Empathy—a deep appreciation for another's situation and point of view—is the basis for the golden rule, and our intrinsic sense of justice. Having empathy but not acting from empathy leads to guilt.
- A respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. [Mar]
- Judging others by their own standards.
- Sensing others’ feelings and perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
- Wanting the best for all others, unconditionally,
- Sharing another's perspective and specific distress.
- Entering the private perceptual world of another and becoming thoroughly at home in it.
- The capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.
- Having a similar emotional state to another as a result of the accurate perception of the other's situation or predicament.
- Understanding and entering into another person’s feelings.
- Understanding and concern.
- Changing places in fancy with the sufferer.
- feeling into
- I feel you in me
- A point of view that emphasizes the symmetry between you and the other.
Empathy is other-awareness, symmetrical with self-awareness. True empathy requires us to care about the person in pain.
Origins of Empathy
The ability to sense the another's distress is an important survival skill. The danger distressing your companion may also be a threat to you. It is wise to heed the other's early warning or danger. As a result, it is human nature to dislike seeing or hearing another's distress. This basic skill of sensing how another feels is generalized into a broader sense of empathy. Studies show that empathy develops very early in human children, even before they develop language skills. Empathy also contributes to our ability to recognize the mental state of others, and to take on their perspective. Knowing what others know is a distinct advantage.
The warmth of empathy balances the safety of distrust and xenophobia; the origin of hate.
Forms of Empathy
Empathy can be experienced in a variety of forms, such as [Ekm]:
- cognitive empathy—we recognize what another person is feeling,
- emotional empathy—we actually feel what the person is feeling,
- compassionate empathy—we want to help the person deal with their situation and emotions.
Sympathy, rapport, caring, compassion, and concern are similar, but not identical to empathy. Apathy and egocentricity are opposites of empathy. Apathy describes not caring and egocentricity describes caring only about yourself.
Empathy is Action
Empathy begins with awareness, understanding, feeling, caring, perceiving a similarity of experience, and compassion. But the difficult part of empathy is taking action that truly helps another.
Empathy is inherent in most people, and certain activities can increase empathy, or at least cooperation, between people. One key to empathy is to understand suffering, first in yourself, then in others. In the well documented “Robber's Cave” experiment two groups of 11-12 year old boys were formed. Planned activities created cohesiveness within each group and competition between the two groups. What was later found to promote cooperation between the groups was to engage in activities that required them to work together to serve their own interests. This included working together to unblock a water line and fix a broken truck.
Feeling Empathy for a Jerk
We all know people who are: annoying, disagreeable, selfish, bigoted, irresponsible, deceitful, untrustworthy, arrogant, stubborn, ignorant, spiteful, mean spirited, boisterous, crude, boring, needy, intrusive, embarrassing to be around, and generally difficult to like. How can you have empathy for such people? The answer is that you don't have to like someone to want the best for them. You may feel sad they are so anguished and you can want them to: become more aware of how they annoy others, take steps to improve themselves, become more responsible, care more for others, and take other steps to become more satisfied and peaceful.
When someone falls on hard times, our response often depends on a judgment about their own responsibility for the problems they are facing. If we believe their difficulties are their own fault, we typically regard them with contempt. If we believe the problems were unavoidable, then we regard them with compassion and empathy. This judgment is difficult to make accurately. Work to consider all the evidence, from their point of view while avoiding distortions, before making a judgment.
Acting with empathy can be very difficult. Here is an example of a situation where it may be difficult to know what is the right thing to do:
Bill receives a modest check each Friday. He quickly spends it on tobacco, alcohol, and gambling. By Monday he is getting hungry and asks you to lend him $50 for food. What is the empathic response?
Follow these general steps for acting with empathy:
- Preserve dignity and avoid humiliation.
- Engage in a dialogue to understand his point of view and to determine his specific needs. Throughout the dialogue keep in mind:
- You can change some things but not others,
- What he asks for may not be what he needs. Continue the dialogue until you both understand his needs.
- Help to balance his impulses for immediate pleasures with opportunities for longer term gratification and authentic happiness.
- Every person always has needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness but is unlikely to express these. This may lead to an ambivalence about change.
- Provide assistance to meet his needs to the extent you are willing and able to. Keep in mind:
- You are responsible for your choices and actions.
- He is responsible for his choices and actions.
- You can change some things but not others.
Thanks to visitor Laura for dialogue that led to this solution:
After dialoging with Bill, you understand his most urgent need is for food. You also understand his needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, although these were not discussed in depth in these terms. You agree to go shopping and buy him a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. He declines your offer to buy him a bottle of carrot juice and you decline his request to buy him a six-pack of beer. This meets his need for food, and balances his needs for autonomy and relatedness.
Next week follows the same pattern and on Monday Bill again approaches you to ask for food. You consider several alternative responses:
- Refuse to help, explaining that you helped him last week and if he didn't learn his lesson, you're not going to continue,
- Lecture him on the virtues of temperance,
- Sever the relationship by blaming him and shunning him,
- Buy him a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, the same as last week,
- Agree to buy him food this week if he promises to pay you back on Friday.
- Agree to buy him food this week if he promises to let you to manage half of his income each week for him. Under this agreement you hold money for him and release it for specific purchases you both agree are beneficial.
After an extended and sometimes tense dialogue the two of you agree that the plan to help Bill manage his money provides the best balance between his needs for food, autonomy, competence, and relatedness. After several months, Bill is now eating better and drinking a bit less. He seems more open to getting counseling.
Please send us your comments on this example and describe dilemmas you may be facing.
The Golden Rule – Secular Ethics
The Golden Rule “Treat others as you want to be treated” paraphrased from a wide variety of sources begins to provide a model for acting with empathy. Perhaps a more accurate model is given by the “platinum rule”: Treat others as they want to be treated. The principle of empathy may be sufficient to develop a complete and socially valuable code of ethics. Various organizations have developed codes of ethics based primarily on the principle of empathy. Here are some examples:
- “Don't just do something, stand there.”
- “It is more important to define yourself by who you include than by who you exclude.” ~ from the movie Chocolat
- “It is more considerate to interrupt the speaker than to pretend to listen.”
- “See yourself in others, then who can you hurt? What harm can you do?” ~ The Buddha
[Mar] Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi
Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, by Dalai Lama XIV and Bstan-'Dzin-Rgya-Mtsho
Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations With Men and Women of Conscience, by Rushworth M. Kidder, Jo Spiller
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, by Matt Ridley
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder
Exploring the phenomenon of empathy, Doctoral Dissertation, Jakob Håkansson, Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, 2003
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells
The Character Counts Coalition
[Ekm] Emotions Revealed : Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life by Paul Ekman
Our Inner Ape, by Frans De Waal
The Power of Outrospection, an RSA Animate by Roman Krznaric
Chocolat a movie about empathy starring Alfred Molina and Carrie-Anne Moss directed by Lasse Hallström
30 Days, Morgan Spurlock, TV Series
Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas, by Laurie Carr, Marco Iacoboni, Carr L, Iacoboni M, Dubeau MC, Mazziotta JC, Lenzi GL, Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Neuropsychiatric Institute, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, U S A. 2003 Apr 29;100(9):5497-502.
Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading, by V Gallese, A Goldman
The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. [Orig. pub. as Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation, by Muzafer Sherif
Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases, by Stephanie D. Preston and Frans B. M. de Waal