Empathy is feeling the inner experience of another person, particularly the person’s emotions. Empathy also usually implies a “fellow feeling” and sympathyOpens in new window rather than an understanding that is utilized to manipulate another person.

Early personality theorists and psychotherapists, especially the humanists starting in the 1940s and 1950s, have spoken of the importance of the therapist’s ability to empathize with the client.

Additionally, more recently, researchers have taken up the task of studying empathy in some depth: the forms that it takes, how and under what circumstances it develops, ways to attempt to increase empathy, and contexts in which empathy is important.

Hoffman (2008) discusses five modes of empathic arousal that may operate individually or in combination with other modes to produce an empathic reaction in a person.

The first is mimicry, which involves changing one’s facial expression, voice, and posture in response to changes in the facial expression, voice, and/or posture of an individual to whom one is attending.

Information about the muscle movements that the empathizer is making is fed back to the brain, and this information leads to feelings in the empathizer that are similar to feelings in the target (person with whom one is empathizing).

The second is conditioning. An individual mentally associates her own emotion with the emotion of another.

This may begin in the relationship between infant and mother. For example, the mother experiences fear. During her emotion, her body freezes; she makes particular facial expressions and vocalizations.

The infant, who is being held, feels the freezing behavior and experiences distress. She learns to associate her mother’s facial expressions and vocalizations with the freezing. Later, she can see and hear the facial and vocal markers of fear in another, even without being in physical contact with the other, and can feel that that individual is experiencing fear.

The third mode is direct association. This is when an individual had an emotional experience, for example, having been physically assaulted. Simply having had this experience can help one to empathize with another person when she has been physically assaulted.

According to Hoffman, in these three modes, empathy is automatic and requires very little complex cognitive processing. He calls these forms of empathy “primitive” (although important) and states that they occur in infants as well as adults. The other two forms of empathy are more sophisticated: they involve higher-order thinking and do not require that the target of empathy be present. Sufficient language and cognitive development must be present for the following two types of empathy.

The fourth mode is verbally mediated association. This means that the plight and distress of the target is conveyed through language, either by the target himself in person, through a letter from the target, through the report of a third-party, or perhaps in other ways.

Thus the target’s body languageOpens in new window may not be available to produce empathy as in the other modes described earlier. If language is the only communication, the empathizer creates symbolic representations of the target (i.e., images of the target crying, moaning, bleeding, etc.) and is then able to feel the target’s pain. If the target is present, other empathy modes (i.e., mimicry) may reinforce the verbally mediated association mode.

The final mode is perspective taking, or imagining oneself in another’s place.

Philosopher David Hume (175/1957) believed that people have similar psychological makeups and life experiences and are therefore able to imagine themselves in the place of another and may thereby produce similar feelings in themselves.

This mode is not automatic but requires the willfulness of the empathizer; significant powers of imagination and/or intense attention to the target person are required.

At least some aspects of empathy may be natural, perhaps hardwired, and others are learned. Hoffman (2000) reviewed the research on the socialization of empathy. He concluded that many parental behaviors can encourage empathy in children.

For instance, a form of instruction that is likely to result in empathy, helping behavior, and guilt about harming others, is encouraging inductive reasoning. This may be used when a child harms or is considering harming someone. It involves instructing the child to consider the distress of the other person; this guidance may trigger the empathy-causing modes discussed earlier such as perspective taking.

Empathy is important in the mental health field. For instance, American psychotherapist Carl Rogers identified empathy as an important attribute of a psychotherapist; empathy in the therapist-client relationship is necessary if the client is to grow psychologically.

A dysfunction in empathizing is a primary characteristic of a number of mental health conditions, including antisocial personality disorder and autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs).

In ASDsOpens in new window, the deficit is primarily cognitive (involving the ability to take another’s perspective) rather than affective or emotional; individuals with ASDs may have no deficit in feeling empathy. Additionally, empathy is relevant to social psychologists who are interested in altruistic behavior. Having empathy for someone increases the probability that one will help that other person (Batson, 1991).

See also:
  1. Beecher Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: John Casseli, Ludgate Hill.
  2. Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Beecher Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: John Casseli, Ludgate Hill.
  5. Hoffman, M.L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Hoffman, M.L. (2008). Empathy and prosocial behavior. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barret (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., ppl 440 – 455). New York: Guilford.
  7. Hume, D. (1957). An inquiry concerning the principle of morals. New York: Liberal Arts Press. (Original work published 1751)
  8. Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: Neural correlates of envy and Schadenfreude. Science, 323, 937 – 939.