support fair trade, rainforest certified coffee. We could think, “Hey, everyone else is consuming regular coffee, I’m just one person, my $5 purchase doesn’t matter, it won’t make any difference.”
  • Or we could think, this $5 purchase matters, I’m going to vote with my limited purchasing power for my values. The more of us who vote in accordance with our values, the greater that market becomes. We all struggle with self-esteem to some extent, however when we believe each one of us is a drop in the ocean, and our actions add up, our drop becomes more significant, our actions become more significant.
  • Imagine coming across a stranger who seems distressed. It can take courage to step outside our comfort zone to speak to this stranger. It takes courage to take a position, organize, find our voice, use our voice, and act!
  • We must analyze our assumptions and biases so we can be effective.
  • which takes the time to consider an opposing point of view. There is also critical empathy which involves critical engagement, which entails critically thinking about the issue at hand. Even if we don’t agree with a particular point of view, critical engagement can really help us understand others and help build bridges to solutions.
  • It makes us feel really good when we act on compassion; research shows it improves our overall psychological well-being.
  • Another super cool thing is that empathy can be feeling someone’s pain, but it can also be feeling someone’s joy.
  • For example some people watch horrible animal abuse videos and give up eating meat, but they don’t need to watch the videos everyday to stay compassionate in their consumption habits. Some may watch every so often just to stay familiar with the issue or spark empathy again to stay on track and avoid the out of sight out of mind situation.

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.

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

A Deeper Dive Into the Science of 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’re Built for Empathy

In the 1990’s, scientists accidentally discovered mirror neurons while monitoring the brains of monkeys trying to open up nuts to eat.2 Without moving, a monkey happened to see a researcher open up a nut. It turned out that the same neurons were firing off in the monkey’s brain as if the monkey was opening the nut themself. These mirror neurons exist in other primates as well as humans, and are suspected to exist in other animals as well.

These mirror neurons show that we are wired to experience another’s predicament as if it were our own.Certain areas of the brain are essential to our empathetic capabilities. The insula shows increased activity in response to voiced signals of distress.3 People with amygdala damage fail to detect expressions of fear and have emotional learning deficits.4 The most troubled youth who are repeat offenders have been found to have reduced grey matter in the paralimbic system, most likely stunted since birth.5

The sound of our voice alone, without actual words, can convey a variety of distinctive emotions.6 Our main emotions tend to be universal;5,6 they are easily recognized around the world. Similarly, as Darwin’s theory explained long ago, facial expressions are quite universal as well. A thorough, recent study concluded that people from different cultures share about 70% of the facial expressions used in response to different social and emotional situations.7

As we grow up, both our selfhood and empathy develop in tandem. Babies will cry when they hear other babies cry, which is an example of emotional contagion (which is similar to, but not the same thing as empathy). This happens in animals too.2 At around 2.5 years of age we can recognize ourselves in the mirror.2 It is at this age that we begin to understand emotional empathy – that we can feel what others are feeling. Around 8 years of age, we start to recognize that life is not forever.2 We are then better able to have concern for others since we recognize life is precious, and that others sometimes struggle. Our empathy skills continue to develop into adulthood.

Feeling compassion is accompanied by physiological changes. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. It shows heightened activity when we are experiencing empathy.8 The vagus nerve, found in our neck, also shows elevated activation when we are experiencing empathy. In fact, the polyvagal theory suggests that the vagus nerve came into our nervous system in mammalian evolution specifically to help us connect with and take care of other people.9

The expanding circle of empathy is a concept dubbed by Peter Singer, with the idea endorsed by Charles Darwin more than a century before. The idea is that we are empathetic, but we tend to apply this empathy only to those close to us; our close “circles.” However, the circle has expanded over the course of human history.2,10 First we only included people in our tribes or with blood ties in our circles. By the agricultural revolution we had theology, and extended our circle to those with religious ties. By the industrial revolution we had created nation states, and extended our circles of empathy to encompass our own countries. Perhaps with modern tools that connect us globally, it is possible to continue expanding our circle of empathy to include the global community of people, animals, and the planet.2

Roadblocks to Empathy

Studies have shown there are assumptions that some racial groups feel pain more than others.11,12 People are also less able to recognize pain in racial groups outside of their own.13 The negative impact of these biases can be seen in racial disparities within the criminal justice and healthcare system.

Although facial expressions are for the most part universal, people tend to be more accurate at judging emotions within their own culture.14 As well, there are some emotions specifically that are not as easily recognizable between cultures.6

There is a tendency for people to use their own culture as a frame of reference as to what is “normal”. This natural tendency is ethnocentrism.15 In small doses this can be harmless and arguably even beneficial; for building community or sports team spirit, for example.15 However, it is dangerous when one begins to believe their culture is better than others. With ethnocentrism it is easy for one to start vilifying cultural norms different than their own; unnecessarily and sometimes hypocritically. For example, someone in North America might condemn the eating of dogs in other cultures, whilst wearing coyote fur trim and eating other animals themselves.

Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of those who seem foreign or strange. The typical scenario to explain this phenomenon is people having hatred towards people from other countries, but it can be any type of group. Humans evolved to be xenophobic, having originally been a tribal species, which is a challenge during our modern time of globalization (on a positive note, empathy is emotional and emotions can override ideology).20

This brings us to categorical thinking. In order to think quickly and make decisions on autopilot, our minds categorize vast amounts of complex information (similar to a filing cabinet). These are known as schemas. The trade off is less accuracy. For example, it is common to end up treating everyone in a certain group as the same, rather than seeing them as individuals (stereotyping).16

Our need to belong2 places ourselves in categories as well. When someone believes their group is superior, it can lead to pansophism and the unwillingness to learn from others. Our need for identity along with categorical thinking can ultimately result in unhealthy “us vs. them” type thinking,16,17 polarization,17 or a prior assumption of zero-sum situations. Outgroups are viewed especially negatively when the outgroup is perceived to be a threat to the identity of the ingroup.15

Status quo bias is the natural desire to avoid change. It prevents us from feeling moral motivation to change, even if it’s good change. When someone is accustomed to something, it can be hard to recognize or accept that something can and should be done better.

The status quo itself can desensitize us because we assume it is simply the way things are supposed to be. We are socialized to go with the status quo, especially when told by authoritative figures. For example, the infamous Milgram experiment shows that people will hurt others if authoritative figures tell them to and say that’s just how things are.

It is difficult for the human brain to empathize with large, vague data, like being told that 5 000 people have gone to the hospital because of a natural disaster. However, if you show them an individual from that group, showing the victim’s face while they are in tears and verbally sharing their personal story of hardship… this is something the human brain is capable of comprehending.

Sometimes people will behave in ways that do not align with their knowledge or values and mental discomfort occurs. They will try to convince themselves that what they’re doing is okay in order to restore consistency. This is known as cognitive dissonance. This might happen because the emotional part of their brain is driving them to behave that way, which is winning over the rational part of their brain. For example, when someone smokes despite knowing it is not good for them. Advertisers often appeal to the emotional brain. Some other situations that might cause cognitive dissonance include being forced to do something you do not wish to do, or not accomplishing goals.

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 emotions.18 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 groups.16
  • 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 effort.19 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 personalities.21 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 emotions:21, 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 environment.24

Limitations of Empathy

When we are too good at empathy, we might become overwhelmed with the feeling of distress from others. This happens when we feel the pain just as or nearly just as bad as the person (or animal) we are observing. A healthy amount of empathy instead reduces the amount of pain we feel when observing the pain of others, but still to a degree that is significant enough for us to care.25 Even if you are somewhere in between, over time it can start to become overwhelming. It is important to remember to take care of yourself first, so that you can take care of others. You are no good to others when you are down yourself. Take time for selfcare.

Compassionate empathy. It is possible, for example, for an intelligent person to possess cognitive empathy but not emotional or compassionate empathy.26 They would know when others are distressed but it doesn’t register with them. They may even use this information to make personal gains. These are common traits for a psychopath. Not only does this result in apathy for victims, but it can be a driver for criminal activity.

This is a bias where we tend to assume someone else will help a victim, the bigger the crowd is. However, when we all think like this, the victim often doesn’t get help. A common sign seen at protests of various rights movements creatively explains the problem of this bias. It says, “I used to think somebody should do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.”

Benefits of Empathy

  • People who empathize and read other peoples’ emotions fare better in negotiation, credibility, and trust building.27, 28 Plus, the top 10 skills employers are looking for are emotional skills.29
  • Improve relationships with family and friends.
  • It reduces violence.10
  • Volunteering/ taking action to help victims releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps with stress regulation.30 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 longevity.31
  • 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 opposition.32 This knowledge can help you convince the opposition of your stance.


  1. Goleman, Daniel. “When Can Empathy Move Us to Action?” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley. 2008 March 1.
  2. Rifkin, Jeremy. “Jeremy Rifkin Weighs in on the Empathic Civilization”. Goodnet. 2012, December 17.
  3. Lutz, Antoine. et. al. “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise”. PLOS ONE. 2008 March 26.
  4. 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
  5. 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
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  7. Cowen, Alan, S. “Sixteen Facial Expressions Occur in Similar Contexts Worldwide.” Nature. 2020 December 16. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-3037-7
  8. 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
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  10. Pinker, Steven. Steven Pinker on Empathy. Center for Building a Culture of Empathy.
  11. 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
  12. Sophie Trawalter, Sophie et. al. “Racial Bias in Perception in Others’ Pain.” PLOS ONE. 2012 November 14. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048546
  13. 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
  14. 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. 15.) Lumen Learning. “Cultural Similarities and Differences.” Introduction to Sociology. Module 3: Culture. Cultural Similarities and Differences | Introduction to Sociology (
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  17. Huston, Matt. “The Psychology of Us Vs. Them.” Psychology Today. 2019 August 9.
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  21. Hess, Ursula and Thibault, Pascal. “Darwin and Emotion Expression.” American Psychologist Association. Vol 64 (2) 120-128. 2009 February – March. DOI: 10.1037/a0013386
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  23. Schmidt, Maren. “Understanding Core Emotions.” 2014 February 8.
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