5 Scientists Tell Us Why Empathy Is Important For Humanity

why empathy is important

How many days did we long for talking to someone who would understand us, with no interruptions or suggestions?

And how many times did we feel connected to someone looking distraught and felt like hugging them, even when we did not know them at all?

We all have had our fair share of such experiences in real life and on social media. When we see a person in distress or pity, even across a screen, we enter an emotional state that makes us relate deeply to that person. That state is empathy – an ability to understand and feel what others are going through.

The beauty of empathy lies here — we yearn to receive it from others, as well as need to give it out to others. Feeling heard and understood, and being able to do both, is a human need.

What Is Empathy

Empathy is understanding and experiencing the feelings of another person and conjecturing their thoughts from their unique position. The one empathizing can feel the distress of another the way they perceive it. It can be learned.

Carl Rogers, the American psychologist on whose works we base much of our modern understanding of empathy, defined empathy as “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.”

And Theodor Lipps explained it beautifully with,

When I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him.

We know empathy as our ability to feel the emotions of another person. But it is also an ability to imagine what the other person might be thinking or feeling.

Empathy can be shared happiness as well as shared suffering – the positive or negative nature of the emotional state does not matter.

A feeling of empathy does not always prod us into going out to help every person who seeks our aid. That behavior is altruism — when we take action to improve the status of another person’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves..

The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own.

— Bruce D. Perry

The cognitive capacity to make assumptions and presumptions about other peoples’ beliefs, intentions, and thoughts is called mentalizing or theory of mind. This capacity can, for example, help us understand people may have views different from ours. Empathy is, conversely, the capacity to resonate with and share the feelings of others.

Empathy can be measured in psychology. The Empathy Scale is a 64-item self-report measure developed by Robert Hogan in 1969. Two other self-report scales are the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) or Questionnaire for Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE).

[Empathy is] the intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another’s condition or state of mind.

— Robert Hogan

Empathy seems to occur in animals too. We find it in many of our primate relatives, and even in rats.

However, some animals show emotional contagion or social mimicry to another animal in pain. But it is not true empathy, as empathy involves self-awareness, while mimicry does not. Human babies too have this emotional contagion.

Being self-aware means the empathetic person can always distinguish the self from the other. In empathy, one feels they are with someone, but they do not confuse themselves with the other person. That is, one always knows the emotions they are resonating with are the emotions of another person.

The scientists tell us there is evidence of genetic roots of empathy, meaning we inherit some of our empathy from our parents.

Meanwhile, the poets explain empathy as only they can. See below:

empathy poem
Empathy – A Poem by Morgan Harper Nichols

Origin of Empathy

The concepts of empathy and compassion have existed for centuries, but their scientific study is relatively recent. The term empathy has its earliest origins in the Greek word “empatheia” meaning passion, which is composed of “en” (in) and “pathos” (feeling).

As a word, empathy has a history of just about 140 years. Robert Vischer, a German philosopher, was the first to use the word “einfühlung” to explain how we “feel into” in 1873.

The English psychologist Edward Titchener coined the word “empathy” as we know today, in 1909, as a translated version of the German word einfühlung.

Theodor Lipps, in his Aesthetik, was first to scrutinize empathy as a central concept in analyzing our aesthetic experiences.

Carl Rogers, in 1975, wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed human empathy is a process and not a state.

#Empathy is the understanding and experiencing the feelings of another person from their unique position. Click To Tweet

In comparison, the word sympathy is an old word — it has existed for almost 300 years before the first written record of the word empathy.

Types of Empathy

Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions, classifies empathy into three types:

  1. Cognitive empathy or perspective taking: The recognizing and understanding of another’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is feeling by thinking. It is the form of empathy that psychopaths have lots of — they understand what causes you the most pain and torture you with exactly that — with zero sympathies towards you. So, a psychopath can feel empathy, but not sympathy (we talk of the difference later in this post). People who score higher on cognitive empathy have more grey matter in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain.
  2. Emotional empathy or affective empathy: The vicarious sharing of feelings after an emotional interaction. In this, you understand as well as feel how the shoe pinches the other person. The people in the medical care profession usually have this type of empathy; they fully understand and feel your pain. This type of empathic response is called empathic distress or personal distress. People who score higher on affective empathy have more grey matter in an area of the brain called the anterior insula.
  3. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern: The action part of the previous two types, or an impulse to act after understanding and feeling another’s experience. In this, after you can understand and feel the other person’s woe, you take action to resolve it for them. Compassion comes with a wish to act. In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other.

Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

Ekman with Friesen co-authored the brilliant book Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions. It gives you a set of special glasses to look into people’s faces and read the clues to when they flash anger, disgust, or contempt before they fully express the emotion. The book also carries exercises to train and get better at reading “facial deceit” and finding out when people lie via their facial expressions.

Empathy In Positive Psychology

In positive psychology, empathy is defined as:

The quality of feeling and understanding another person’s situation in the present moment — their perspectives, emotions, actions (reactions) — and communicating this to the person.

A new concept is emerging, of Positive Empathy. Psychologists Morelli, Lieberman, Telzer, & Zaki define it as the “understanding and vicariously sharing others’ positive emotions.”

The authors say imagining, recalling, observing, or learning of others’ positive outcomes can trigger positive empathy.

People may experience positive empathy in one of the three ways:
i) as a non-involved observer, like seeing someone win a quiz show on TV,
ii) as an involved observer, like hearing good news from a person themselves, or
iii) as a creator of a positive experience for someone else, like giving a gift.

Using Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), Barbara Fredrickson and her team showed several weeks of compassion training can have a beneficial impact on positive emotions, personal resources, and well-being during everyday life.

Why Is Empathy Important

what does empathy mean after all
What is empathy important, after all?

Having empathy is useful as it helps to understand others so we could help or thwart them.

Empathy is important because, without it, people would live unconcerned lives short of caring about how others feel or think. When this vital human emotional process is absent, we cannot fathom the feelings of our fellow beings and cannot respond accordingly.

Empathy makes it possible to reciprocate both the positive and negative feelings of others. Empathy allows us to feel happy vicariously as we share the joy of others, and feel the pain of suffering when others are in pain.

As humans, we are a highly social species. A sense of empathy can bolster our prosocial, altruistic, and compassionate behavior. And a lack of empathy can disintegrate our social bonds and hinder our growth as humanity.

When we do not have the ability to empathize with others, especially when they are in distress, it puts them in greater danger of anxiety, depression, dying, and self-harm.

Without empathy, it is easy to pick up misconceptions and misbeliefs about others. It might lead us to evaluate the good people as shady or the frauds as saintly.

When we do not care to listen and understand others, our social values decrease and people might see us as indifferent or disdainful to others. Soon we stand out of our relationships and social circles.

But when we spend efforts to listen to and consider what another person thinks or feels, without attempting to change them or solve their problems, they feel respected, appreciated, and validated.

When people feel appreciated, they feel secure. When we show empathy towards others, it leads them to function with greater freedom, called autonomy.

Daniel Pink in his bestseller book Drive tells us that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the 3 elements of intrinsic motivation. Autonomy helps people become more engaged and productive.

In a survey of 1300 workers from 13 countries by Dale Carnegie Training about what quality they desired the most in a boss, people reported they wanted their managers to appreciate and listen to them. 88% of employees said they value bosses who listen to them. 87% of workers said their bosses should show sincere appreciation.

BehaviorImportancePerformanceGap
Listening to employees88%60%28%
Sincere appreciation87%61%26%
Valuing employee contribution86%60%20%
Table: Boss Behavior vs Employee Expectation

Empathy can have a negative fallout too. For example, strong empathetic connections with members of our family, or our social or racial group, may lead us to hate or act in aggression towards those we perceive as a threat.

Another example of dangerous empathy could be of those who are good at reading other people’s emotions, such as manipulators, may use their excellent empathetic skills for deceiving others.

5 Scientists Explore Empathy

Now, we bring you five incredible insights by five outstanding scientists on empathy that can help us understand why is empathy so important for humans to progress and thrive.

  1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons – V S Ramachandran
  2. Empathy Vs Sympathy –   Brené Brown
  3. Empathy Endangered –   Bruce Perry
  4. Empathy And Bullying – Izabela Zych
  5. Empathy Advice –  Stephen Hawking

1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons: V S Ramachandran

Do mirror neurons make us feel empathy?

V-S-Ramachandran
V S Ramachandran

In an interview, one of the world’s most influential neuroscientists, and the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, V S Ramachandran talked of the relationship between empathy and our brain cells — the mirror neurons.

The concept of the mirror neuron first came to light in the 1990s. A team of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, saw certain brain cells that got active when a monkey did an action, also got active when that monkey watched another monkey carry out the same action.

The mirror neurons in the monkey brain fire when they see or hear an action and when they carry out the same action on their own. Later studies found humans have mirror neurons that are much more intuitive, flexible, and evolved than those in the monkeys.

These neurons occur in several areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus, and the insula.

A horde of studies on empathy for pain using fMRI revealed the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex were routinely activated, both while experiencing pain as well as when seeing another person in pain.

Prof Ramachandran has been a passionate flag-bearer for mirror neurons. His NYT bestseller book — The Tell-Tale Brain — walks us through his argument why mirror neurons might have been crucial in helping humans go leaps beyond the apes in developing self-awareness, humor, and complex thinking.

He famously said, “… mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.” As of this writing, his popular TED talk totals a viewership of 2+ million.

Asked to introduce mirror neurons, he replied,

These are neurons which fire… when I simply watch another person—watch you reach out and do exactly the same action. So these neurons are performing a virtual reality simulation of your mind, your brain.

Therefore, they’re constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction.

Relating these to empathy, he said,

These [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.

That's what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain. – V S Ramachandran Click To Tweet

He also regretted that he might have been the one responsible for the popular misconception that mirror neurons are responsible for everything we humans are today.

And I myself am partly responsible because I made this playful remark, not entirely serious, that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology and open up a whole new field of investigation. Turned out I was right, but it’s overdone—I mean, a lot of people, anything they can’t understand, they say it’s due to mirror neurons.

2. Empathy And Sympathy: Brené Brown

How do sympathy and empathy differ?

sympathy-empathy-bunny
Brené Brown On Empathy

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand it as best you can how that person feels in the situation. The trait of being able to express this feeling and understanding it is the second tier of empathy.

Sympathy is the ability to express ‘culturally acceptable’ condolences to another’s plight. Often, this includes pointing out a silver lining in the situation, but it’s not always a helpful thing to do.

Feeling empathy is understanding the other person’s pain as they are feeling it. Feeling sympathy is expressing solace while offering to help the other person in pain.

Next time someone opens up to you about a problem, try to listen to what they are saying. They might be reaching out for help, and a full acknowledgment from you is the first step.

Sympathy includes pointing out a silver lining in the situation, but it's not always a helpful thing to do. Click To Tweet

Here’s a Grammarly article on empathy vs. sympathy. We share here two sentences from the article:

  • Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves.
  • Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune.

Below is a delightful animation laying out a section of Brené Brown’s lecture on the difference between empathetic and sympathetic responses.

Brené Brown on Empathy

3. Empathy Endangered: Bruce Perry

Are we losing our ability for empathy?

“Empathy is what makes us human,” says brain scientist Dr. Bruce Perry, MD.

Human beings are biological creatures with genetic gifts… The only way we survived was by forming relationships, collaborative relationships… Human beings are neurobiologically meant to be connected to others: to live, work, hunt, play, invent, and die in groups.

Our brain is a social organ; we are social animals. We don’t have any natural body armor, camouflage, stinging other things. We form groups. Human beings are ‘meat on feet’ to the natural world.

The only way we survive is by forming collaborative groups, by sharing what we hunted and what we gathered with everybody else in our group.

Bruce Perry outlines the 4 qualities of empathy:

  1. to be able to see the world as others see it
  2. to be nonjudgmental
  3. to understand another’s feelings
  4. to communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings
Empathy is what makes us human. – Dr Bruce Perry Click To Tweet

The typical American spends 11 hours a day interacting with digital devices, and not with fleshy objects! And I want to talk about the consequences of this for how we end up expressing our ability to be compassionate (or not).

You see it all the time, complaints in the psychological literature about the disconnectedness of multi-tasking constantly with our phones… but we do it ourselves. It breaks the rhythm of social contact, of empathic engagement — and the truth is: those things are physiologically meaningful.

Dr. Bruce Perry - Born for Love: Why Empathy is Endangered — and Essential

4. Empathy And Bullying: Izabela Zych

Are the bully victims low on empathy?

Read that again — we said bully victims, not bully perpetrators.

Izabela Zych Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Psychology in the University of Cordoba (Spain). Her major research interest focuses on bullying and cyberbullying (trolling). She holds empathy plays a significant role in bullying.

School bullying is a form of aggression that can harm both in the short-term as well as long-term. Bullying involves three parties — the perpetrator, the victim, and the bystander audience. Zych reminds us school bullying often has an element of the unwritten “law of silence.” The students who see or know about the act do not report to the authorities or their parents out of the fear that they could be the next victim.

bully-kid-empathy

In both cases, the face-to-face bullying, and the ‘faceless’ trolling, the bully chooses its victims as those who can’t defend themselves easily. Also, there is a strong correlation between the two. Real world bullies are often cyberbullies as well, though many trolls are people with normal social behavior.

Zych and her colleagues found school bullies scored low on total empathy, that is both cognitive empathy and affective empathy, as compared to non-bullies. Boys and girls showed no difference in this. The bullies also scored high on callous-unemotional traits (a childhood version of psychopathy marked by a disregard for others, a lack of empathy, a low sense of guilt, and emotional “coldness”).

A little surprising finding was the victims were low on empathy when compared to non-involved students. The victims also scored high on callous-unemotional traits as compared non-victims. Read that again: they found the victims to be more emotionally “cold” than non-victims.

Cyberbullying or trolling is aggressive behavior towards others on the internet using electronic devices. Learn how to handle the trolls most effectively, according to experts.

5. Empathy Advice: Stephen Hawking

Would You Not Follow Stephen Hawking’s Advice?

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

When Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old student who had won a prize to go on a tour of the Science Museum, London, accompanied by Prof Stephen Hawking — the late celebrated physicist and wildly popular author of A Brief History of Time — asked which human trait the professor would most like to change, he answered:

The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory, or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

Mark it, Hawking called aggression a human failing.

Hawking, who dedicated much of his life explaining the existence of black holes, died in 2018 without being honored by a Nobel. However, his friend and research colleague Roger Penrose received the 2020 Nobel Physics Prize for proving the formation of black holes in case of a gravitational collapse of a star.

Hawking said he felt aggression has outlived its survival value in the modern world, and to get aggressive towards another is to fail miserably in our humanness. Hawking specifically mentioned it is this failing that could trigger a nuclear war and destroy the whole of humanity.

Uyanwah remembered to ask the professor which human traits he would like to see more often. Hawking was clear that he would like to see more kindness and understanding in this world. He advised us to boost empathy in ourselves. His words:

The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.

— Stephen Hawking

The Theory of Everything is a 2006 book containing seven related lectures by Hawking. The book is in a language that is intelligible to a high school student.

Final Words

We cannot flourish without having empathy. Beware of the empathy fatigue, though.

Authentic empathy means we are present to understand another person’s feelings. But we are not getting ourselves bogged down by taking responsibility for making them feel better. Empathy is about connecting and supporting, not about being responsible for their emotions.

Empathy does not mean taking up the responsibility of other’s emotions.

When we offer empathy, we play down our urge to give advice or explain our own feelings. As Marshall Rosenberg, author of The Surprising Purpose of Anger, gently advised:

Empathy… calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.

The core concept of empathy lies in the understanding of another’s struggles from their unique perspective. And we all are capable of it in varying degrees.

• Did you know people with a positive mindset have these 6 traits: MOGRAH: 1. Mindfulness 2. Optimism 3. Gratitude 4. Resilience 5. Acceptance 6. Honesty? Learn what most of your friends wouldn’t know about building a positive attitude here.

10 Brilliant Books On Empathy

  1. A Way of Being – Carl Rogers
  2. Emotions Revealed – Paul Ekman
  3. The Empathy Effect – Helen Riess
  4. Against Empathy – Paul Bloom
  5. The Art of Empathy – Karla McLaren
  6. Born For Love – Bruce D. Perry
  7. Empathy: A History – Susan Lanzoni
  8. Intellectual Empathy – Maureen Linker
  9. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 – Travis Bradberry
  10. What Is Empathy?: A Bullying Storybook for Kids – Amanda Morin

• • •

Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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