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Defining empathy

Empathy is a complex psychological phenomenon; today there are as many researchers acknowledging discrepancies in the use of the term, as there are inconsistent definitions. Within both psychological science and lacklustre media articles, the word “empathy” has been generalised to allude to a whole host of related, but fundamentally separable, positive social phenomena. It is a contemporary buzzword, abundantly present within the popular science literature and the political rhetoric of the 44th president of the United States. A fact further illustrated by manifold societal projects encouraging us, amongst other things, to “activate”, “embody”, and “realise” empathy. According to some, we are currently living through an empathic revolution, a period that has been dubbed the “new renaissance”.

Clarifying the "empathy deficit"

Clarifying the “empathy deficit”

It is essential, however, that we take a step back from all the hype. In order to make our research meaningful, empathy is a concept that – to paraphrase the psychologist Paul Ekman – requires sharpening, rather than flattening. As the word carries a multitude of meanings, it is necessary for researchers to define precisely what they mean by “empathy” in advance of studying it. Accordingly, in the current post I hope to clarify what we mean by our use of “empathy” within the cosy confines of the CEDE project.

In referring to empathy, we find it useful to delineate between at least three components. The first is “cognitive empathy”, or the act of understanding how another person is feeling (but not necessarily experiencing that particular feeling). For example, I can understand how my partner feels when she sees that the “Great British Sewing Bee” is on television, but I don’t feel the same way, as I’m thrusting my head under the nearest cushion. The second is “emotional” or “affective empathy”, which refers to actually feeling the same affective state. In the highly emotive closing scene of the film “Captain Phillips”, the lead character (played by Tom Hanks) breaks down in floods of tears after surviving a harrowing ordeal, the tears shed by members of the cinema audience are a prime example of affective empathy.

Finally, following in the footsteps of the psychologist Daniel Goleman, we find it useful to further distinguish a form of “compassionate empathy” or “empathic concern”, to describe feelings and/or expressions of compassion that are driven by empathy. This is, I think, what most people are really talking about when they embark on a quest to replenish the “empathy deficit” that is pervading the American youth; their goal is to foster the compassionate acts and other prosocial behaviour that are often (but not always) the consequence of empathy.

With these distinctions in mind, we can now challenge what seems to be a ubiquitous, yet fundamental, misconception. Empathy as a psychological process is not inherently positive (or negative), but more value-neutral. Whilst empathy (for another individual’s suffering or sorrow) may indeed underlie a number of positive, prosocial phenomena, such as compassion and altruism, there are reasons to suspect it may have a hand in certain negative outcomes as well. For example, being empathic towards another person’s anger may exacerbate an already hostile situation. Possessing high levels of cognitive, but not affective, empathy may be associated with narcissistic exploitativeness or psychopathic traits. Furthermore, high levels of affective empathy, if left unregulated, may have a negative impact on the empathiser if, say, they frequent certain environments conductive to sadness and suffering (e.g., hospitals).

What if affective empathy goes unregulated?

What if affective empathy goes unregulated?

As a complex psychological phenomenon, empathy does not exist as an isolated positive construct; its expression is moderated by a host of other variables. We want doctors to be (cognitively) empathic, but regulate their feelings in order to provide objective judgement and professional care. People may make behavioural choices to avoid others’ emotions, or employ particular emotion regulation techniques (e.g., cognitive reappraisal) in certain situations. If people feel strongly the sorrow of another, but do not have the means to alleviate this suffering, then the outcome is unlikely to be so positive.

“Activating”, “embodying”, or “realising” empathy per se is not a panacea. Attention must also be given to facilitating the positive consequences of empathy, which includes certain behavioural acts of care and compassion (which may be delivered through digital means). Whilst exploring digital empathy, it is our intention to investigate the aforementioned three discrete facets of the concept: cognitive, affective, and compassionate. When we talk about creating digital empathy, on the other hand, we are primarily referring to enhancing the capacities for compassionate empathy, that is compassion engendered through empathy.

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One Comment

  1. Michelle Brown says:

    As a student nurse, I have often found it difficult at cognitively comprehend empathy – it seemed too complex and difficult to convey; I always acknowledged the ‘feelings’ part but your article helped me gain a deeper and holistic understanding of how empathy links within the Heads, Hearts and Hands paradigm of nursing. I am now able to express it easier to others and also to see where I fit into my own acknowledgement of self empathy. I an age where individuals will have to live with chronic illness as part of their everyday lives – we will all need to have a more empathic approach for ourselves and each other.
    Much thanks

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