Defining The Concept
The term empathy was originally coined in 1909 by E. B. Titchener who, drawing on the work of Theodore Lipps, employed it in his Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes as a translation of the German word Einfühlung, a technical term in German aesthetics that literally means “to feel one’s way into.” For Lipps and other scholars interested in studying the emotional responses people have to works of art, Einfühlung was employed to explain how people were able to grasp the meaning of aesthetic objects and the consciousness of others. For Titchener, however, empathy referred to an instinctive tendency we have to feel ourselves into the things we perceive or imagine. This early characterization has continued to shape theoretical conceptualizations of empathy to the present day with its acknowledgment that empathy has both affective and cognitive components.
Although widely recognized as a fundamental feature of human social life and moral development, social scientists since Titchener have had difficulty forging consensus regarding a precise and comprehensive definition of empathy and the relationship between its affective and cognitive aspects. Traditionally, the research literature on empathy has been marked by sharply conflicting, even mutually exclusive, conceptualizations of the meaning and nature of the phenomenon, as well as significant disagreements about how it is to be measured or studied. Some authors have made the case that empathy is primarily a cognitive process involving the skill of perspectiveor role-taking; others have argued that empathy is a vicariously shared emotion that does not necessarily involve the higher mental processes; still others have attempted to reconcile these two perspectives somewhat by arguing that while it can occur without perspective-taking, the likelihood of empathic response increases in the presence of perspective-taking abilities and skill. Further complicating matters is the fact that clinicians tend to view empathy as a therapeutic technique or process that facilitates effective communication and promotes deepened therapist-client understanding. Ultimately, there may be no one correct or final definition of empathy, just different working definitions.
Empathy, Altruism, And Moral Development
Many researchers have attempted to establish the theoretical and empirical relationship between empathy and altruism, as well as to differentiate between empathy and similar emotional phenomena such as affective role-taking, sympathy, personal distress, and compassion. For example, it has been argued that affective role-taking takes place when we identify with the feelings of another, while sympathy occurs when we respond to another’s negative emotional state in ways that are not identical to but nonetheless congruent with that person’s feelings; personal distress is the result of self-oriented anxiety or concern over another’s feelings. Speaking to the relationship between compassion and empathy, Post (2003) maintains that “compassion requires empathy and seeks to achieve good in the context of suffering.” In the minds of many researchers, the basic experience of empathy, an experience of sharing another’s emotional state in one way or another, seems to underlie and possibly give rise to each of these other phenomena. One way in which the specific differences between empathy, sympathy, personal distress, and compassion may be made more clear is by considering empathy as “feeling-with” another person, sympathy as “feeling-for” them, personal distress as “feeling-for oneself” because of another person, and compassion as “suffering-with” another who is in need. Although this may be a bit simplistic, it is nonetheless a useful heuristic when considering the often subtle distinctions to be had in this particular family of emotional experiences.
Empathy, as a basic conceptual and explanatory construct, has long been employed in social, developmental, and personality psychology. Early in the history of modern psychology, James Baldwin employed the term ejective consciousness to characterize the role that empathy plays in the moral development of young children. Later, Piaget proposed that the capacity for empathy was tied directly to the child’s development of the cognitive ability to adopt another person’s perspective, both of which were fundamental to the development of moral judgment in the child. Following Piaget, Kohlberg (1981) maintained that our role-taking tendencies and our fundamental sense of justice are deeply interwoven and, as such, are closely related to the experience of sympathy and the desire to resolve conflict.
This connection between empathy and moral development has continued to be a central focus of much contemporary research. Some researchers have suggested that an innate capacity to share and respond to the emotional expressions of others may be present from birth. This conclusion is partly based on research indicating that, even when they are only a few hours old, infants are disturbed by the sounds of another infant’s distress in ways that they are not disturbed by other sounds—even their own cries. Other researchers have argued that empathy and altruism are just as much a part of basic human nature as selfishness and aggression. It has also been suggested that this natural predisposition to empathic responsiveness ultimately may be what provides the foundation for later development of abstract moral principles such as caring and distributive justice. Indeed, evolutionary theorists have long held that our abstract systems of moral reasoning, ideals of distributive justice, and egalitarian ethics are the result of natural selection and ultimately function to ensure the survival of the species. Although such claims have often been met with strong criticisms (both empirical and philosophical), they nonetheless demonstrate a fairly general recognition of the intimate relationship between empathy and the development of moral sensibilities.
Of similar interest to many researchers has been the relationship between empathy and the development of emotional understanding in young children, in particular young children’s abilities to interpret accurately the emotional expressions of others. Much current research indicates that infants and young children are naturally responsive to the emotional expressions of others and are highly motivated to read and understand others’ feelings. In this view, the emotional expressions of others provide the young child with important clues about the social world in which they find themselves, thereby helping to enable the child to learn how to react appropriately to the diverse and often changing demands of human social life. For example, the ability to accurately appreciate emotional expressions that convey alarm or distress are obviously important in eliciting arousal and attention in the young child and are therefore quite relevant to the child’s personal safety and security. Research in this area also suggests that, contrary to what has often been assumed, infants and young children are not fundamentally egocentric organisms and passive receptors of environmental information, but rather are quite active beings who are very sensitive to the varied and subtle emotional expressions of others in their social world.
Differences In Empathy
Despite the fact that empathy is so basic to human nature, research has shown that not all people experience empathy in the same way or to the same degree—even in the same situations. Indeed, the spectrum of empathic experience extends from those deeply sensitive individuals who feel intense distress in the face of another’s suffering to those rare individuals (sociopaths) who seem incapable of appreciating any emotional states other than their own. Typically, though, most people are capable of empathizing with others, and do so to a significant degree—assuming, of course, that they themselves are not experiencing too much distress of their own or are not able to accurately perceive a given situation. This does not mean, however, that human beings are automatically or necessarily empathic toward others. Although there are times when empathy just seems to happen and we experience another person’s world without really trying, it is also the case that we seem quite able not only to choose to empathize with another but also to choose to resist such feelings. Although much work in this area remains to be done, it seems clear that the ability to choose empathic response or to resist empathic feelings is far more defined in adulthood than in either childhood or adolescence.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that empathy is in any way a gender-specific emotion, there may be gender differences in the experience of empathy. Some research indicates that women tend to experience and manifest a greater degree of empathy than do men in most situations. For example, Anderson has shown that among non-Jewish Germans who rescued Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust there is a two-to-one ratio of female to male rescuers. Research also indicates that females are typically better able than males at accurately identifying the meanings of nonverbal emotional cues, which is presumably an important requirement for empathy. Other researchers, however, argue that gender differences in empathy may have less to do with genetics per se and more to do with differences in the types of socialization males and females experience. Thus, empathy may have different meanings and consequences for males and females. For example, it has been shown that in boys empathy tends to correlate with cognitive skills, whereas in girls it is more often correlated with a positive self-concept and prosocial behavior. Several large scale reviews of research in this area suggest, however, that although females tend to appear more empathic when empathy is measured by asking people to rate themselves, gender differences all but disappear when either physiological change or facial expression is employed as the principle measure of empathic arousal. Such findings seem to imply that what might appear at first glance to be gender differences in empathy may in fact only be artifacts of the methods of measurement employed in the research. What does seem clear, however, is that empathic sensitivity in both males and females can be enhanced or weakened by having (or not having) certain key experiences, particularly during childhood and especially those involving positive socialization, parental examples of affection and generosity, and frequent opportunities to learn about, cooperate with, and assist others.
- Anderson, V. (1993). Gender differences in altruism among holocaust rescuers. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 8, 43–58.
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