What Is Empathy?

Why Do We Feel Each Other's Pain

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The homeless man stood on the street corner in a ragged coat that was much too thin for the brisk winter day. He looked weary as he held up a simple cardboard sign that read, "Down on my luck. Anything helps." As we walked by, our small group of friends and acquaintances paused to give the man several dollars.

Most of us felt instant empathy and compassion for the man. Except one acquaintance's husband, who stood back in disgust ranting that the homeless were just freeloaders skilled at working the system.

"He probably makes more money than I do," he continued to rage as we walked away.  The acquaintance averted her eyes, embarrassed by her husband's cold, callous behavior.

Why is it that when we see another person suffering, some of us are able to instantly envision ourselves in the other person's place and feel sympathy for their pain while others remain indifferent and uncaring?

Empathy is the key.

We are generally pretty well-attuned to our own feelings and emotions. But empathy allows us to "walk a mile in another's shoes," so to speak. It permits us to understand the emotions that another person is feeling.

For many of us, seeing another person in pain and responding with indifference or even outright hostility seems utterly incomprehensible. But the fact that some people do respond in such a way clearly demonstrates that empathy is not a universal response to the suffering of others.

So why do we feel empathy?

Why does it matter? And what impact does it have on our behavior?

What Is Empathy?

Empathy involves the ability to emotionally understand what another person is experiencing. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else's position and feeling what they must be feeling.

The term empathy was first introduced in 1909 by psychologist Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term einfühlung (meaning "feeling into").

So how exactly do sympathy and empathy differ? Sympathy involves more of a passive connection, while empathy generally involves a much more active attempt to understand another person.

According to various experts, empathy is defined as:

  • "…an observer's reacting emotionally because he perceives that another person is experiencing or is about to experience an emotion." - Ezra Stotland, 1969
  • "…an attempt by one self-aware self to comprehend unjudgementally the positive and negative experiences of another self." - Lauren Wispe, 1986
  • "…an affective response more appropriate to someone else's situation that to one's own." - Martin Hoffman, 1987

Why Is Empathy Important?

Human beings are certainly capable of selfish, even cruel, behavior. A quick scan of any daily newspaper quickly reveals numerous unkind, selfish, and heinous actions. The question then is why don't we all engage in such self-serving behavior all the time? What is it that causes us to feel another's pain and respond with kindness?

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain empathy. The earliest explorations into the topic centered on the concept of sympathy. The philosopher Adam Smith suggested that sympathy allow us to experience things that we might never otherwise be able to fully feel. Sociologist Herbert Spencer proposed that sympathy served an adaptive function and aided in the survival of the species.

More recent approaches focus on the cognitive and neurological processes that lie behind empathy. Researchers have found that different regions of the brain play an important role in empathy, including the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

Empathy leads to helping behavior, which benefits social relationships. We are naturally social creatures. Things that aid in our relationships with other people benefit us as well. When people experience empathy, they are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors that benefit other people. Things such as altruism and heroism are also connected to feeling empathy for others.

Why We Sometimes Lack Empathy

As the story in the beginning of the article illustrated, not everyone experiences empathy in every situation. My acquaintance's husband felt no sympathy, empathy, or compassion for the homeless man shivering on a cold winter street, and even expressed outright hostility toward him. So why is that we feel empathy for some people but not for others? A number of different factors play a role. How we perceive the other person, how we attribute their behaviors, what we blame for the other person's predicament, and our own past experiences and expectations all come in to play.

At the most basic level, there appear to be two main factors that contribute to our ability to experience empathy: genetics and socialization. Essentially, it boils down the age-old relative contributions of nature and nurture. Our parents pass down genes that contribute to our overall personality, including our propensity toward sympathy, empathy, and compassion. On the other hand, we are also socialized by our parents, our peers, our communities, and by society. How we treat others, and how we feel about others, is often a reflection of the beliefs and values that were instilled at a very young age. 

A few reasons why people sometimes lack empathy:

  • We fall victim to cognitive biases: Sometimes the way we perceive the world around us is influenced by a number of cognitive biases. For example, we often attribute other people's failures to internal characteristics, while blaming our own shortcomings on external factors. These biases can make it difficult to see all the factors that contribute to a situation and make it less likely that we will be able to see a situation from the perspective of another.
  • We dehumanize victims: People also fall victim to the trap of thinking that people who are different from us also don't feel and behave the same as we do. This is particularly common in cases when other people are physically distant from us. When we watch reports of a disaster or conflict in a foreign land, we might be less likely to feel empathy if we think that those who are suffering are fundamentally different than we are.
  • We blame victims: Sometimes when another person has suffered through a terrible experience, people make the mistake of blaming the victim for his or her circumstances. How often have you heard people question what a crime victim might have done to provoke an attack? This tendency stems from our need to believe that the world is a fair and just place. If we believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, it fools us into thinking that such terrible things could never happen to us.

While empathy might fail sometimes, most people are able to empathize with others in a variety of situations. This ability to see things from another person's perspective and sympathize with another's emotions plays an important role in our social lives. Empathy allows us to understand others and, quite often, compels us to take action to relieve another person's suffering.

Learn more:

The Empathic Brain: The Neurological Underpinnings of Empathy

References

Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Madison, Wisconson: Westview Press, Inc.

Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: How we understand what others think, believe, feel, and want. Knopf.

Hoffman, M. L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgement. In N. Eisenbert and J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stotland, E. (1969). The psychology of hope. Jossey-Bass.

 Wispe, L. (1986). The distinction between sympathy and empathy: To call forth a concept, a word is needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2), 314-321.

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