The difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy feels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.

Empathy is the psychological process through which we put ourselves in another person's shoes. We have the ability to do this by imagining how that particular person is thinking or feeling (Myers 2007). It is a crucial process for survival and encompasses both cognitive and emotional dimensions.

Cognition allows us to use existing information to make inferences on what others are feeling.

Emotionality allows us to feel what others may already be feeling.

Empathy has many different perspectives; Social, cognitive, biological, developmental and Integrative.

With this it is possible to measure a person's empathy (Zoll & Enz, 2010), there are 60 item scales filled with statements such as "I can tell what mood members of my family are in by the look on their faces".

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Why is Empathy Important?

Empathy underpins a number of other basic psychological abilities and behaviours

  • Allows us to engage in moral reasoning (what is right and wrong)
  • To know when to perform prosocial behaviours such as helping
  • Allows us to anticipate the behaviours of others in everyday situations and to react appropriately

If we have to break bad news to someone we must draw on both emotional and cognitive forms of empathy in order to behave in a socially effective and accepted manner.

Empathy is arguably fundamental to what it means to be a fully-developed human being. Sociopaths, psychopaths, autistic individuals and young children are all deficient in empathy.

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Is Having Empathy Always Good?

in 1987 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down a narrow well in texas and a 58 hour rescue operation went underway, this situation had intense public interest (including from president Reagan).

So do positive responses make our world a better place?

Bloom 2013 says no, believes empathy is not as important as its made out to be, he believes it is a narrow-minded and inummerate emotion and that it is better to rely on rational calculation to solve human problems.

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Empathy: Social Perspective

(Riva & Andrighetto, 2012)

A substantial amount of evidence is mounting based on the idea that social and physical pain overlap in personal experiences.

The current experiment focuses on second hand perceptions of social pain (rejection, humiliation and isolation) and physical pain (Injury or assault) across two studies. It is argued that judgements of others' pain may vary as a function of group membership.

Across two studies that considered different scenarios it was found that italian participants attributed less severe social pain when considering an out group (Chinese and Ecuadorian) than an in-group member (fellow Italian). No such effect for physical pain.

It appears we have a tendency to dehumanize members of other groups however we can empathize when it comes down to physical pain as we expect that to be consistent. We tend to feel 'uniquely human' forms of social suffering such as heartbreak at the end of a relationship with the members of our grop (people who are close to us).

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Is Empathy Specific for Humans Only?

Apparently not, rats appear to show empathetic behaviour in one particular experiment. One rat is placed in water whilst the other remains dry, they are placed in a container seperated only by a door. The dry rat will see the distress from the other rat and manages to open the door to get him out of the water.

A seccond experiment actually showed that if both rats are dry they do not bother to open the door because there is no distress. As well as this if the roles of wet and dry rat are switched the wet rat will respond a lot faster perhaps because it knows how the other is feeling.

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Empathy: Cognitive Perspective

(Bluck et al, 2012)

Aim: Exploring if sharing autobiographic memories may create empathy for others.

Method: 80 students read autobiographical pain narratives by a young (25 year old) target and an old (85 year old) target suffering from chronic physical pain.

Across studies pain was assessed after reading a pain-related narrative of either the 25 or 85 year old target and again after assignment to one of 2 recall conditions;

  • Recalling a pain-related autobiographical memory
  • Recalling a character in pain from a movie or recalling target's pain narrative

Empathy levels appeared to be higher after sharing an autobiographical memory but not in the comparisons, when target-age differences were exposed there was higher empathy for the elder target. It would appear that autobiographical memory sharing can serve the function of eliciting empathy. This is supported by Bluck & Alea's (2009) findings on sharing autobiographical memories about one's romantic partner resulting in greater feelings of intimacy towards the person.

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Empathy: Cognitive Perspective Cont...

Can nice, empathetic individuals change into someone quite the opposite within around 15 minutes?

Jane Elliot conducted a classroom experiment, bearing in mind Jane Elliot is not a psychologist but a teacher, she told the children that if they had blue eyes they were superior to those with brown eyes. She called up the blue eyed people to each pick a collar and place it on those who had brown eyes. She told the children with brown eyes that they were not allowed to play with the children who had blue eyes and so she created a division from the time the bell rung at recess till it was time to come back inside.

This was a perfect example of how racism spreads so quickly. She used statements such as "George Washington had blue eyes" to make them believe her further.

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Empathy: Biological Perspective

It is possible to explore the neurological processes reflecting our capacity to share emotional reactions that others are feeling.

(Jackson et al, 2005)

Method: 15 participants (right handed) were shown 25 photographs displaying right hands and right feet in painful and non painful situations. These participants were told to rate the pain from no pain to worst possible pain.

Looking at painful scenarios activated the posterior part of the Anterior Cingulate (ACC) associated with the processing of displeasant experiences or being in personal, emotional or physical pain moreover, the more painful a photograph was rated by a participant the more the brain region was switched on.

The neurological similarities between perceiving pain in others and experiencing pain yourself shows the relevence of empathy and how connected we actually are to that other person's feelings. 

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Empathy: Developmental Perspective

Social/cognitive/biological perspectives of empathy have all focussed on adults as participants using cross-sectional designs, it's time to look at the development of empathy in infants.

(Zahn et al, 1992)

The investigation into socio-emotional development of infants

Method: 30 one year old infants during the ages of 13-15, 18-20, and 23-25 months (This is a longitudinal study, not cross-sectional*). This study examined the children's responses to stresses they caused and those they witnessed in others.

There is the assumption that children display limited emotional and cognitive empathy, they misinterpret the feelings of other and therefore act inappropriately such as laughing when being told someone is upset.

Across age groups it was found that expression of concern gradually increased, willingness to help gradually increased and positive response to distress decreased.

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Empathy: Developmental Perspective (2)

Interpretation: 2 year old children develop the ability to feel empathy

Criticisms: Infants more responsive to their mothers expressing distress. May lie weakness in the method of observations. Children may behave differently, the observer may be bias perhaps never providing us with a direct representation of reality. Does not increase the understanding of why these children behave as they do.

Can children learn lack of empathy?

Bandura has shown us with his Bobo doll experiment that after observing an actor hitting a bobo doll with fists or objects causes them to immitate what the actor is doing.

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Empathy: Integrative Perspective

Is it possble to combine multiple perspectives?

Lamm et al, 2007 aimed to explore 2 cognitive processes where the suffering of others is considered. This experiment involved showing video clips of patients who allegedly suffered from hearing disease. In the video a painful expression was shown on the face of the actor when 'hearing' a painful sound.

Study investigated how two top-down mechanisms - attention and cognitive appraisal - affect the perception of pain in others and its neural underpinnings. Individuals had to imagine how they'd be feeling or how the other person felt (perspective taking) and were instructed either the patient got better or didnt (cognitive appraisal).

Patient's pain was rated as more intense and unpleasant when participants believed there was no improvement. Empathetic appraisal was stronger when participants focussed on feelings of others rather than self.

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Empathy: Integrative Perspective (2)

Results (neuronal/fMRI)

  • watching video clips of others in pain increased activity in areas linked to first-hand experience of being in pain.
  • pattern of activation was broadly similar across the two perspecive taking conditiions (self vs others)
  • self perspective resulted in greater acitivation of left while other perspective the right parietal cortex


A combination of biological with cognitive frameworks produces more reliable data whilst combining a variety of methodological techniques (experimentation, manipulation and measurement of cognitive processes, tracking and analysis of neural activation).

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Empathy in Personality Disorder

Essential features of personality disorder: impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) and the presence of pathological personality traits

Impairments in interpersonal functioning for antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) (a or b):

a) Empathy; lack of concern for feelings, needs or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another

b) Intimacy; incapacity for mutually intimate relationships as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others using deceit or coercion

1% of the general population are psychopaths

4% of the general population are sociopaths

- Both suffer from ASPD, lack empathy, disregard social rules and behavioural standards, fail to feel remorse or guilt and both are violent.

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Where Does Psychopathy Start?

Many believe it is the interplay between biological factors and social forces (Jim Fallon). Fallon found by studying random brain scans that it could be down to a high risk gene (MAOA) that can only be passed on from the mother on the X chromosone. It is caused by too much seratonin during development.

He found that in order to express this gene something really traumatic has to happen to you before puberty. In certain parts of our world, women are growing up around severe violence in countries where there are ongoing wars, this causes the women to look for stronger men and thus better psychopaths are being bred.

Fallon found out he was related to Lizzie Borden and that 7 men on his father's side were all murderers.

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Empathising-Systemising Theory

The E-S theory suggests that people may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions: Empathising (E) and Systemising (S). It measures a person's strength of interest in empathy (the ability to identify and understand te thoughts and feelings of others and respond to these with appropriate emotions); and a person's strength of interest in systems (in terms of the drive to analyse or construct them).

In ASD there are strong systemising skills and poor empathising skills

People with HF autism score higher on the systemising quotient (SQ) than people in the general populations

Most people regard ToM as just the cognitive component of empathy (identifying someone else's [or your own] mental states)

In ASD both components of empathy (cognitive and affective) are underdeveloped

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