Although definitions of empathy vary, the word is frequently defined as a vicarious emotional reaction based on the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition. Inherent in this definition is that this reaction is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel in the situation. Indeed, empathy may often be the origin of other related emotional reactions. In many situations, for example, empathy is likely to turn into either sympathy or personal distress. Sympathy is an emotional reaction based on the apprehension of another’s emotional state or condition that involves feelings of compassion, sorrow, or concern for another person, rather than feeling merely the same emotion as the other individual. Sympathy is believed to involve an “other” orientation and the motivation to assist the other person, whereas empathy by itself does not. However, empathy may also turn into personal distress—an aversive, self-focused emotional reaction (such as anxiety or discomfort) to another’s emotional state or condition. Personal distress is associated with a focus on “self,” with a desire to make the self, not the other person, feel better. Sympathy, on the other hand, tends to be related to other-oriented altruistic behavior, particularly when it is not easy to escape from the need or distress of the other person, or from social sanctions for not helping. Moreover, inducing adults to feel sympathy for a stigmatized group improves attitudes toward the group as a whole.
Empathy and sympathy appear to increase with age in childhood, but they may stabilize by mid- to late adolescence. Sympathy is not only related to engaging in prosocial behaviors such as helping and sharing, it is also correlated with high levels of social competence, low aggression in children, and measures of psychological adjustment. Females tend to score higher in sympathy and empathy than males, especially if the measure is self-reported or other-reported. Girls tend to display more concerned behaviors than boys, but there is no gender difference in males’ and females’ physiological reactions to empathy-inducing stimuli. Thus, males and females may respond similarly to empathy-inducing stimuli but interpret or react differently to them (Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998).
Empathy appears to have a biological basis. Identical twins, for example, tend to be more alike in empathy and sympathy than are fraternal twins. However, the familial and larger social environment appears to affect individual differences in empathy and sympathy. People tend to be more empathic or sympathetic if they are securely attached to their mother and if their parents are sympathetic, supportive, and warm in their parenting. In addition, parental expression of positive emotion in the family, parental discussion of emotion, and parental use of reasoning that emphasizes the effects of children’s behavior on others (and helps them to take the perspective of another) have been associated with the development of sympathy (and often empathy) in children. The expression of hostile negative emotions (e.g., anger) in the home has been associated with low levels of sympathy in children, but this association may not hold by adolescence. Finally, because self-regulation is associated with being sympathetic, parenting practices that foster the regulation of emotion and behavior appear to promote the development of sympathy.
SEE ALSO Altruism and Prosocial Behavior; Emotion; Perspective-taking; Role Theory
Batson, C. Daniel. 1991. The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum.
Davis, Mark H. 1994. Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
Eisenberg, Nancy, and Richard A. Fabes. 1998. Prosocial Development. In Social, Emotional, and Personality Development. Vol. 3 of Handbook of Child Psychology, 5th ed., eds. William Damon (series ed.) and Nancy Eisenberg (vol. ed), 701–778. New York: John Wiley.
Empathy is the capacity for concrete representation of another person's mental state, including the accompanying emotions. The English term is a translation of the German word Einfühlung, coined in 1873 by the German philosopher Robert Vischer. Vischer used it to refer to a modality of aesthetic sensibility. In contrast to the theory that categorized objective qualities inherent in the object as beautiful, Vischer described the subjective nature of an experience where beauty resulted from the projection of human sensibilities onto natural objects. Theodor Lipps (1851-1914), a philosopher who taught in Munich, gave empathy a broader, psychological range, attributing to this form of intuition access to knowledge of another's subjectivity. It is in this sense, and most likely from reading Lipps, that Sigmund Freud used the term, which was still uncommon at the time.
Freud used the term in a number of his essays. He used it for the first time in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) in relation to the economic explanation of the pleasure associated with humor. He returned to it several times to refer to a form of intuitive understanding of others essential to psychoanalytic communication. For Freud, however, the term had no specific psychoanalytic meaning but rather a general psychological meaning, moreover, one that was still poorly understood. This is likely one reason that James Strachey did not feel the need to propose a single English translation; the other reason being that the term empathy, which had already been proposed in 1909 by the psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener and taken up by Ernest Jones, did not generate much enthusiasm from Strachey. In France the term emphatie come back into use following the publication of the translation of Freud's works under the direction of Jean Laplanche. This resulted in the misunderstanding of a precise concept for Freud, in particular, in his correspondence with Sándor Ferenczi.
The concept did not become important until 1960, when Ralph Greenson studied it, no doubt influenced by the interest in countertransference that occurred after the work of Heinrich Racker and Paula Heimann. Since then a number of studies have emphasized the importance of the concept for communication during analysis. There have been some reservations arising from what was felt to be the somewhat obscure and slightly irrational nature of the phenomenon. Other authors (Buie, 1981; Widlöcher, 1993) have tried to specify the psychological mechanisms operating in this complex form of intuitive understanding, specifically emphasizing the role of identification and inference. From the metapsychological perspective, the debate continues between those who assign empathy a decisive role in the discovery of the unconscious and the therapeutic activity of the psychoanalyst (Heinz Kohut) and those who deny that empathy can play a role in identifying the unconscious.
See also: Counter-identification; Counter-transference; Elasticity; Greenson, Ralph; Identification; Kohut, Heinz; Lebovici, Serge Sindel Charles; Projective identification; Self, the.
Buie, Dan H. (1981). Empathy: Its nature and limitation. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 29, 281-307.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.
Greenson, Ralph R. (1960). Empathy and its vicissitudes. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41, 418-424.
Widlöcher, Daniel. (1993). L'analyse cognitive du silence en psychanalyse: Quand les mots viennentà manquer. Revue internationale de psychopathologie, 12, 509-528.
Kohut, Heinz. (1959). Introspection, Empathy, and psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 7, 459-483.
Orange, Donna. (2002). There is no outside: Empathy and authenticity in psychoanalytic process. Psychoanalytical Psychology, 19, 686-700.
Pigman, George W. (1995). Freud and the history of empathy. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76, 237-256.
Schwaber, Evelyn. (1981). Empathy: A mode of analytic listening. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 1, 357-392.
Shapiro, Theodore. (1981). Empathy: A critical reevaluation. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 1, 423-448.
Shaughnessy, Patrick. (1995). Empathy, working alliance: Mistranslation of Freud's "einfuhling". Psychoanalytical Psychology, 12, 221-232.
The capacity to vicariously experience and understand the thoughts and feelings of another person by putting oneself in that person's place.
While most forms of psychotherapy require some degree of empathy on the part of the counselor or therapist, the client-centered therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers places particular emphasis on this quality as part of the therapeutic experience. Instead of looking at the client from outside (external frame of reference), the client-centered therapist attempts to see things as they actually look to the client (internal frame of reference). Throughout each therapy session, the therapist demonstrates what Rogers termed "accurate empathetic understanding," showing sensitivity to the client's feelings through active listening that shows careful and perceptive attention to what the client is saying. The therapist employs standard behaviors common to all good listeners, making frequent eye contact with the client, nodding in agreement or understanding, and generally showing that he or she is listening attentively.
One unique way client-centered therapists demonstrate empathy with the client is through a special method called reflection, which consists of paraphrasing and/or summarizing what a client has just said. This technique lets therapists check the accuracy of their perceptions while showing clients that they are paying careful attention to and are interested in what is being said. Hearing their own thoughts and feelings repeated by another person can also help clients achieve new levels of insight and self-awareness. Clients generally respond to reflection by elaborating further on the thoughts they have just expressed. Empathy constitutes a major portion of the therapeutic work in client-centered therapy. By helping clients feel better about themselves, it gives them the self-confidence and energy to deal actively with their problems.
Rogers, Carl. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.
———. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.
———. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Empathy is the ability to share another's emotional experience. It is a prosocial behavior that underlies altruism. Empathy, along with affection, gratitude, sympathy, and compassion, are complex social emotions that contribute to the moral behavior that cements society. Since empathy is an internal affective reaction, it has been inferred through various behaviors including emotional expression, social referencing, helping behavior, and self-report.
M. L. Hoffman has proposed a developmental theory of empathy that has at least four stages. In the first stage, emotional contagion, an infant will cry upon hearing the cries of another. At this stage, it is not clear whether the infant can distinguish who is in distress. The next stage emerges in the second year when a toddler, who can differentiate between self and other, will express egocentric empathy. Upon hearing the cry of another, the toddler will provide help that he himself would find comforting, such as offering his own favorite toy. The third stage appears in the third year as the child begins to take the perspective of another and can offer help that the other might need. Finally, in middle childhood, the fourth stage is achieved; the child realizes that he and others are independent persons whose emotions may be tied to their unique history of past events.
The development of empathy is influenced by cognitive development, the increasing ability to differentiate self and other and to take another's perspective. Children who receive nurturing from parents who model empathy and who explain the reasons behind moral behavior are more likely to demonstrate empathy.
Eisenberg, Nancy, ed. Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
Hoffman, M. L. "Development of Moral Thought, Feeling, and Behavior." American Psychologist 34 (1979):958-966.
Oatley, Keith, and Jennifer M. Jenkins. Understanding Emotions. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
Sroufe, L. Alan, Robert G. Cooper, and Ganie B. De Hart. Child Development: Its Nature and Course. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Strayer, J., and Schroeder, M. "Children's Helping Strategies: Influences of Emotion, Empathy, and Age." In Nancy Eisenberg ed., Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
Zahn-Waxler, Carolyn, Marian Radke-Yarrow, and R. King."Child-Rearing and Children's Prosocial Initiations toward Victims of Distress." Child Development 50 (1979):319-330.
em·pa·thy / ˈempə[unvoicedth]ē/ • n. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.DERIVATIVES: em·pa·thet·ic / ˌempəˈ[unvoicedth]etik/ adj.em·pa·thet·i·cal·ly / ˌempəˈ[unvoicedth]etik(ə)lē/ adv.em·path·ic / emˈpa[unvoicedth]ik/ adj.em·path·i·cal·ly / emˈpa[unvoicedth]ik(ə)lē/ adv.