Empathy is feeling the inner experience of another person, particularly the person’s emotions. Empathy also usually implies a “fellow feeling” and sympathy 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 language 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 ASDs, 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).

  • Beecher Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: John Casseli, Ludgate Hill.
  • Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Beecher Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: John Casseli, Ludgate Hill.
  • Hoffman, M.L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.
  • Hume, D. (1957). An inquiry concerning the principle of morals. New York: Liberal Arts Press. (Original work published 1751)
  • 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.
  • Since cognitive science Opens in new window has taken on board this commonsense view of the mind, an important question is how such a relationship to a proposition can be implemented.

    The representation theory of mind (RTM; Field, 1978; Fodor, 1978) assumes that a propositional attitude consists in holding a representation of the proposition and that this representation plays a certain functional role in the economy of mental states. This can be best illustrated with the two core concepts: belief and desire.

    These are core concepts, since knowing what someone believes (thinks) to be the case (e.g., Max thinking the chocolate is in the cupboard and thinking that going there will get the chocolate into his possession) and what that person desires (wants) (e.g., Max wanting the chocolate to be in his possession) allows us to make a behavioral prediction that Max will approach the cupboard. This kind of inference is known since Aristotle as the practical syllogism.

    Searle (1983, after Anscombe, 1957) points out that these two states are mirror images in terms of causal direction and direction of fit. The function of a belief is to be caused by reality and the believed proposition should match reality.

    For instance, the chocolate being in the cupboard should be responsible for Max’s believing that the chocolate is in the cupboard (world to mind causation) and the proposition “the chocolate is in the cupboard” should thus match the relevant state of affairs in the world (mind should fit world).

    The function of desire (want) is to cause a change in the world (mind to world causation) so that the world conforms to the desired proposition (world should fit mind)—for example, if Max wants the chocolate to be in the cupboard, then this desire should cause action leading to a change of the chocolate’s location such that it conforms to what Max desires.

    This trivial-sounding example does highlight the important distinctions.

    Three Important Distinctions

    1. First vs. Third Person

    One important distinction is between first-person and third-person attribution of mental states. A third-person attribution is an attribution to another person and a first-person attribution is one to myself.

    For instance, if Max erroneously believes that the chocolate is still in the cupboard (because he didn’t see that it was unexpectedly put into the drawer), then a third-person observer will attribute a false belief to Max. In contrast, Max himself will make a first-person attribution of knowledge to himself.

    The observer can capture this difference between her own and Max’s subjective view by the second-order attribution that Max thinks he knows where the chocolate is. This is useful to keep in mind when it comes to false memories. Since a memory can only be a recollection of something that actually occurred, a false memory is not a memory by third-person attribution, although it is by first-person attribution.

    1. Sense and Reference

    A related second point has to do with Frege’s (1892/1960) distinction between sense and reference. Since mental states involve representations, they connect us to objects and events in the real (or a possible) world.

    Famously, Oedipus knew and married Iocaste (referent: a particular person), but he did not know or marry her as his mother but as an unrelated queen (sense: how Iocaste was presented to Oedipus’ mind).

    Thus, in third-person parlance we can say that Oedipus married his mother if we use the expression “his mother” to pick out (refer to) the individual whom he married without implying that he knew Iocaste under that description. In first-person description of the event Oedipus would not have used the descriptor “my mother.”

    These distinctions are useful to keep in mind when discussing infants’ ability to remember particular events: Whenever a memory trace of a unique event can be demonstrated then one can conclude (in first-person parlance) as a particular event—that is, that the infant makes cognitive distinctions that represent that event as a particular event.

    1. Having vs. Representing a Mental State

    The third important distinction is that between being in a mental state (or having an attitude) and representing that mental state.

    For understanding or knowing that a person is in a mental state, or to reflect on one’s own mental states, one has to be able to represent that state. In order to be able to represent a state, one needs a concept of that state—that is, a rich enough theory of mind.

    The study of how children acquire the requisite theory of mind is therefore essential for our understanding of how children come to understand memory. Furthermore, since some memorial states are reflective or self-referential, children need a theory of mind for being in such states or having such memories.

    Why We Need a Theory of Mind for Memory

    We probably do not need a theory of mind for implicit (nondeclarative Opens in new window) memory, but for explicit (declarative Opens in new window) memory we do, since “explicit memory is revealed when performance on a task requires conscious recollection of previous experiences.” (Schacter, 1987).

    To be conscious of a fact one requires to be also aware of the state with which one beholds that fact. The higher-order-thought theories of consciousness make this their core claim (Armstrong, 1980; Rosenthal, 1986).

    For instance, if one sees a state of affairs X (e.g., that the chocolate is in the cupboard), then this seeing is a first-order mental state (attitude).

    To be conscious of this state of affairs means, according to theory, that one entertains a second-order thought about the seeing—that is, the second-order thought represents the first-order seeing.

    A weaker version does not require that one has to entertain the second-order thought, but only that one has to have the potential for having the second-order thought (Carruthers, 1996). That some such condition must be true can be seen from the following consideration:

    “Could it ever be that I can genuinely claim that I am consciously aware of the chocolate being in the cupboard, but claim ignorance of the first-order mental state by which I behold this state of affairs—that is, by claiming that I have no clue as to whether I see, or just think of, or want the chocolate being in the cupboard?”

    The important point of these conceptual analyses is that to be conscious of some fact requires some minimal concept of knowledge or of some perceptual state like seeing.

    Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence when children understand a minimal state of this sort. There is some evidence of understanding (mother’s) emotional reactions and seeing (direction of gaze) in the first year of life (see Perner, 1991, chap. 6; Baldwin & Moses, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997, for summaries and discussion of problems of interpretation).

    There is also some recent evidence that between 8 and 12 months children might be inferring people’s intentions to grasp an object from where that person looks (Spelke, Philips, & Woodward, 1995) and even between 5 to 9 months from how a person touches an object (seemingly intentional or accidentally).

    And by 18 months (where children’s understanding of mental phenomena seems to flourish in general) children imitate people’s intended actions even when they observe a failed attempt (Meltzoff, 1955a) and they understand differences in preferences (e.g., that someone else can prefer cauliflower over biscuits, Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997).

    Evidence that children distinguish their knowledge from ignorance is available at a relatively late age. Povinelli, Perilloux, and Bierschwale (1993) asked children to look for a sticker under one of three cups.

    Children were first trained to look under the cup at which the experimenter had pointed. After some training even the youngest were able to do this.

    When asked to look without the experimenter pointing, an interesting developmental difference emerged. Children older than 2 years and 4 months acted without hesitation when they knew which the cup the sticker was under, but hesitated noticeably when—in the absence of the experimenter’s poining—they had to guess where it was.

    Interestingly this is also the age at which children start using the phrase “I don’t know” (Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983). In contrast, children younger than that showed no comparable difference in reaction time. This may indicate that young 2-year-olds do not yet reflect on what they do and do not know.

    So, theory of mind research is not yet able to give a guideline for when infants might develop explicit, conscious memories. Memory development may help out on this point.

    Meltzoff (1985, 1995b) demonstrated that 14-month-old infants can reenact a past event (e.g., they imitate the experimenter leaning forward to touch a panel with forehead so that panel lights up) after several months. Recently this has been demonstrated in 11-month-olds with a delay of 3 months.

    Since this is achieved from a brief observational period and does not require prolonged learning, and since patients with amnesia cannot do this (McDonough, Mandler, KcKee, & Squire, 1995), it is tempting to conclude that such enactment demonstrates explicit, conscious memory.

    One should, though, keep in mind that delayed imitation that is based on a single event (third-person view) is not to be equated with a memory (knowledge) of that event as a single, past event (first-person view).

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      Adapted from: The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Authored by ENDEL TULVING (ED.), Fergus I. M. Craik