A guide to everyday psychology

Psychological Processes

Making sense of ’empathy’

We often read about empathy – and good people ‘having more empathy’ than others, or ‘being an empathic person’.

Although that sounds like it makes sense, it is a misunderstanding of empathy. It confuses empathy with sympathy and compassion.

As we will see, it is completely correct to think that we need empathy in order to feel compassion. However, this does not mean that the reason why we have empathy is so that we can feel compassion! Empathy is more complex than that. Without empathy we could not feel shame, vengefulness, guilt, jealousy or pride!

So, this post explains empathy – and puts it in context.

What empathy is – and how does it really work?

Empathy describes our innate ability to detect the feelings of others – and guess at their possible intentions. By ‘putting ourselves in other people’s shoes’ we can imagine how they see and feel the world. This is very useful (or ‘adaptive’)… We can control and manipulate people better, if we know what they are thinking and feeling

We can even ‘sample’ people’s emotions – and momentarily feel what they are feeling by remembering our own similar experiences. We can remember what it felt like to hit our finger with a hammer. Ouch! We can remember what it felt like to win a contest or to feel extremely jealous.

By ‘sampling’ and feeling other people’s emotions in this way – rather than just knowing about them objectively – we get a better insight about our ‘appropriate’ emotional response.

But don’t be seduced into thinking that the only ‘appropriate’ response to suffering is always to feel pity. Sometimes, we will feel damned good to know how much other people are suffering – if it’s a person we hate, or a person about whom we feel, say, jealous. Think football rivalry here. And sometimes we will even feel both good and bad… We hate Arsenal, but we feel sad for the little boy in the Arsenal shirt who’s crying after we beat the 4-0.

Empathy, like many other inbuilt human processes, does not operate in simple ‘straight lines’… It always interacts with learning.

Social Skills and Empathy

Although empathy enables us to learn social skills better, empathy is not the same as having social skills.

Social skills are learned and they vary in different societies. And although empathy gives us an ability to read emotions, we still have to learn whether the experiences we see in other people should make us feel sad or joyful… We have to learn the ‘appropriate response’. For example, we learn (usually) not to laugh when someone is in pain. We learn (usually) to smile if they have won a contest – even if we hate them.

But what is the ‘appropriate’ response when we detect the suffering of a child murderer being sent to prison for ever – joy or compassion?

Confusion about why we have empathy – empathy is not sympathy or compassion!

Empathy causes a lot of confusion – in large part because the words empathy and sympathy are so alike. Making the confusion worse, quite a few writers who should know better use the words interchangeably.

It is a common mistake to think that the only reason why we have empathy in our lives is so that we can detect suffering – and then be nice to each other.

This is only partly true… One of the benefits of having empathy is that it enables us to detect suffering and be nice. But this is just one of the benefits… Empathy is much more interesting than a ‘sympathy trigger’.

Empathy, enables us to feel many other human emotions. For example, without empathy we could not feel jealousy. You might wonder, what possible benefit is there to feeling jealous? Well, in a world that rewards competitiveness, jealousy is a valuable survival asset. It drives us to compete (for example) for and steal resources and mates that other people are clearly enjoying.

So, the idea that empathy exists solely to make us nice to each other is wrong.  And compounding this error, writers typically turn their logic backwards – and say that when people are not sympathetic to the suffering of others, it means that those people lack empathy (’empathy deficient’).

The backward logic in action

Sir Simon Baron Cohen applies this faulty logic in many of his books. For example, he argues that the Nazis must have lacked empathy – because they wouldn’t have killed all those people if they had had empathy. This could not be more wrong… Nazis were perfectly capable of perceiving (or empathising) other people’s emotions. But even though they had the ability to perceive the suffering of their victims, it did not stimulate sympathy. For them, the people they persecuted were the same as the people we happily lock up as criminals.

They were completely capable of sympathy – but they felt sympathy towards other people and things than we might.

So, to summarise here… Although it is true to say that we could not feel sympathy if we did not have empathy, it is not true to think that the only reason why we have empathy is so that we can feel sympathy.

So, then, why do we have empathy at all?

We evolved with empathy built into us because it is hugely adaptive. It improves our individual chances of survival and those of our offspring.

If we know what our children are feeling, we can take better care of them. And if we know what other people are feeling, thinking and planning, we can anticipate their actions. This enables us to prepare for conflicts or avoid them. It enables better cooperation and social relations. Cooperation is essential in species that lives in social groups – and empathy helps with that.

For these very good reasons, the innate tendency in humans to ‘empathise’ (try to read emotions) is very strong.

But because this tendency this so strong, it is prone to all kinds of errors through overuse and misuse. We even see emotions/thoughts in situations where they don’t exist.  We often attribute very complex thoughts and feelings (pride, shame, vengefulness) to non-human animals – and even to inanimate objects! People ‘feel’ the pain of neglected cars or ships. People even feel the pain of abstract entities (our country, for example).

We might even imagine that other animals have the same powers of empathy as us.  We might (very unwisely!) imagine that an injured badger on the road will realise that – when we pick it up – our only intention is to move it to a place of safety.

Who has empathy?

Everyone. Empathy is a universal and automatic disposition that can be seen in all of us (apart from a very tiny number of people unlucky enough to be born with major neurological deficits).

So how does empathy work as a psychological process?

Conceptually, empathy is no different from other processes. And a good comparison is the process of visual perception… We are all born with a basic disposition for visual perception. It enables us not only to see the visual world, but also to organise it with meaning.

Subject to a combination of normal maturation and learning, we develop an automatic ability to instantly ‘organise’ all the things we see to make sense of them and give them meaning. We might see a box on four wheels – but we learn to perceive a car.

Visual perception is an active process that works almost like a reflex. We can’t make ourselves not see a car!

And empathy..?

Similarly, we are all born with the disposition for empathy (or “emoto-perception”). We constantly detect, ‘sample’, interpret and give meaning to the emotions of other people. We can’t stop doing it.

Do some people have more or less empathy than others?

Broadly, the answer is no… Differences between people do not lie in the amount of empathy they possess (despite the existence of so-called empathy tests, empathy is neither quantifiable nor measurable). Being a generally sympathetic person does not make someone a more empathetic person!

Instead, we differ from one another in what we have each learned to ‘do’ with our empathy.

One person might feel pity for the suffering of Russian soldiers in Ukraine; another might feel delight at their suffering. But neither ‘lacks’ empathy… The person feeling delight at the suffering of a Russian might also weep bitterly for the suffering of a Ukrainian. They have simply learned to apply their empathetic perceptions differently – sometimes the sight of suffering produces pity and sometimes pleasure.

Is empathy all about detecting suffering – and responding with compassion and sympathy?

No. Although nearly all academic discussions about empathy analyse suffering and sympathy, there are other human emotions that rely on empathy… Our feelings of jealousy at someone else’s luck, or glee at another person’s suffering, for example, could not exist without empathy.

In fact, empathy enables us to detect many kinds of emotions other than suffering – happiness, pride, shame, playfulness, jealousy and anger are some of them.

Indeed, without empathy we could not feel compassion, shame, jealousy or pride.

That’s why empathy is so useful to us – and is present in all of us. Empathy enables us to detect emotions and make an appropriate response. But that appropriate response isn’t always compassion. Let’s consider that in a little more detail, as it is the central point…

Does empathy cause us to feel sympathy towards suffering people?

No. Empathy only enables us to detect suffering. How we respond to suffering (feeling sympathy or pity, or some other emotion, like delight or glee – or indifference) depends entirely on our previous social learning. Our learning determines who, or what, our empathy will cause us to feel pity for.

To return to that widely-misunderstood example, the Nazis didn’t persecute Jews because they lacked an empathetic ability to detect suffering (or ‘switched their empathy off’). The Nazis were not in any sense psychologically ‘defective’.

Rather, ordinary people learned within the Nazi culture that (for example) the Jews were bad people who deserved to suffer. In Nazi teaching, the Jews had caused the suffering of Germans and Germany. Why feel sympathy for them? Conversely, the suffering of ‘proper’ Germans did evoke German sympathy.

Throughout the world today, different cultures have different values. We all learn to respond to the emotions we detect in others differently, according to our teaching.

Examples of empathy without sympathy – and contradictions

The sentimental notion that anyone with empathy must feel sympathy for sufferers runs into trouble with many real-world situations. An example is where ‘bad people’ are convicted of crimes and imprisoned…

We can readily empathise with (sample and imagine) the horror of being banged up for a long period in prison. And – according to conventional empathy theory – that means that we should always feel sympathy for the suffering of those who receive very long sentences. But we usually don’t.

Indeed, very normal ‘nice’ people sometimes whoop with delight in courtrooms when a serious criminal is suffering. They possess empathy, and they can easily imagine the suffering of the person in the prison. But the effect of having empathy is to enable them to savour that person’s upcoming misery – they feel delight, not sympathy.

And that’s exactly what befell the Jews of Nazi Germany.  They were demonised as vermin and criminals by the Nazi state – and completely normal Germans learned to be pleased about their suffering.

One more example here of ‘empathy does not lead to sympathy’… Many of us eat meat. Every one of us can empathise with the suffering of animals in the food chain. We can all say “I wouldn’t like to be reared in such awful conditions, killed brutally and then eaten”. It’s the basic theme for quite a few horror movies!  

But our ability to detect/empathise/sample animal suffering doesn’t cause many of us to stop killing (indirectly) and eating those animals. Often we rationalise it to ourselves with dodgy science (‘fish can’t feel pain’).

There is no doubt that we have the ability to ‘put ourselves in the animals’ hooves’. But most people learn that it is a circumstance where we should respond with indifference. We don’t hate the animals we eat – we just don’t care.


Empathy does not always lead to sympathy!

Empathy is a fantastic asset. But its purpose is to improve our chances of ‘doing well’ in a competitive world – not make us nice to each other.

But there are empathy ‘misfires’. And these bring us much that is uniquely human. Without empathy, we could not have many of our most charming quirks – graciousness in defeat or victory, sympathy for losers – and a few others to discuss another time!

Leave a Reply