This is the introductory essay in our series on understanding others’ feelings. In it we will examine empathy, including what it is, whether our doctors need more of it, and when too much may not be a good thing.
Empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. It is a construct of multiple components, each of which is associated with its own brain network. There are three ways of looking at empathy.
First there is affective empathy. This is the ability to share the emotions of others. People who score high on affective empathy are those who, for example, show a strong visceral reaction when watching a scary movie.
They feel scared or feel others’ pain strongly within themselves when seeing others scared or in pain.
Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to understand the emotions of others. A good example is the psychologist who understands the emotions of the client in a rational way, but does not necessarily share the emotions of the client in a visceral sense.
Finally, there’s emotional regulation. This refers to the ability to regulate one’s emotions. For example, surgeons need to control their emotions when operating on a patient.
Another way to understand empathy is to distinguish it from other related constructs. For example, empathy involves self-awareness, as well as distinction between the self and the other. In that sense it is different from mimicry, or imitation.
Many animals might show signs of mimicry or emotional contagion to another animal in pain. But without some level of self-awareness, and distinction between the self and the other, it is not empathy in a strict sense. Empathy is also different from sympathy, which involves feeling concern for the suffering of another person and a desire to help.
That said, empathy is not a unique human experience. It has been observed in many non-human primates and even rats.
People often say psychopaths lack empathy but this is not always the case. In fact, psychopathy is enabled by good cognitive empathic abilities - you need to understand what your victim is feeling when you are torturing them. What psychopaths typically lack is sympathy. They know the other person is suffering but they just don’t care.
Research has also shown those with psychopathic traits are often very good at regulating their emotions.
Why do we need it?
Empathy is important because it helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. It is typically associated with social behaviour and there is lots of research showing that greater empathy leads to more helping behaviour.
However, this is not always the case. Empathy can also inhibit social actions, or even lead to amoral behaviour. For example, someone who sees a car accident and is overwhelmed by emotions witnessing the victim in severe pain might be less likely to help that person.
Similarly, strong empathetic feelings for members of our own family or our own social or racial group might lead to hate or aggression towards those we perceive as a threat. Think about a mother or father protecting their baby or a nationalist protecting their country.
People who are good at reading others’ emotions, such as manipulators, fortune-tellers or psychics, might also use their excellent empathetic skills for their own benefit by deceiving others.
Interestingly, people with higher psychopathic traits typically show more utilitarian responses in moral dilemmas such as the footbridge problem. In this thought experiment, people have to decide whether to push a person off a bridge to stop a train about to kill five others laying on the track.
The psychopath would more often than not choose to push the person off the bridge. This is following the utilitarian philosophy that holds saving the life of five people by killing one person is a good thing. So one could argue those with psychopathic tendencies are more moral than normal people – who probably wouldn’t push the person off the bridge – as they are less influenced by emotions when making moral decisions.
How is empathy measured?
Empathy is often measured with self-report questionnaires such as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) or Questionnaire for Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE).
These typically ask people to indicate how much they agree with statements that measure different types of empathy.
The QCAE, for instance, has statements such as, “It affects me very much when one of my friends is upset”, which is a measure of affective empathy.
Cognitive empathy is determined by the QCAE by putting value on a statement such as, “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”
Using the QCAE, we recently found people who score higher on affective empathy have more grey matter, which is a collection of different types of nerve cells, in an area of the brain called the anterior insula.
This area is often involved in regulating positive and negative emotions by integrating environmental stimulants – such as seeing a car accident - with visceral and automatic bodily sensations.
We also found people who score higher on cognitive empathy had more grey matter in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.
This area is typically activated during more cognitive processes, such as Theory of Mind, which is the ability to attribute mental beliefs to yourself and another person. It also involves understanding that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives different from one’s own.
Can empathy be selective?
Research shows we typically feel more empathy for members of our own group, such as those from our ethnic group. For example, one study scanned the brains of Chinese and Caucasian participants while they watched videos of members of their own ethnic group in pain. They also observed people from a different ethnic group in pain.
The researchers found that a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is often active when we see others in pain, was less active when participants saw members of ethnic groups different from their own in pain.
Other studies have found brain areas involved in empathy are less active when watching people in pain who act unfairly. We even see activation in brain areas involved in subjective pleasure, such as the ventral striatum, when watching a rival sport team fail.
Yet, we do not always feel less empathy for those who aren’t members of our own group. In our recent study, students had to give monetary rewards or painful electrical shocks to students from the same or a different university. We scanned their brain responses when this happened.
Brain areas involved in rewarding others were more active when people rewarded members of their own group, but areas involved in harming others were equally active for both groups.
These results correspond to observations in daily life. We generally feel happier if our own group members win something, but we’re unlikely to harm others just because they belong to a different group, culture or race. In general, ingroup bias is more about ingroup love rather than outgroup hate.
Yet in some situations, it could be helpful to feel less empathy for a particular group of people. For example, in war it might be beneficial to feel less empathy for people you are trying to kill, especially if they are also trying to harm you.
To investigate, we conducted another brain imaging study. We asked people to watch videos from a violent video game in which a person was shooting innocent civilians (unjustified violence) or enemy soldiers (justified violence).
While watching the videos, people had to pretend they were killing real people. We found the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, typically active when people harm others, was active when people shot innocent civilians. The more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in this region.
However, the same area was not activated when people shot the soldier that was trying to kill them.
The results provide insight into how people regulate their emotions. They also show the brain mechanisms typically implicated when harming others become less active when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified.
This might provide future insights into how people become desensitised to violence or why some people feel more or less guilty about harming others.
Our empathetic brain has evolved to be highly adaptive to different types of situations. Having empathy is very useful as it often helps to understand others so we can help or deceive them, but sometimes we need to be able to switch off our empathetic feelings to protect our own lives, and those of others.
Tomorrow’s article will look at whether art can cultivate empathy.
Explanations > Emotions > Empathy
Feeling what others feel | It's not sympathy | It's definitely not psychopathy | It has many benefits | So what
Feeling what other feel
Empathy is the ability to not only detect what others feel but also to experience that emotion yourself.
This can be both a bane and a boon. If you can read another person's emotions then you can both avoid making a faux pas and also utilize their state to move them in another direction. When people are in emotional states their ability to decide is often significantly impaired. Thus you cannot expect aroused people to make rational choices at this time.
Empathy is a bane if you end up experiencing all the bad feelings of everyone around you. This is one of the problems that therapists and other carers have to handle.
It's not sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are very close and are sometimes used as synonyms. The easiest way to separate them is to remember that empathy is about feelings whilst sympathy is about actions. Thus you may empathize with another person and then act on this by telling them how sorry or happy you feel for them.
Empathetic people are often very sympathetic - they can hardly stop themselves as they really do feel for the other person.
A person who is sympathetic but not empathetic may appear a little shallow, as they are less likely to show an emotional connection. 'Terribly sorry and all that, old chap' they might say, in a friendly but relatively cold voice.
It's definitely not psychopathy
A defining element of a psychopath is that they do not and probably cannot empathize with other people. They are often good at imitating this, but in doing so they are using it in a cold and manipulative way.
Having said this psychopaths have been described as having 'cold empathy' whereby they do not experience what others are feeling but nevertheless are able to detect emotions through reading non-verbal signs. In this way they can appear normal whilst simultaneously caring nothing for others.
This lack of empathy is one thing that makes a psychopath so dangerous. If we cannot empathize with others then we are unlikely to care about them. Psychopaths can this easily objectify other people, treating them like 'things' and even killing them without any remorse.
It has many benefits
The value of empathy comes not from understanding the other person's feelings, but what you do as a result of this.
Empathy connects people together
When you empathize with me, my sense of identity is connected to yours. As a result, I feel greater in some way and less alone. I may well, as a result, also start to empathize more with you.
In a therapeutic situation, having someone else really understand how you feel can be a blessed relief, as people with emotional problems often feel very much alone in their different-ness from other people. The non-judgmental quality can also be very welcome.
Therapeutically, it can be a very healing experience for someone to empathize with you. When someone effectively says 'I care for you', it also says 'I can do that, I can care for myself.'
Empathy builds trust
Empathy displayed can be surprising and confusing. When not expected, it can initially cause suspicion, but when sustained it is difficult not to appreciate the concern. Empathy thus quickly leads to trust.
Empathy closes the loop
Consider what would happens if you had no idea what the other person felt about your communications to them. You might say something, they hated it, and you continued as if they understood and agreed. Not much persuasion happening there!
The more you can empathize, the more you can get immediate feedback on what they are experiencing of your communications with them. And as a consequence, you can change what you are saying and doing to get them to feel what you want them to feel.
So how do you do it? How do you find out what other people are feeling? All you have to go on are what they say, how they say it and what they do, which can also be described as 'words, music and dance'.
If you want to move someone, detecting their emotional state is the first step. If you can feel that state then that detection is even more accurate. When you can sense their emotion, you can then use this to move them in the direction you want them to take.
The trick in spotting feelings is to pay close attention to changes in the other person in response to external events. If you say 'How are you?' and the corners of their mouth turn down and their voice tone goes flat, then you might detect that all is not well.
The better you are at spotting small changes, the greater your potential ability at empathizing. Watch for small changes on the face. Watch for lower-body movements when the upper-body is under conscious control. Listen for tension in the voice and emphasis on specific words. Listen for emotional words.
To avoid getting swamped by their emotions learn to dip in and out of the association that makes you feel what they do. Go in, test the temperature and then get out to a place where you can think more rationally.
Unless you are really sure, it can be a good idea to reflect back to the other person what you are sensing of their feelings, to check that you have got it right. After all, the only person who can confirm empathy is the person whose emotions are being sensed.
Reflecting back itself has an effect, typically leading the other person to appreciate that you really care about them and hence increasing their trust in you.
Empathy is far more effective when it is offered, as opposed to when people ask for empathy (in which case a negotiation exchange dynamic is set up).
By the way, The usual caveat applies here - taking advantage of someone who is upset breaks many social rules and negative manipulation is likely to lead to betrayal effects.
Empathetic Language, Create Empathy, Association and emotion, Empathizing vs. Objectifying, Sob Story