Having empathy for other people goes a long way in fostering strong relationships. In fact, empathy is a fundamental building block for conflict resolution and understanding and bonding with others.
Psychological science has defined the term in many ways, but simply, it’s “the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling,” said Jennifer Lerner, a psychological scientist and the Thornton F. Bradshaw professor of public policy, decision science and management at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. Her research examines human judgment and decision-making.
We need empathy because it motivates us to take action when we see that people are suffering, said Sarah Konrath, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“Across time and situations, humans need empathic skills and empathy in order to make societal cooperation possible,” said Lerner, also a former chief decision scientist for the US Navy. “As Charles Darwin [observed in 1872], the ability to recognize ‘the expression of emotion in man and animals’ plays a profound role in all societies, including nonhuman primate societies.”
And “in a time like the present, when the Covid-19 pandemic and brutal acts of racism are causing so much suffering,” Lerner added, it’s important to accurately perceive what others are feeling even if we don’t share those feelings.
What better time than now to strengthen your abilities to express different types of empathy and practice them in your everyday life?
Types of empathy
Empathy is more about looking for a common humanity, while sympathy entails feeling pity for someone’s pain or suffering, Konrath said.
“Whereas empathy is the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling, sympathy is compassion or concern stimulated by the distress of another,” Lerner said. “A common example of empathy is accurately detecting when your child is afraid and needs encouragement. A common example of sympathy is feeling sorry for someone who has lost a loved one.”
Each is more called for in different situations. But a “common mistake is to leap into sympathy before empathically understanding what another person is feeling,” Lerner said. Two types of empathy can prevent that relationship blunder.
Emotional empathy, sometimes called compassion, is more intuitive and involves care and concern for others.
Cognitive empathy requires effort and more systematic thinking, so it may lead to more empathic accuracy, Lerner said. It entails considering others’ and their perspectives and imagining what it’s like to be them, Konrath added.
Some work managers and colleagues, for example, have had to practice empathy for parents juggling remote work with child care and virtual learning duties, said David Anderson, senior director of national programs and outreach at the Child Mind Institute, in an episode of CNN podcast “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.”
But since the outset of the pandemic in March, that empathy has faded — reflecting the notion that cognitive empathy does take effort.
It takes work to interpret what someone is feeling by all of his cues: facial expressions, tones of voice, posture, words and more. Then you have to connect those cues with what you know about him and the situation in order to accurately infer his feelings.
“This kind of inference is a highly complex social-cognitive task” that might involve a variation of mental processes, Lerner said.
You’ve likely heard people call themselves “empaths,” in that they’re so deeply affected by the struggles of others that they take on the anguish and emotional burden. But there’s a difference between empathy and this state, which psychologists call “emotional contagion.”
Overwhelmingly feeling exactly what another person feels when she’s upset is actually somewhat self-focused and can lead to depression and poor well-being, Konrath said.