What is empathy?

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[Photo by messtiza]

Some of the most striking discoveries in psychology have come from patients with deficits of various kinds. Phineas Gage, one of the most famous patients in psychology, was thought to have suffered emotional blunting – along with personality changes – after a tamping rod was propelled through his frontal lobes. Less dramatically, but no less vitally, it seems highly probable that common psychological disorders have, at their heart, a problem processing emotions. Two examples are alexithymia and autism spectrum disorders, both of which seem to involve problems with empathising. But what is empathy?

Like many terms in psychology, it can seem intuitively obvious what ‘empathy’ means, but on closer inspection the definition is not so clear. de Vignemont and Singer (2006) identify two strands in the literature; the first of which provides a broad definition of empathy as occurring when an affective response is more appropriate to another person. The second, which de Vignemont and Singer (2006) prefer, is much narrower and requires that:

  • you feel a particular affective state
  • this state feels similar to you and the ‘target’ of your empathy, but has different causes,
  • it stems from you watching or imagining the target’s affective state,
  • you realise your affective state is a result of empathy.

de Vignemont and Singer (2006) argue that this definition allows a distinction to be made between empathy and ‘cognitive perspective taking’.

Automatic empathising?

These definitions of empathy beg the question of how much control we have over our empathising. Individual differences aside for a moment, generally do we automatically empathise with those around us, or is there some extra effort involved? The process model of appraisal, discussed previously on PsyBlog, certainly suggests there is some level of automatism to our emotional processing. In this theory, perceptual components can lead directly, and unconsciously, into appraisal processes and from there to an emotional response.

Neuroscience work reported by de Vignemont and Singer (2006) supports this hypothesis. Studies have found that when people see complete strangers enduring pain, their brain activation responds in a typically empathetic fashion (Morrison, Lloyd, di Pellegrino & Roberts, 2004).

Contextual empathising

But as de Vignemont and Singer (2006) point out, this indiscriminate empathising must be modulated by situational factors otherwise our emotional lives would be a constant riot of confusion. Similarly, the process model of appraisal does not exclusively rely on perception as the sole input for emotional responses, it also takes into account ‘associatively activated representations’ and ‘the contents of focal awareness’. Secondly, and importantly for the process model of appraisal, de Vignemont and Singer (2006) argue that empathy can be ‘fast and implicit’.

de Vignemont and Singer (2006) also suggest a number of categories which may help to explain why some of us empathise with others in some contexts but not in others:

  • Intrinsic emotional factors – e.g. some emotions may be intrinsically easier to empathise with.
  • Relational factors – like appraisal theory de Vignemont and Singer (2006) point out that the relationship between empathiser and target will have an important effect.
  • Individual differences
  • Situational factors

Early or late appraisal?

The process model of appraisal suggests an early model of appraisal. This means that both the emotional cue and the context are evaluated by appraisal processes before an emotional response is created. The alternative is a late model model which includes a direct link from an emotional cue to an emotional reponse, thereby bypassing appraisal processes. de Vignemont and Singer (2006) point out that there is little current evidence to distinguish between these two paths.

Whatever the process by which empathy operates, it is clearly a vital part of effective social functioning. Just how vital is the subject of constant debate. Many have suggested that empathy increases prosocial behaviour, de Vignemont and Singer (2006) argue that empathy increases social coherence and social communication. Conversely, a lack of empathy is associated with antisocial and aggressive behaviour.

In the next post, I’ll move on to look at the research into those disorders which seem to incur an empathy deficit, e.g. alexithymia and autism spectrum disorders.

de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 435-41.

Morrison, I., Lloyd, D., di Pellegrino, G., & Roberts, N. (2004). Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulate cortex: is empathy a multisensory issue. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci, 4(2), 270-8.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 3 January 2007

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