What Is Empathy | Positive Psychology

what-is-empathy

What may come as a surprise to you is that you can have empathy for a person without wanting to help them.

Empathy is our ability to sense a person’s emotions and imagine what they might think or feel. We can have empathy as shared happiness or shared suffering—the positive or negative nature of their emotional state does not matter.

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.

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.

Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is intuitive sensing of another person’s underlying feelings and wants. Click To Tweet

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

empathy poem
Empathy – A Poem by Morgan Harper Nichols

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.

Origin of Empathy

Empathy has roots in our evolutionary past and genetic makeup. According to the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being,

Empathy probably evolved in the context of the parental care that characterizes all mammals. Signaling their state through smiling and crying, human infants urge their caregiver to take action… females who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,. This may explain gender differences in human 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 kinds:

  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.

How Do We Empathize

There are two theories to understand better how we empathize. According to Psychology Today, the Simulation Theory, “proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like.”

There is also a biological dimension to this theory. Scientists found a tentative evidence of “mirror neurons” that activate as humans see and feel emotions. There are also “parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level types of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments.”

Other scientists believe in the Theory of Mind, which contradicts the experimental interpretation of empathy proposed by the Simulation Theory. It suggests the capacity to “understand what another person is thinking and feeling, based on the rules of how one should think or feel.” This hypothesis suggests individuals may use cognitive reasoning mechanisms to describe the emotional state of others. Through designing human behaviour models, individuals may predict or justify the actions of others, according to this hypothesis.

Although there is no strong consensus, it is possible that empathy requires several mechanisms that include both natural, emotional responses and experienced, conceptual thinking. Depending on the circumstance and situation, we can cause one or both of the empathetic responses.

10 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

Final Words

Empathy is a key relationship skill. And like any other skill, we can get better at it through practice. Rick Hanson, a psychologist, suggests empathy can be practiced better by expressing these four basic skills:

  1. Paying attention
  2. Inquiring
  3. Digging down
  4. Double-checking

Empathy is … a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.

Greater Good Science Center,

Tap the pic below to find out what these five brilliant scientists say on why is empathy important for humanity:

scientists on why is empathy important
What these 5 scientists say on empathy?

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


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