Understanding Empathy

In the past few years, we have seen increasing use of the word empathy by everyone from scientists to business leaders to education experts to political activists. Empathy has become such a popular topic in recent years that it finds a place in the title or subtitle of more than 1,500 books listed in Amazon. 

We generally know that ‘empathy’ is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. There is also a strong consensus that we need to see drastic improvement of  empathy across the globe. Barack Obama went to the extent of saying “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

It is therefore surprising to see a book with the title “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” authored by Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

Before trying to unravel Paul Bloom’s perspective, let us first understand what empathy is in all its various dimensions.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories. 

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps us build emotional connections with others. 

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.  Cognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending emotions of others on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.

Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves us to take action or to lend a helping hand, in whatever way we can.  

We show emotional empathy when we internally experience what somebody else feels. Our brain’s response to our own pain is found in areas such as the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex. These same areas are activated when we empathise with someone else’s pain. It has long been shown that emotional empathy can rapidly occur even outside of our consciousness and awareness. Research supports the idea that emotional empathy is a basic and primitive beginning of empathy. When we observe that others are experiencing emotions, our own mirror neuron system kicks in by simulating neuronal activities similar to the observed ones. The mirror neuron system is thought to comprise of the inferior frontal cortex, the premotor areas, and the insula. 

As emotional empathy makes someone else’s pain become our own pain, we tend to treat others as we treat ourselves and this expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

We display cognitive empathy when we understand some person’s pain without feeling it ourselves. Psychologists describe this as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, perspective taking or mentalizing. From the viewpoint of neuroscience, brain regions that are engaged during cognitive empathy include dorsal, middle & ventral medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and temporoparietal junction. These areas are selectively activated when subjects make inferences on the information about the mental states of others. In simple words cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others.

With compassion empathy we have feelings of love and warmth towards others which compels us to help the people who are suffering. Compassionate empathy uses our emotional intelligence to effectively respond to difficult situations with loving detachment. With compassionate empathywe do not get burdened by the feelings of the other person but make the conscious choice to turn our emotion into action. Thus compassionate feelings, thoughts, and decisions pass through filters of consciousness, which enable us to deliberate, reflect and improve upon our decisions on how to provide the best support to the suffering person.

Supramarginal gyrus is a unit of the cerebral cortex that helps us to differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel”cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel” and compassion as “caring about how others feel”.

Given the clear benefits of empathy, it becomes difficult to understand why Prof Paul Bloom writes a book against empathy. However, once you read the book, it becomes clear that his emphasis actually is on the subtitle the case for rational compassion”. Paul Bloom uses clinical studies and simple logic to argue that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor guide for moral reasoning. After all, the idea that human nature has two opposing facets, emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful rational deliberation, is one of the oldest and most resilient psychological theories.

As an example, a doctor who feels his patient’s pain cannot be very effective. It is easy to visualise that a surgeon will not be able to perform his surgical operation if he is disturbed by emotional empathy. That is the reason why surgeons will not operate on their own very close relatives. The medical profession heavily demands emotional regulation of empathic feelings to enable them to perform their work.

Paul Bloom argues that empathy heavily biases our decisions to focus on identifiable individuals rather than more deserving people because of identifiable victim effect “.  This concept describes how we feel greater empathy and emotional urge to help identifiable individuals in tragic situations and how, on the other hand, we show very little empathy to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people. Mother Teresa  succinctly remarked “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The excellent example is that of 18-month-old Jessica McClureShe fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Texas and the intense coverage of this incident drew donations of over US$80,000 from across the world. Very few, if any, of these people who sent donations to Baby Jessica would have tried to help faceless emaciated poor children around the world. These children who have neither shelter to live nor food to eat deserved lot more support. Thus the real problem is that only when we are able to  identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family we experience an empathic response with them, but the much more deserving random children and their families remain empathically out of our reach.

Empathy is strongly affected by our biases and more significantly by tribalism or groupism. We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look more like us or those who share our social, ethnic or national background. Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable. We routinely fail to empathise with others, especially members of different social or cultural groups. We feel less empathy for strangers who belong to a different racial, political, or social group and this is termed as  intergroup empathy bias. In certain contexts, we may even experience pleasure in response to adversities of out-groups called as Schadenfreude and we may also be displeased with the successes of the out-groups  known as GlückschmerThis is very common in the sports arena when we emotionally enjoy the successes of our team and get equal pleasure from the failures of the opposing team. 

Researchers scanned the brains of Chinese and Caucasian participants while they were shown videos of members of either their own ethnic group or the other group, all suffering from some pain. They found that the brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is often active when we see others in pain, was much less active when participants saw members of the other ethnic group in pain.

Interestingly research on Israelis and Palestinians revealed that people who engaged in extreme violence did not necessarily lack empathy. Instead, they had high empathy for the group they belonged to and very low empathy for the group they opposed.

One study on judgemental nature of empathy found that brain areas involved in empathy are much less active when watching people suffering from pain if they had committed some unfair acts. 

There are also situations when it is important to be less empathic. For example, in war it becomes almost essential to feel less empathy for people that you are trying to kill, especially when they are trying to harm you.

Interestingly, empathy shuts down if we believe that someone is responsible for his own suffering. In a study experiment by Jean Decety, Stephanie and Joshua Correll, people were shown the videos of individuals said to be suffering from AIDS. When the observers were told that the suffering patients were infected through their own intravenous drug use, they felt much less empathy for them. But when they were told that the suffering people were infected by careless blood transfusion in a hospital there was lot more empathy for them.

We need to appreciate that while highly empathic people may be good at spotting the emotions of others, they may not necessarily be adept in understanding the emotional triggers correctly. People with high empathy have the tendency to hastily create in their minds a particular scenario on why someone else is having an emotion, which may not be accurate. The reason for this is the strong and quick emotional feelings that arise from within them. This overrides the logical and rational thinking which would have looked at various other possible scenarios.  

Like everything else in the world, there is also this problem of too much of empathy known as “pathological altruism” or empathy distress when we absorb too much of negative feelings from others. 

Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe empathic stress as a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others. This fuels the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.

While positive empathy happens when we acknowledge a person’s feelings and emotions without getting too overwhelmed by them, hyper-empathy happens when we let emotions of others overpower ours. 

Unfortunately, prolonged emotional distress causes many in healthcare professions, such as doctors, nurses and counsellors, to burn out, endangering their own physical and mental health. Those experiencing empathic distress have increased risk of depression and anxiety. It is interesting that after a prolonged period of empathic stress, they even start showing lack of understanding and compassion for those they are responsible for.  

The good news is that we can control our empathy even though it does not come with an on/off switch. We need to realise that we pick up feelings of others even when we are not conscious of doing it. But the safeguard for not being overwhelmed can be learned, and in times like the current Covid period, this becomes very critical. Emotion regulation, or maintaining an even keel, combined with self-other awareness are key parts of the empathic process They give us the ability to wade far into the feelings of others but enable us to pull back and regain our own sense of self. Thus, we can re-centre ourselves even when we are unravelling the emotional state of others.

Please see by blog on this topic. https://neuroinsights.in/2019/09/27/importance-of-emotion-regulation/

Moving away from empathic distress and towards compassion involves compassion training, wherein psychologists use meditation-related techniques to foster feelings of generosity and kindness.

People often confuse sympathy which is a related concept with empathy. Sympathy is “the feeling of being sorry for someone and showing that you understand and care about someone’s problems.” It resembles pity more closely because it is discomfort at someone else’s personal distress. 

Empathy, on the other hand, entails putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and then imagining or feeling that distress. Put simply, sympathy is “I am sorry you’re sad” whereas empathy is “I feel sad because you’re sad”.


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1 thought on “Understanding Empathy”

  1. Dear Sir

    Your blog is very simple to read and understand. The diagrams you shared are simple yet powerful to understand the three types of empathy. It is very useful for visual learners like me. Thank you very much for sharing.



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