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Empathy (from the Greek εμπάθεια, "to make suffer") is commonly defined as one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly experientially feel the emotion of another. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively define another's modes of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or experiencing the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance.

Definitions of empathy

  • Theodore Lipps: Einfühlung ("feeling into").[1]
  • Edith Stein: Empathy… is the experience of foreign consciousness in general[2]
  • Heinz Kohut: Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.[3]
  • Nancy Eisenberg: An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel[4]
  • Roy Schafer: Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.[5]
  • D. M. Berger: The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put oneself in another’s shoes.[6]
  • R. R. Greenson: To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person. [7]
  • Wynn Schwartz "We recognize others as empathic when we feel that they have accurately acted on or somehow acknowledged in stated or unstated fashion our values or motivations, our knowledge, and our skills or competence, but especiallly as they appear to recognize the significance of our actions in a manner that we can tolerate their being recognized." [8]
  • Carl Rogers: To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the "as if" condition. Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.[9]
  • Jean Decety: a sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals.[10]


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Since empathy involves understanding the emotions of other people, the way it is characterised is derivative of the way emotions themselves are characterised. If for example, emotions are taken to be centrally characterised by bodily feelings, then grasping the bodily feelings of another will be central to empathy. On the other hand, if emotions are more centrally characterised by combinations of beliefs and desires, then grasping these beliefs and desires will be more essential to empathy.

Furthermore, a distinction should be made between deliberately imagining being another person, or being in their situation, and simply recognising their emotion. The ability to imagine oneself as another person is a sophisticated imaginative process that only fully develops with time, or with considerable training, investigation, or imagination. However the basic capacity to recognise emotions is probably innate and may be achieved unconsciously. Yet it can be trained, and achieved with various degrees of intensity or accuracy.

The human capacity to recognize the bodily feelings of another is related to one's imitative capacities, and seems to be grounded in the innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions one sees in another with the proprioceptive feelings of producing those corresponding movements or expressions oneself. Humans also seem to make the same immediate connection between the tone of voice and other vocal expressions and inner feeling. See neurological basis below.

There is some debate concerning how exactly the conscious experience (or phenomenology) of empathy should be characterised. The basic idea is that by looking at the facial expressions or bodily movements of another, or by hearing their tone of voice, one may get an immediate sense of how they feel (as opposed to more intellectually noting the behavioral symptoms of their emotion). Though empathic recognition is likely to involve some form of arousal in the empathiser, they may not experience this feeling as belonging to their own body, but instead likely to perceptually locate the feeling 'in' the body of the other person. Alternatively the empathiser may instead get a sense of an emotional 'atmosphere' or that the emotion belongs equally to all the parties involved.

More fully developed empathy requires more than simply recognizing another's emotional state. Since emotions are typically directed towards objects or states of affairs, the empathiser may first require some idea of what that object might be (where object can include imaginary objects, concepts, other people, or even the empathiser). Alternatively the recognition of the feeling may precede the recognition of the object of that emotion, or even aid the empathiser in discovering the object of the other's emotion. The empathiser may also need to determine how the emotional state affects the way in which the other perceives the object. For example, the empathizer needs to determine which aspects of the object to focus on. Hence it is often not enough that the empathiser recognize the object toward which the other is directed, plus the bodily feeling, and then simply add these components together. Rather the empathiser needs to find the way into the loop where perception of the object affects feeling and feeling affects the perception of the object. The following sequence of examples identifies some of the major factors in empathising with another:

I sense that:

  • Frank is feeling annoyed, (via facial, vocal or postural expression).
  • Frank is feeling annoyed due to not getting what he wants, (general object of emotion).
  • Frank is feeling annoyed because he missed his train, (particular object of emotion)
  • Frank is feeling annoyed because he missed his train, but only by a few seconds, (focus of particular object).
  • Frank is feeling annoyed because he only just missed his train and he had an important meeting to get to, (background non-psychological context).
  • Frank is feeling annoyed because he only just missed his train, and he had an important meeting and because he is generally an irritable sort of person (character traits).

It should also be noted that the extent to which a person's emotions are publically observable, or mutually recognised as such has significant social conseqences. Empathic recognition may or may not be welcomed or socially desirable. This is particularly the case where we recognise the emotions that someone has towards ourselves during real time interactions. The appropriate role of empathy in our dealings with others is highly dependent on the circumstances. For instance, it is claimed that clinicians or caregivers must take care not to be too sensitive to the emotions of others, to over-invest their own emotions, at the risk of draining away their own resourcefulness.

There are also concerns that the empathiser's own emotional background may affect or distort what emotions they perceive in others. Empathy is not a process that is likely to deliver certain judgements about the emotional states of others. It is a skill that is gradually developed throughout life, and which improves the more contact we have with the person with whom we empathise. Accordingly, any knowledge we gain of the emotions of the other must be revisable in light of further information. Thus awareness of these limitations is prudent in a clinical or caregiving situation.

Methods for empathizing

When seeking to communicate with another, it may be helpful to demonstrate empathy with the other, to open-up the channel of communication with the other. In this case two methods of empathy are possible:

a) either simulate 'pretend' versions of the beliefs, desires, character traits and context of the other and see what emotional feelings this leads to;

b) or simulate the emotional feeling and then look around for a suitable reason for this to fit.

Either way, full empathetic engagement is supposed to help to understand and anticipate the behavior of the other.

Empathy may be painful to oneself: seeing the pain of others, especially as broadcasted by mass media, can cause one temporary or permanent clinical depression; a phenomenon which is sometimes called weltschmerz.

Without a basic emotional understanding of others there is no basis for relationship, therefore a tension struggle lies in the dilemma to protect oneself from the pain of empathy or seek to relate to other humans despite the potential risk of injury.

Contrasting empathy to other phenomena

One must be careful not to confuse empathy with either sympathy, emotional contagion or telepathy. Sympathy is the feeling of compassion for another, the wish to see them better off or happier, often described as "feeling sorry" for someone. Emotional contagion is when a person (especially an infant or a member of a mob) imitatively 'catches' the emotions that others are showing without necessarily recognising this is happening. Telepathy is a controversial paranormal phenomenon, whereby emotions or other mental states can be read directly, without needing to infer, or perceive expressive clues about the other person.

Sympathy is, "I'm sorry for your sadness, I wish to help."
Emotional Contagion is, "I feel sad."
Empathy is, "I feel your sadness."
Apathy is, " I don't care how you feel. "
Telepathy is, "I read your sadness without you expressing it to me in any normal way."

Psychological perspectives

Some experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, and other scientists) believe that not all humans have an ability to feel empathy or perceive the emotions of others. For instance, Autism and related conditions such as Asperger's syndrome are often (but not always) characterized by an apparent reduced ability to empathize with others. The interaction between empathy and autism spectrum disorders is a complex and ongoing field of research, and is discussed in detail below.

According to Simon Baron-Cohen's ideas, this absence might be related to an absence of theory of mind (i.e., the ability to model another's world view using either a theory-like analogy between oneself and others, or the ability to simulate pretend mental states and then apply the consequences of these simulations to others). Again, not all autistics fit this pattern, and the theory remains controversial.

In contrast, psychopaths are seemingly able to demonstrate the appearance of sensing the emotions of others with such a theory of mind, often demonstrating care and friendship in a convincing manner, and can use this ability to charm or manipulate, but they crucially lack the sympathy or compassion that empathy often leads to. Empathy certainly does not guarantee benevolence. The same ability may underlie schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of another entity) and sadism (being sexually gratified through the infliction of pain or humiliation on another person).

Moreover, some research suggests that people are more able and willing to empathize with those most similar to themselves. In particular, empathy increases with similarities in culture and living conditions. We are also more likely to empathize with those with whom we interact more frequently (See Levenson and Reuf 1997 and Hoffman 2000: 62).

Developing skills of empathy is often a central theme in the recovery process for drug addicts.

Even more, people can empathize with animals. As such, empathy is thought to be a driving psychological force behind the animal rights movement (an example of sympathy), whether or not using empathy is justified by any real similarity between the emotional experiences of animals and humans.

Empathy and autism spectrum disorders

A common source of confusion in analyzing the interactions between empathy and ASD is that the apparent lack of empathy may mask at least two other underlying causes:

  • Excessive sensitivity or "overwhelm," may be a cause of early learned suppression.
  • Failure to demonstrate empathy can arise from inability (or not knowing how) to express empathy to others, as opposed to difficulty feeling it internally [1].

The former of these is cited by Phoebe Caldwell, an author on ASD, who writes:

What is clear is that, while people on the spectrum may not respond easily to external gestures/sounds, they do respond most readily if the initiative they witness is already part of their repertoire. This points to the selective use of incoming information rather than absense of recognition. It would appear that people with autism are actually rather good at recognition and imitation if the action they perceive is one that has meaning and significance for their brains.
As regards the failure of empathetic response, it would appear that at least some people with autism are oversensitive to the feelings of others rather than immune to them, but cannot handle the painful feed-back that this initiates in the body, and have therefore learnt to suppress this facility. ("Letters", London Times, Dec 30 2005)

In this context, a higher level of empathy is sometimes reported by individuals with mild or high functioning Asperger's syndrome, especially to animals and to other deeply held emotions in people - anecdotally this may more often be so with "high-functioning" individuals, or possibly, the strength of negative empathic feelings with people might itself have been a contributing cause of retreat into self.

Empathy in animals

Some students of animal behavior claim that empathy is not restricted to humans as the definition implies. Examples include dolphins saving humans (sympathy) from drowning or from shark attacks, and a multitude of behaviors observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild. See, for instance, the popular book The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans de Waal. Rodents have been shown to demonstrate empathy for cagemates (but not strangers) in pain.[11]

Neurological basis

Research in recent years has focused on possible brain processes as concomitant with empathy (Preston & de Waal, 2002). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has recently been employed to investigate the functional anatomy of empathy (for reviews see Decety & Jackson, 2006; Decety & Lamm, 2006; deVignemont & Singer, 2006). These studies have shown that observing another person’s emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust (Wicker et al., 2003), touch (Keysers et al., 2004), or pain (Morrison et al., 2004; Jackson et al., 2005, 2006; Lamm et al., 2007; Singer et al., 2004, 2006).

The study of empathic neuronal circuitries was inspired by the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it presents a possible neural mechanism for mapping others' feelings onto one's own nervous system.

In Bower (2005) the function of these mirror cells was further investigated. They may be related to awareness of the goal-directedness of actions. These neurons "may be responsible for understanding the intention of action in other people," Kiyoshi Nakahara and Yasushi Miyashita, both of the University of Tokyo School of Medicine said in a note which accompanies the Bower action.

Dapretto et al. (2006) found that, as opposed to normally developing children, high-functioning children with autism showed no mirror neuron activity in the brain's inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis) while imitating and observing emotional expressions. The authors suggest this supports the hypothesis that a dysfunctional mirror neuron system may underlie the social deficits observed in autism.

Components of circuitry involved in empathy may also be dysfunctional in psychopathy (Tunstall N., Fahy T. and McGuire P. in: Guide to Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, Eds. Fu C et al, Martin Dunitz: London 2003).

Development of empathy

By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Even earlier, at one year of age, infants have some rudiments of empathy, in the sense that they grasp the intentions of other people.[12]. Sometimes, toddlers will comfort others or show concern for them as early as 24 months of age. Also during the second year, toddlers will play games of falsehood or "pretend" in an effort to fool others, and this requires that the child know what others believe before he or she can manipulate those beliefs (Feldman, 1997).

Other aspects

In addition to the above use, the term empathy is also used by some people to signify their heightened or higher sensitivity to the emotions and state of others. This, reportedly, can lead to both positive aspects such as a more skilled instinct for what is "behind the scenes" with people, but also to difficulties such as rapid over-stimulation, overwhelm or stress caused by an inability to protect oneself from this so-called 'pick-up'. Such people may for example find crowds stressful simply due to picking up what is often described as "white noise" or multiple emotions as they pass through it, a phenomenon not to be confused with agoraphobia and sometimes informally known as crowd-sickness.

Empathy in this sense is ascribed by such people to various mechanisms. These include simply more sophisticated subconscious processing of sensory cues or stronger emotional feedback than the norm, (i.e. the normal human experience but more so), and therefore fit within present models. Some people, perhaps due to synesthesia, believe it instead to be a direct emotional sense or a feel for others' "energy". The New Age religion(s) have constructed belief systems around anecdotal evidence of persons who claim to be "empaths" in this sense. This aspect of empathy is not clinically recognized, and someone calling themselves an "empath" usually does not intend to imply that they are gifted with any psychic ability.

A recurrent theme of discussion on such websites relates to the impact upon individuals, and therefore also methods (including mental practices, emotional processes and ritual) which anecdotally can help reduce the intensity of empathic reactions to others' feelings to a more bearable level (informally called 'shielding' or emotional detachment).

Empathic accuracy

A measure of how well a person can infer the specific content of another person's successive thoughts and feelings (Ickes, 1997, 2003). William Ickes and his colleagues have developed a video-based method to measure empathic accuracy and have used this method to study the empathic inaccuracy of maritally aggressive and abusive husbands, among other topics.

Researchers in the area

See also


  1. Preston, Stephanie D. and Frans B. M. de Waal. 2002. Empathy: its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 1-72.
  2. Stein, E. (1989). On the problem of empathy, p. 11. Washington: ICS Publications. (Original work published 1917)
  3. Kohut, H. (1984). How does analysis cure?. (p. 82). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  4. Eisenberg, N. (2002). Empathy-related emotional responses, altruism, and their socialization. In R. J. Davidson & A. Harrington (Eds.). Visions of compassion: Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists examine human nature. (pp. 135; 131-164). London: Oxford University Press.
  5. Schafer, R. (1959). Generative empathy in the treatment situation. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 28, pp. 345; 342-373.
  6. Berger, D. M. (1987). Clinical empathy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, Inc.
  7. Greenson, R. R. (1960). "Empathy and its vicissitudes". International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, pp. 418; 418-424
  8. Schwartz, W.,(2002) "From passivity to competence: A conceptualization of knowledge, skill, tolerance, and empathy". Psychiatry 65(4) pp. 338-345.
  9. Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships, as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of science, (Vol. 3, pp. 210-211; 184-256). New York: Mc Graw Hill.
  10. (Decety, J., & Jackson, P.L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 71-100.
  11. Dale J. Langford, Sara E. Crager, Zarrar Shehzad, Shad B. Smith, Susana G. Sotocinal, Jeremy S. Levenstadt, Mona Lisa Chanda, Daniel J. Levitin, Jeffrey S. Mogil (June 30, 2006). Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice. Science 312: 1967 - 1970.
  12. Terje Falck-Ytter, Gustaf Gredebäck & Claes von Hofsten, Infants predict other people's action goals, Nature Neuroscience 9 (2006)

Further reading


  • Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). The Empathizing System: A Revision of the 1994 Model of the Mindreading System. In B. J. Ellis & D. F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development. New York: Guilford Publications.Full text
  • Corazza, Eros (2004). "Empathy, Imagination, and Reports". Chapter 7 in Reflecting the Mind - Indexicality and Quasi-Indexicality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Feldman, R.S. (1997). Development across the life span. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Goldie, Peter (2000). The Emotions, A Philosophical Exploration. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Goldstein, A.P. & Micheals, G.Y (1985). Empathy. Development training and consequences. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.
  • Hoffman, M. L. (1978), "Empathy, Its Development and Prosocial Implications", in C. B. Keasey (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 25: 169-218.
  • Hoffman, M. L. (2000), Empathy and Moral Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Ickes, W. (Ed.) (1997). Empathic Accuracy. Guilford Press, New York.
  • Ickes, W. (2003). Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel. Prometheus Books.
  • Levenson, R. W. and Reuf, A. M. (1997), "Physiological Aspects of Emotional Knowledge and Rapport", in W. Ickes (ed.), Empathic Accuracy (New York: Guilford), 44-72.
  • Marulis, A. (1989). The Empathic Imagination. Norton. New York.
  • Thompson, E. (ed.)(2001), "Between Ourselves. Second-Person Issues in the Study of Consciousness", Imprint Academic, 2001 ISBN 0 907845 14 2; Journal of Consciousness studies, 8, number 5-7, 2001 ISSN 1355 8250


  • B. Bower "Goal-oriented brain cells: neurons may track action as a prelude to empathy" in Science News, April 30, 2005
  • Dapretto, M. et al. (2006). Understanding emotions in others: Mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 28-30.
  • Håkansson, J., & Montgomery, H. (2003). Empathy as an interpersonal phenomenon. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20(3), 267-284.

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