I’m not used to writing a big text like this, so this is going to be a challenge, but I will do my best to make it enjoyable and exciting. The concept which I want to define in this text is empathy. Empathy is all about perspective-taking and understanding.
The purpose of this text is to define the word ‘empathy’ through as many definitions as I could find as possible to encompass the whole concept. This text is undoubtedly biased and won’t include all the definitions of empathy ever written as it would technically be quite complex to achieve.
Taking yourself out of your shoes and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes 1 is a very visual definition of empathy. It’s simple and easy to understand. A more academic one is: “the power of mentally identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation” 2 . Empathy is a complicated word to define. It lies between scientific, social and philosophical studies. It encompasses a range of meaning and depending on the context the word is being used in it can mean different things.
From a scientific point of view, empathy can be measured via brain scans of the medial prefrontal cortex 3 , the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with emotional processes 4 and the activity of the mirror neurons, a system that ‘mirrors’ the actions and behaviour of others. There can also be hormonal and genetic factors, 5 but I won’t focus on these aspects of empathy here. For the purposes of this text, I’m interested in developing a more sociological definition of empathy. Nonetheless, I wanted to acknowledge this aspect of empathy, as the scientific, social and psychological aspects cannot be completely separated. The definition is still evolving simultaneously across different fields, thereby influenced by each other.
In order to define empathy for myself, I have looked at the many different explanations that thinkers have developed over time and organised them to create my own definition. I will first share some of the definitions that I have organised into different levels here with you.
The first level I want to mention is the ability to ‘read’ a person, to recognise what/if someone is feeling a certain way. It is the ability one has to recognise an expression or tone of voice and link it to an emotion. As Ickes puts it, it is “the ability to accurately infer the content of the thoughts and feelings of others”. 6
The second level is the ability to cognitively understand the perspective of the other person. Some have called this cognitive empathy. 7 This is the intellectualisation, the process of understanding how another may feel depending on their context. To better illustrate this level, I want to mention the golden and the platinum rules. The golden rule is, according to Roman Krznaric: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; which I thought was a pretty solid one. In contrast, the platinum rule, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”, 8 is much stronger for me. It takes into consideration the perspective of the other person. Where the golden rule is about the self, the platinum is about the other.
Paul Bloom, on the other hand, defines it in this way: “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” 9 Bloom is quite critical of empathy and one notes a form of critique in this statement as he highlights that the extent of this level is always limited by someone’s personal opinion, even in imagining someone else’s perspective. Conversely, the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik describes four stages of understanding or empathy:
- Identification: projecting one’s self into the other;
- Incorporation: introjecting the other into self;
- Reverberation: interplaying of own and other experience, and
- Detachment: withdrawal from subjective involvement and recourse to use of methods of reason. 10
The third and last level, that adds to the former ones, is the level of action. It means a person has taken the information in, understood, processed and felt it, and it influences their actions or prompts them to act. It is a much-discussed aspect of empathy; Hoffman, in defining empathy, says that it has an affective, cognitive and motivational (role-taking) component. 11 However, the first person to approach this line of thought was the economist and philosopher Adam Smith, in 1759, when he tried to define sympathy, as the term ‘empathy’ did not exist at that date. He wrote: “When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter you grief, I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die; but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you; and not only change circumstance with you, but I change persons and character.” 12
This second level is often linked to the third, which is emotional understanding. Beyond cognitive understanding comes the part where a person ‘feels-into’ (from Einfühlung: German for empathy 13 ) or ‘feels with’ the other. Eisenberg and Miller described it as “understanding the emotional states of others and experiencing the same emotional state”. 14 I have gathered some other ways of phrasing this accumulation of the different levels. 15 Lauren Wispé, for instance, suggests the following: “the process of transferring consciousness into another’s, to feel what they feel”; 16 or Galinsky, Ku and Wang’s: “process of imagining the self and the world from an others-oriented perspective.” 17
The more recent definitions that encompass all these different levels are, according to Gerdes and Segal: “1. Affective response to another person’s emotional stage or actions; 2. Cognitive processing of the other’s perspective; 3. Empathetic action.” 18 Krznaric also brought this concept of action into his definition: “Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using the understanding to guide your actions.” 19 Finally, my personal favourite phrasing of it is by Simon Baron-Cohen, who brings this idea of action in by calling it an appropriate response: “Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. This suggests there are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t empathized at all.” 20
Before moving on to my own definition, it is important for me to distinguish between empathy, sympathy and compassion. Having defined empathy already, it is possible to look at sympathy and compassion and compare them. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the definition of sympathy is: “The quality or state of being affected by the suffering or grief of another”, 21 and compassion is: “Pity inclining one to show mercy or give aid”, 22 whereas empathy is about opening up your views and perspectives, meaning not only trying to understand what another person is feeling but also trying to understand how that person is feeling based on their personal context. Sympathy and compassion involve a process of keeping a distance from the subject or group. 23 It creates a form of hierarchy between the individuals, the ‘victim’ who is suffering and the detached one that pities. 24 For me these two terms couldn’t be further from what empathy represents as a concept, as they do “not require either imagining or actually feeling what the other is feeling”. 25 Nevertheless, I do believe it is possible for a person to feel both empathy and sympathy at the same time. Berys Gaut wrote that “by definition”, empathy means to “feel what the character feels, but this is compatible with experiencing something different as well”. 26
To me, the experience of empathy is a process of imagination. Imagination is defined as: “The action of imagining or forming a mental image of external objects not present to the senses”. 27 Empathy could not exist without imagination, because in order to understand a person’s feelings, you must imagine what they have gone through without having experienced it yourself. I’m not sure empathy can be induced itself, but I believe this capability of imagination can be triggered toward the goal of empathy. I agree with Simon Baron-Cohen when he wrote that “empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention. ‘Single-minded’ attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perception. ‘Double minded’ attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind, at the very same time.” 28 In the same way, Berys Gaut, in his text Empathy and Identification in Cinema, mentions the words ‘imaginative identification’, and he continues by suggesting that empathy is not about how you would feel in a situation similar to the one the characters are in. It’s about “imagining believing what she believes, imagining feeling what she feels” 29 , and this all relates to the platinum rule and perspective-taking. In his book he also mentions Amy Coplan’s definition, that is the closest I have found to my definition so far. For her, empathy requires four conditions: “1. The empathizer experiences psychological states that are either identical or very similar to those of the target; 2. Perspective-taking – the empathiser imaginatively experiences the target’s experiences from the target’s point of view, and 3. The empathizer maintains self-other differentiation”. 30 What they are describing is not an easy task to accomplish, but it expresses what empathy is to me. I want to make clear this text represents my personal views and research. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com if you wish to share your definition or discuss this text or definitions.