Dimensions of Empathy

‘You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’

From Harper Lee’s classic novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

What Harper Lee is alluding to is empathy which is the experience of understanding mental state of other persons from their perspective.
You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

We need to pay tribute to empathizing politicians like Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk who sat down across the table trying to understand each other and to empathize with each other’s perspectives, even when they had extremely strong and deeply embedded differing points of view. The result was the historical dismantling of apartheid.

Psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are three important types of empathy. The first is a purely cognitive form of empathy that he terms as ‘perspective-taking’ also known as ‘cognitive empathy’. This is what enables you to see things from other person’s point of view.

Davis terms the second type of empathy as ‘personal distress’ which is more generally known as ‘emotional empathy’ or ‘affective empathy’. Emotional empathy is literally feeling another’s emotions. When you are watching a scary movie, and you start to empathize with the hero and feel afraid, that is personal distress in action. According to research, you are actually feeling the other’s emotion through a process called ‘emotional contagion’.

Daniel Goleman says that with cognitive empathy, you can understand another person’s perspective, reflect on his situation and think of the forces that may be acting upon him. On the other hand, he says, emotional empathy allows you to sense unspoken feelings of people by reading facial expressions, tone of voice or other non-verbal communication.

In some medical conditions, persons with one type of empathy may lack the other type or at least one of these empathies may be functioning well below the average. For example, persons with psychopathic or antisocial personality disorders may have excellent cognitive empathy which in fact enables them to deceive others but they will have reduced emotional empathy as they just don’t care about suffering or pain of others.

Majority of people with autism spectrum conditions, on the other  hand, may show the opposite profile. They tend to struggle with cognitive empathy, finding it hard to understand perspectives of other people. This is one reason why they try to avoid social interactions. However they often do have functional  emotional empathy and when their attention is drawn to suffering of someone they then realize the situation which makes them get upset and also makes them want to alleviate the suffering of the other person.

We need to understand the overlap between autism and alexithymia, a condition defined by a difficulty in understanding and identifying one’s own emotions. People with high levels of alexithymia might sense that they are experiencing an emotion, but are unsure which emotion it is. They could be sad, angry, anxious or maybe just overheated. About ten percent of the population at large and about fifty percent of people with autism have alexithymia.

Researchers have found that individuals with autism but not alexithymia show normal levels of empathy, whereas people with alexithymia are clearly less empathic. Thus autism itself is not associated with a lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.

The third type of empathy is one where you actually feel the same pain or emotion of the other which is termed as compassionate empathy. This type is what we most often think about when we use the term ‘empathy’. This is the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative or distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern.

These three types of empathy represent different aspects of our personalities. A person high only in perspective-taking may be good in understanding and appreciating others’ points of view, but may not get very involved in others’ emotions.

Similarly an individual high on personal distress will be prone to experience the emotional states of others. The down side of high levels of emotional empathy is that these persons may make themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to help others.


From the neurological or functioning brain perspective, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin says “Neuroscientific research on empathy shows that if you’re empathizing with a person who is in pain, anxious or depressed, your brain will show activation of very similar circuits as the brain of the person with whom you’re empathizing.”

Compassionate empathy as opposed to emotional empathy activates a different part of the brain which are the areas associated with motivation and reward. Whereas  emotional empathy can cause pain and burnout, compassionate empathy actually drives you to want to go out and help. This shifting of focus to the person’s well-being and happiness rather than their distress, results in shifting the brain’s pathways from experiencing painful empathy to the more rewarding areas of compassion. Davidson says. ‘It is this process that helps us to detach from their suffering’.

A cardinal feature of empathy is that it helps us to connect with people. Because of the evolutionary development of this brain-based capacity, affective empathy, or emotional sharing, most easily and naturally occurs among members of the same tribe or group.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don’t fit into those groups. Others who share our particular qualities are our “in-group,” and those who do not are our “out-group.” Please read my blog on tribalism for complete discussion on this.



It should, therefore, come as no surprise that individuals tend to have the most empathy for members of in-group. We see these biases play out repeatedly in communities, schools, sports teams, religious communities and across nations as well. We need to accept that even empathy is not always an equal opportunity benefactor.

Barack Obama lamented before he became the president that ‘The biggest problem we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.’

Unfortunately these deficits in empathy, as for instance when it comes to out-groups, has the effect of increasing the areas of conflicts and human suffering. To reduce such conflicts and suffering, it is crucial to understand how empathy can be learned and how learning experiences can reshape empathy-related processes in the human brain. Researchers conducted experiments to see how empathy deficits for the suffering of out-group members can be corrected by a learning intervention. During this intervention, participants received costly monitory support as often from an out-group member as from an in-group member. Researchers found that receiving big help from an out-group member, which the brain was not expecting, elicited a classical learning signal, a prediction error in the anterior insular cortex. Subsequent prediction of such help from other members of the out-group enhanced the empathy-related insula responses towards the out-group members.

More interestingly, researchers  showed that not many positive learning experiences are required to increase empathy for the out-group. Researchers were able to establish the neural and psychological mechanisms through which learning interacts with empathy thus providing a neurobiological account of enhanced empathic reactions. For instance, when you move into a new neighbourhood, you may be apprehensive about their attitude and behaviour. But a couple of good interactions will make you more comfortable and more empathetic towards them.


Empathy in children is a hot research topic, and is a subject of great practical importance for families and communities.

There is a definitive need to develop, at an early stage of life, emotional literacy, or the ability to read or recognize one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. By tuning into what other people are feeling, children take their first critical steps towards developing empathy. We need to appreciate that children with higher emotional literacy are smarter, nicer, happier and more resilient. These children who are better adjusted emotionally have been found to be more popular and outgoing.

 There is also compelling evidence that prosocial behaviours such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as twelve months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and fourteen to eighteen months old children are shown to display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviours.



Internationally recognised educational psychologist Michelle Borba suggests the following guidelines to parents for improving emotional literacy of their children.

  1. Stop and tune in. Connect with your child on an emotional level. Move past the distractions and actually, intentionally and fully connect with your child each and every day.
  2. Look face-to-face. The first step to good communication is eye contact. Get down on your child’s level and show them you are interested and invested in them by using good eye contact.
  3. Focus on feelings. Children need to learn that their feelings are important and should be taught to express their feelings. Give them words to describe how they feel – like mad, angry, embarrassed, frustrated, shocked and ecstatic. Ask probing questions: “You seem really upset, what are you feeling right now?” Help children connect their physical reactions to the underlying emotions: “I see your face is getting red, are you feeling angry?”
  4. Express the feelings. Before children have developed their emotional vocabulary, you will need to help them express their feelings, like “You must have been so excited when you were picked for Student of the Week.” Once children have learned the words necessary to express their emotions, you can ask them “How do you feel?” It’s also important to ask your children how they think other people feel: “How do you think he felt when you threw sand at him?”

Empathy is a crucial component of social intelligence, and many scholars argue that empathy is the basis for morality. For instance, experiments suggest that long term viewing of violent video games makes people less responsive—and less likely to help—when they witness other people in trouble. Indeed, a study of kids in Belgium and the Netherlands found that boys who were rated as less empathic and more aggressive were especially attracted to violent video games. Likewise, “prosocial” video games—which reward players for helping others—seem to promote acts of kindness in the real world.

We are, most unfortunately, continuously plugged into devices. This creates a problem as emotional literacy skills require face-to-face reciprocal interactions. In our digital world, where we are constantly engaged in one-way interactions via technology, we are simply giving children less opportunity to engage in meaningful and two-way, face-to-face interactions with others, which is a big part of developing emotional literacy skills.

We have heard this phrase ‘One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic’.

 One unfortunate aspect of empathy is that while a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because many of us would like to believe that if more lives are at stake, we should feel more empathy and do more to help. Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favourites as when in-groups/out-groups are involved. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

Simon Baron-Cohen developed the concept of Empathy Quotient (EQ) using a 60-item questionnaire designed to measure empathy in adults. The test was developed at Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Clinically, the empathy measurements provided by the EQ are used by mental health professionals in assessing the level of social impairment in certain disorders like Autism. However, since levels of empathy vary significantly even among normal individuals without any mental health disorders, it is also suitable for use to measure temperamental empathy by and for the general population.

‘Made in Empatia’ a not-for-profit brand that wants to make Finland the most empathetic country in the world. This brand does not have an official owner and Virve Miettinen,  one of the members, says  that the intention is to build a societal movement around it, to which everyone is free to join. As part of the campaign, individuals, work communities and schools can learn empathy as a skill.

 The team believes that empathy is a civic skill for our daily lives, one that everyone needs to manage in increasingly diverse societies. A lot, for example, could be accomplished if things were seen through the eyes of the customer or boss. Better leadership, better services and better products and perhaps even better democracy can be visualised.

US Marine Corps is another great example of empathetic relationship where Marines willingly trust each other with their very lives. Lt Gen George Flynn proudly claimed ‘Go into any Marine Corps mess hall and watch the Marines line up for their chow. The most junior eats first, followed in rank order, with the leaders eating last. This practice isn’t in any rulebook. The Marines just do it because of the way they view the responsibility of  leadership. Whereas many people think leadership is about rank, power and privilege, Marines believe that true leadership is the willingness to place needs of others above your own’.

Here is another example of how we miss out on good experiences due to lack of empathetic observation.

Marshal Rosenberg, Psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication had this story to tell. ‘I used to regularly walk past a homeless man around the corner from where I live in Oxford and virtually took no notice of him. One day I stopped to speak to him. It turned out his name was Alan Human and he had a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. We subsequently developed a friendship based on our mutual interest in Aristotle’s ethics and pepperoni pizza. This encounter taught me that having conversations with strangers opens up our empathic minds. We can not only meet fascinating people but also challenge the assumptions and prejudices that we have about others based on their appearance, accents or backgrounds.’
Rosenberg also quotes Indian Philosopher J Krishnamurti who said ‘Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence’.

Multi-faceted Chad Fowler an internationally known software developer, trainer, manager, speaker and musician recommends an activity he calls ‘watch and wonder’, which you can try virtually anywhere. ‘Put down your cell phone. Instead of checking Twitter or reading articles while you wait for the train or are stuck in a traffic jam, look at the people around you and imagine who they might be, what they might be thinking and feeling, and where they are trying to go right now. Are they frustrated? Happy? Singing? Looking at their phones? Do they live here or are they from out of town? Have they had a nice day? Try to actually wonder and care.’

Finally, I urge all to commit to becoming more and more empathetic. Let us reflect on what Maya Angelou said.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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