How Empathy Works

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].