What is Empathy?

Can you Learn Empathy?


What is empathy?

Carl Rogers (1975) wrote:
...the state of empathy or being empathic is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and means which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the 'as if' condition (Quoted in Gallo 1989).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines empathy as "understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts and motives of one are readily comprehended by another."

Who has empathy?

Every person has empathy to some degree, from those who have only the slightest amount of empathy, to those who are extremely empathic and can practically "feel every mood of another person". These levels of empathy have been studied for the past century in more and more detail. A number of personality disorders are based in part on a "lack of empathy":

For those people with a lower level of empathy, it may seem impossible for anyone to "really feel what someone else (or that person in particular) has gone through". However, human experiences are often similar. Someone who has not lost a child may have still lost both parents. Someone who has not been fired from a job may still have been asked to leave a volunteer project. It is not a large leap of understanding to understand one experience, based on the myriad of others a human life is made up of. This of course assumes some experience - a 5 year old can hardly be asked to empathize completely with a 35 year old who was laid off from work. Still, adults are usually able to relate to the experiences of other adults. The more an adult has "gone through", coupled with the more empathic the adult to begin with, the more capacity the adult has to "walk in another person's shoes". If the adult has experienced a great deal, but is not by nature empathic, the extra experience will not help much. Conversely, if the adult has experienced very little of life (perhaps lived on a remote island with few others to interact with), that adult may have trouble relating to certain situations.

A great analogy was drawn from one of the Empathy web pages:

"Although few of us have experienced Hamlet's exact situation, most people can nevertheless imagine, at least roughly, what it would be like to be in Hamlet's shoes. Most people have experienced situations where loss made us sad, betrayal made us angry, and difficult situations made us indecisive. For Hamlet as the target analog, we can easily retrieve from memory potential source analogs of varying degrees of similarity. Candidates might include having been abandoned by a lover or having been fired from a valued job. The important thing is that these source analogs should have involved situations where you experienced an emotion that you can project onto Hamlet. In line with Oatley's theory, projection involves mapping over the system of causal relations that ties together the situations (including beliefs and behaviour) and goals with the emotions produced. Here is a rough approximation to what might be involved, presenting propositions and their names to express the causal relations between propositions:"

Source: you Target: Hamlet
fire (boss, you): s1-fire kill (uncle, father): t1-kill
lose (you, job): s2-lose lose (Hamlet, father): t2-lose
marry (uncle, mother): t3-marry
cause (s1-fire, s2-lose): s3 cause (t1-kill, t2-lose): t3a
angry (you): s4-angry angry (Hamlet): t4-angry
depressed (you): s5-depressed depressed (Hamlet): t5-depressed
cause (s2-lose, s4-angry): s6 cause (t2-lose, t4-angry): t6
cause (s2-lose, s5-depressed): s7 cause (t2-lose, t5-depressed): t7
indecisive (you): s8-indecisive
cause (s5-depressed, s8-indecisive): s9

Could you then 'understand', at least somewhat, how Hamlet will feel? Note that this is an extremely "distant" similarity ... for most adults, there will be experiences that are far more similar to draw from.

How strong is empathy?

People have said to me, "You can't possibly understand what it is to go through XXXX. You've never gone through it." There are many ways to think about this problem. Here are three differing viewpoints on empathy.
  • Every human being has similar things occur - life, death, pain, love. These common emotions can be understood. A given situation is merely a combination of some or all of these emotions.
  • A given situation type is unique - divorce, death of parent, death of child, loss of job. You cannot understand one 'type' - i.e. divorce - merely by going through other related 'types' - boyfriend leaving, etc. You must go through that exact 'type'.
  • Every human is unique, and therefore the way every human experiences something - childbirth, marriage - is completely unique to that person. There is no way one human can truly understand what any other human is going through, period.
These three views, plus all grey views between and outside of these three, have been debated over the years. The answer, of course, lays somewhere in the middle.

It is facile, though perhaps true, to say that no one human can ever understand any other human. A human has lived for many years, had many experiences to form that individual. I may never be able to exactly understand every nuance of a person, but if we both have given birth to a child, we may be able to speak meaningfully about a "common experience" that we both have shared. Even so, where my birth may have gone quite smoothly and not been traumatic, hers may have been full of complications and she may not have been prepared for the physical or emotional burden of the situation. Our "common experience" may actually be two quite different experiences.

On the other hand, can someone who has never in their life lost anyone close to them understand what it is to lose a mother and father? Again, perhaps not. If there was an adult somehow sheltered from the trials and tribulations of the "real world", that person might not have any basis to understand what "losing a job one needs to survive" or "being yelled at merely for being black/white/green" would feel like.

Most adults, however, live in the real world. We have people we care for, things we do, places we go, people who depend on us. Understanding is based on all past experiences plus knowledge of other experiences.

Here's an example that comes up frequently in empathy discussions. A person may not have had an abortion, but may have lost a long-cared-for pet by putting it to sleep, or had other similar, traumatic experiences. For many people, abortions are not traumatic at all. For others, it is extremely traumatic. To say that your experience was not understandable by any other human except those who have gone through it misses both of these points. Many people who have gone through it do not feel the same way, and many people who have not gone through it can still relate because of similar situations that elicited in them similar responses.

If it was completely impossible for an adults to have any idea how another adult felt going through Situation XX, then our trials by jury would be completely useless. Most jurors have not gone through the exact situation they are judging.

Lisa on Empathy

I prefer first person accounts to 'researched' accounts, but I also like to get many first-person versions so I don't get swayed by one person's eccentricities. Let's take childbirth. When I was pregnant, I talked with as many mothers as I could. Some women hated childbirth, and I'd hate to have formed an opinion of it solely from their tales. I talked with women of all ages and all levels of preparation. Because of my research,I had a very thorough understanding of childbirth before I experienced it. When I gave birth, the process went as I thought it would. It was quick, easy and relatively painless - in large part because I'd prepared, I was ready, and I was not stressed about it. If something had gone wrong, I would have at least had an idea of what to do.

I believe a general understanding is key - but an exact every-single-thing-exactly-the-same isn't necessary for an empathic understanding. I can understand what sex is like with a loving husband, without having to sleep with *your* husband to understand generally how you feel about sex with your loving husband. I don't need pinpoint accuracy and second by second matching of experiences to understand the emotions involved.

About abortion in particular: Many friends of mine have had them. We talked to each other beforehand, we talked to each other afterwards. In NO case was there a "revelation" or a "new understanding" of what it involved. Some felt explicitly that it was not a big deal at all. I understand that for some people, there is, and it is. They don't realize beforehand "what it entails emotionally" and afterwards they do. I am merely saying that for me and for my friends, we were able to emotionally and mentally comprehend this situation before "going through the actual motions". The same holds true, for me, for childbirth, and for other similar situations.

A friend of mine was abused by her husband. She had seen this before and thought about what it would feel like. After it happened, she knew personally, but it wasn't "Wow, so THIS is what I'd feel like". She had the same range of feelings about it. She was able to understand beforehand what the emotions would be - and she recognized the emotions when she then experienced them.

I imagine there are different levels of "sympathetic understanding" in different people that allows them to internalize a situation's ramifications without having to live through the situation. I can know beforehand what childbirth will be like, based on talks with many people, and when I then experience it, it's not a shock. It's an experiencing of what I had already learned about and empathized with based on other humans' experiences. That is perhaps the very essence of empathy.

Empathy and Children: GREAT info also on punishment.

I also have a separate article on Empathy and Moral Development

About Lisa Shea