How Empathy Works

Petra Button (C) hugs her friend, Lewis Grant Martin, after seeing him for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 1, 2005 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Ross Taylor/Getty Images

When 20 little schoolkids and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, many Americans across the nation were shocked. Then they dove into action, donating everything from stuffed animals — ultimately three for every resident — to boxes of paper cranes to more than $11 million [sources: CNN, Kix, Curry]. The force at work? Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to feel and share someone else's emotions. It's seeing another person's aspirations, conflicts and vulnerabilities from their vantage point, while still knowing and feeling your own. It differs from sympathy, which is understanding and caring about someone else's grief or misfortune, but not necessarily feeling it. An example: Your friend has a miscarriage. You feel sorry for her, but don't really grasp her pain because you're viewing her miscarriage through your own vantage point. And if you tell your friend, "Well, at least you know you can get pregnant," you're almost certainly not feeling empathy, University of Houston professor Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, says in a YouTube video. Instead, you're trying to solve her problem, when what she needs is connection [sources: Stewart, LaBier].


Today, empathy — a word derived from the German word Einfühlung, which means "feeling into" — is a hot topic among researchers studying emotions relating to morality. That's because people lacking empathy, or with little of it, often are callous, combative and sometimes evil. One important study on the topic, published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Brain, identified the anterior insular cortex as the region of the brain where human empathy resides. In addition, the study showed evidence that damage to the anterior insular cortex produced empathy deficits similar to those found in people with autism spectrum disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, conditions characterized, in part, by a lack of empathy [sources: Science Daily, Bloom].

If scientists can figure out how empathy works, they may be able to figure out how to help train people with empathy disorders to compensate for any damage or deficits in this region of their brain.


Empathy in Action

Teddy bears, flowers and candles are left at a memorial down the street from the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, Dec. 16, 2012. The town of 27,000 received 65,000 teddy bears after the school shooting that left 20 children dead. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Researchers divide empathy into two types: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy entails identifying and understanding emotions in others. Affective empathy means we can feel the emotions of others, or their emotions trigger certain feelings in us. If your friend is crying because her mom died, and you understand why she's so distraught, that's cognitive empathy. If you also feel stressed and anxious to see her sobbing, that's affective empathy [source: Verhofstadt, et. al.]

When empathy bubbles up inside of you — whether cognitive or affective — you immediately want to help. That's because the emotions you're feeling become your own in a way. You shed concerns for yourself and spring into action, whether it's to cry, pat someone's arm or hop in your car to deliver clothes to someone whose home just burned down.


Our daily lives are filled with small acts of empathy, and history is filled with great ones. After two bombs went off near the Boston Marathon finish line in 2013, people donated $60.9 million to a charity fund set up to compensate the victims. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, people heard reports about stranded pets. Thousands poured into the area to help rescue, treat and reunite pets with their owners. They also worked to place those whose owners couldn't be found [sources: Bernstein, Louisiana SPCA].

But empathy isn't a perfect emotion. While people respond to many misfortunes that beset others, they don't respond to all of them. As noted, thousands of Americans helped stranded pets after Hurricane Katrina, yet these same people today may yawn if they read a story about a famine threatening the lives of millions of children in other countries. Scientists say that's because the key to triggering empathy is often being able to identify with a person.

In one study, psychologists asked a group of subjects how much money they would donate to help develop a drug that would save one child's life, while another group was asked the same about a drug that would save eight children. Participants gave roughly the same answers for both groups. Yet when a third group was shown a picture of a child who needed the drug, plus was told the child's name and age, donations dramatically increased [source: Bloom].


When Empathy Goes Awry

Empathy doesn't always work the way it should. Sometimes it's misplaced, dampened or lacking. Douglas LaBier, a psychotherapist and researcher, posits many people today suffer from what he terms "empathy deficit disorder," or EDD. Those with EDD are self-centered and focus too much on power, status and money. They can't see things from others' points of view, especially those who think, believe and feel very differently from them. This all leads to polarization, disconnection, personal conflicts and even hatred toward those who are different, a huge problem in today's interconnected world.

Sometimes people simply choose to turn off their empathic feelings or use them destructively. Take bullies. Some experts say bullies use cognitive empathy to calculate exactly what to say or do to most hurt or manipulate their victims. Then, during the actual bullying, the bullies turn off their empathic response toward their victims by viewing them as worthless or somehow deserving of punishment.


There could also be the opposite problem of being too empathetic. For example, you're a social worker constantly exposed to the misfortunes of your clients. If you take them too much to heart (via affective empathy), you could become burned out from your job.

Studies show a racial empathy gap exists, even in people who believe race doesn't matter to them. In one study, for example, white participants reacted dramatically when they saw video clips of a needle touching a white person's skin, but not so much when the needle touched the skin of someone who was black or Asian. The participants' reaction was most subdued when the needle touched a black person's skin [source: Forgiarini, et al].

Another study on pain showed participants — both black and white — assumed blacks feel less pain than whites. This perception was even shared by participants who were registered nurses and nursing students. Researchers said the study showed the reason lies not in race per se, but in the belief that blacks have suffered more hardships than whites, which has made them stronger and more resilient [source: Trawalter, et al].

The research has various implications for people of color. Studies over the years have shown minorities receive inadequate pain medication compared to whites; a racial empathy gap may be part of the reason. Similarly, a racial empathy gap may be at work in the criminal justice system regarding the fact that black defendants are given harsher sentences than whites [source: Silverstein].


How to Increase Empathic Feelings

Colorado author Patricia Raybon shows photograph of her and her daughter Alana Raybon who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015. The two wrote a book, 'Undivided,' about how they healed their relationship after Alana converted to Islam from her Christian upbringing. Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Empathy is important. Critical, really. It's what makes us human and able to have healthy relationships. And while some people might not possess as much empathy as others, we all can learn to become more empathic. Research shows our brains possess neuroplasticity, or the ability to change and adapt, through training and conscious practices [source: LaBier]. Here are a few techniques that can help us develop more empathy:

First, start listening to people. Really listening. When someone is spilling their guts to you, don't interrupt. Hear what they're saying, perhaps even rephrase what they told you back to them. This can be extremely helpful when the other person simply needs someone to listen to them — say, if their spouse just moved out — and also in cases of conflict [source: Krznaric].


Next, start noticing others and thinking about their lives. Take your garbage collector, boss or veterinarian. What do you think their jobs are like? How was their childhood? Is anything stressful going on in their lives right now? Ponder all of the ways these people are probably just like you: They want a loving family and steady job. They have hopes and dreams. They've suffered disappointments.

Extend these thoughts to strangers, and then reach out to a few. If you strike up a conversation with your supermarket clerk, you might discover she's struggling with an infant who isn't sleeping through the night — and that might make you less likely to become angry if she incorrectly rings up your order.

One of the hardest situations in which to stir up empathy is when you encounter someone you don't get along with. But it can be done. Focus on your commonalities; this person likely has a family that's not perfect, a job that can be trying and dreams for the future. Then try to imagine why you two don't mesh. Try to see yourself from his point of view.

If you realize you have a lot of negativity toward people from another country or culture, or who are very different than you, try to engage with them. Listen to their stories, and you will hear echoes of your own. Once you can focus on your shared humanity, and the world as an interwoven community, empathy grows. And from there, so do tolerance, acceptance and respect — the necessities for a happy life, and a world that survives and thrives.


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Author's Note: How Empathy Works

I'm a pretty empathic person, if you can measure that in tears. I cry at pretty much any really happy or sad event, if it's happening to someone I don't know at all. So it was chilling to learn about the racial empathy gap. I'd like to think I'd react the same to seeing anyone pricked by a needle, no matter the color of their skin, but maybe I wouldn't. It's good to know, then, that I can train my brain to be more empathic. I will begin doing that right away.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Bernstein, Lenny. "Boston Marathon bombing victims will split $61 million." The Washington Post. June 29, 2013. (Feb. 16, 2017)
  • Bloom, Paul. "The Baby In The Well." The New Yorker. May 20, 2013. (Feb. 6, 2017)
  • CNN. "Connecticut Shootings Fast Facts." Dec. 14, 2016. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Curry, Colleen. "Sandy Hook Shooting Victims' Families Get $280K." ABC News. July 12, 2013. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Forgiarini, Matteo, et al. "Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin." National Center for Biotechnology Information. May 23, 2011. (Feb. 17, 2017)
  • Kix, Paul. "65,000 Teddy Bears for Newtown, and One Man to Sort the World's Grief." The Trace. Dec. 13, 2015. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Krznaric, Roman. "Can you teach people to have empathy?" BBC News. June 29, 2015. (Feb. 16, 2017)
  • LaBier, Douglas. "Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?" Psychology Today. April 12, 2010. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Lamia, Mary. "Do Bullies Actually Lack Empathy?" Psychology Today. Oct. 30, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2017)
  • Louisiana SPCA. "Hurricane Katrina." (Feb. 16, 2017)
  • Science Daily. "Area of the brain that processes empathy identified." Oct. 24, 2012. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Silverstein, Jason. "I Don't Feel Your Pain." Slate. June 27, 2013. (Feb. 6, 2017)
  • Stewart, Chato. "Empathy Vs Sympathy Or Apathy: What Empathy Is Not?" PsychCentral. June 2016. (Feb. 15, 2017)
  • Trawalter, Sophie, et al. "Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others' Pain." Plos. Nov. 14, 2012. (Feb. 17, 2017)
  • Verhofstadt, Lesley, et. al., "The Role of Cognitive and Affective Empathy in Spouses' Support Interactions: An Observational Study," PLoS One, Feb. 24, 2016 (March 10, 2017)
  • YouTube. "Brené Brown on Empathy." Dec. 10, 2013. (Feb. 15, 2017)