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Definition: Empathy from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

The ability to understand and sympathize with another's experiences without actually being subjected to these experiences. Individuals with highly developed empathy are extremely sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others. Empathy is often referred to as the ability to put oneself in another person's situation.

Summary Article: Empathy from Encyclopedia of Human Relationships

In the broadest sense, empathy refers to the reactions that one person has to the observed experiences of another. Beyond this general definition, however, psychologists have conceived of this phenomenon in a number of more specific ways. Disagreements over the “proper” definition of empathy have been a long-running feature of this field. However, underlying all of these definitional approaches is one core assumption: that empathy in some way involves the transformation of the observed experiences of another person into a response within the self. Thus, empathy is a psychological phenomenon that at least temporarily unites the separate social entities of self and other. Because of this, empathy can affect relationships in a variety of ways. This entry reviews the differing definitions of empathy that have dominated this literature. It also discusses the implications of empathy for relationships.

The most fundamental definitional distinction has been between viewing empathy as an essentially cognitive phenomenon or as a fundamentally emotional one. The cognitive view sees empathy as an intellectual process in which one person attempts to understand the internal state of another person—thoughts, feelings, or intentions. The term perspective taking (or role taking) is often used to describe this process. Some versions of this approach consider perspective taking to be the attempt to infer others' internal states; other versions equate perspective taking only with successful attempts that result in an accurate inference.

Such inferences could be made in several ways. An observer might start with the assumption that a target's reaction in a given situation is probably similar to what the observer's would be in a comparable situation—the observer might then “project” his or her own likely responses to the target. Alternatively, an observer might use other sources of information to make such inferences. The target's words, facial expressions, and body language can all provide information about the target's emotional state. Prior knowledge about the target might also be used to infer a current internal state, and knowledge about groups to which the target belongs can be used to determine the target's likely attitudes or values.

The emotional view of empathy, in contrast, defines empathy as some kind of affective reaction in the observer that results from observing the target. However, no clear consensus exists regarding the precise nature of this emotional response. Some have argued that empathy consists of the observer and target experiencing the same or similar emotions—a phenomenon sometimes known as emotional contagion. Others have argued that empathy occurs when the observer comes to have feelings of sympathy and compassion for the target. Other affective states that have been nominated include empathic anger (when a target has been mistreated), empathic joy (when a target has experienced success), and even “contrast empathy” in which the target's misfortune produces enjoyment in the observer. However, the most common contemporary view is probably that emotional empathy is an affective response to another's experience that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to, that other's own experience.

In recent years, there has been growing acceptance of the view that empathy can best be considered a multidimensional phenomenon that encompasses both cognitive and affective elements. One such view holds that it is useful to distinguish between empathy-related processes (such as motor mimicry, associative learning, and perspective taking) and empathy-related outcomes, both cognitive (e.g., accurate perceptions) and affective (e.g., feelings of sympathy). Moreover, these cognitive and emotional responses in turn contribute to interpersonal outcomes such as aggression and helping behavior.

One consequence of this approach is the growing use of multidimensional measurement techniques. For example, one widely used measure of dispositional empathy (the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) assesses four different facets of empathy. Two of these are clearly affective: empathic concern (the tendency to feel sympathy for those in distress) and personal distress (the tendency to feel personal discomfort when faced with distressed others). Another is clearly cognitive in nature: perspective taking (the tendency to imagine the point of view of other people). The final scale is more difficult to characterize: the fantasy scale measures the level of identification with characters in books, movies, and plays.

To reiterate, in a variety of ways empathy creates cognitive and emotional connections between people, and as a result often influences social behavior. Although it is not an exhaustive list, empathy can shape interactions through at least six broad avenues.

Empathic Accuracy

As previously noted, one school of thought regarding empathy has placed primary emphasis on attempts to determine the internal states of other people. Thus, empathic accuracy refers to our ability to accurately infer others' internal states without regard to whether we experience any affective response while doing so. This view of empathy has a long history, and empirical attempts to study empathic accuracy have been made for more than 50 years. However, methodological difficulties plagued the early research, and only relatively recently has significant progress been made. Much of this more recent work has been conducted or inspired by William Ickes.

It now appears that humans are capable of accurately inferring the moment-by-moment internal states of other people, both thoughts and feelings. For example, if Harry and Susan are talking, Harry may be able to infer something about Susan's current mood even if she does not announce it. He may do so by using facial expressions and vocal cues, or by using his prior knowledge about Susan to interpret what she says.

Although we can be accurate even with strangers, the best performance typically occurs when we attempt to “read the minds” of our friends and romantic partners. The shared knowledge and experience that friends possess is a considerable aid in the inference process. In addition, it appears that empathic accuracy is more likely when we are motivated to be accurate. That is, if there is a real value to us for making correct inferences, then we try harder and perform better.

How important is such empathic accuracy? Interestingly, the relationship between empathic accuracy and overall relationship satisfaction is not clear. Sometimes greater accuracy is associated with happier relationships, but not always. In fact, if there is reason to believe that an accurate inference about one's partner might be painful or threatening—perhaps if Harry correctly perceives how attractive Susan finds another man—then intimate couples sometimes display less accuracy. Thus, although empathic accuracy would seem to offer some obvious relationship benefits, especially in improved communication, it also appears that the value of accuracy may have some clear limits.

Emotional Synchrony

Another way that empathy influences social relationships is by creating an emotional synchrony between people—that is, a match between the observer and target in the quality or intensity of their emotional states. This synchrony in turn has positive effects on the quality of the interaction and the relationship. Recent theory and research have tended to focus on one particular mechanism by which these parallel emotions are created: the tendency of observers to mimic the target's facial expressions, vocal intonations, posture, and movements. Considerable evidence suggests that observers often engage in a veritable symphony of unconscious mimicry during social interaction, imitating the facial expressions, bodily movements, posture, speech rate, and vocal intensity of their interaction partners. Moreover, evidence indicates that mimicry in each of these channels can contribute to the creation of parallel emotional responding in the observer. Thus, when we see an unhappy friend, we may unconsciously mimic her frown, slumped posture, and subdued tone of voice—and this physical mirroring may reinforce the sadness created in us by knowledge of her plight.

What is the effect of this emotional synchrony between observer and target? One socially important outcome seems to be greater feelings of rapport between the target and observer. Synchrony leads the interaction partners to feel more “in step,” involved, or compatible with each other. Thus, when Harry mimics Susan (almost always without awareness) as they talk, both parties are likely to feel that the interaction has gone more smoothly. In addition, evidence indicates that being mimicked leads us to be more helpful and generous to the mimicker. Thus, the net effect of emotional synchrony is to increase our feelings of closeness and connectedness with others and to lead us to act accordingly toward them.

Constructive Relationship Behaviors

Empathy can also influence relationships by fostering specific kinds of behavior that help maintain relationship health. This can happen in different ways. For example, routinely trying to imagine a social partner's perspective will tend to produce more constructive behaviors—whether or not these perspective-taking efforts actually produce accurate inferences. If Susan genuinely tries to adopt Harry's point of view, she is likely to treat him in a more tolerant, considerate, and tactful fashion.

Another major way in which this happens is through the feelings of compassion that empathizing evokes and the relationship between such feelings and constructive relationship behaviors. One beneficial outcome of sympathy is an increased willingness to offer help. Having compassionate feelings for another person is strongly related to offering help, whether that person is friend or stranger, whether it is easy to avoid helping or not, and even if doing so is costly for the helper. In addition, sympathy leads to several other constructive actions. For example, people high in a sympathetic disposition tend to disclose more openly to romantic partners and to invite such disclosure as well. In addition, people high in dispositional sympathy tend to display a pleasing social style. They are more considerate of their social partners, less self-centered, and more even-tempered. They are also more likely to be supportive of their partners in times of stress.

What determines whether sympathetic feelings for social partners will occur? One answer is that some people are simply more prone to experience sympathy than others. In addition to such individual differences, certain situational characteristics influence the amount of sympathy that an observer is likely to experience. One of these is perceived similarity between observer and target; more similar targets tend to evoke more sympathy than dissimilar ones do. Another factor is whether the observer attempts to take the target's perspective; doing so makes sympathetic reactions more likely. In addition, we are especially likely to feel sympathy for others when we believe that they are not to blame for their difficulties. If Susan believes Harry failed an exam because he had the flu, she is likely to sympathize; if she believes he was playing video games instead of studying, sympathy will not be her first response.

Responding to Partner Misbehavior

Another important way in which empathy influences social relationships is evident when someone acts in a way that is hurtful to the partner. Such instances of misbehavior create short-term distress, but can also serve to create longer-term resentments and frustrations. In at least two ways, empathy can play a role in minimizing the impact of such events. First, empathizing with the misbehaving partner makes it more likely that an individual will respond to the provocation not with retaliation but with a more constructive, accommodating response—one that is less retaliatory and more understanding. For example, romantic partners who are high in dispositional perspective taking are more likely to respond to a partner's bad behavior by overlooking it, or by trying to understand it: They are less likely to respond in kind or to verbally lash out at the offending party.

Second, empathy for one's partner is associated with a greater likelihood of ultimately forgiving the partner for a transgression. This is important because such forgiveness makes it possible for partners to restore the relationship closeness that is damaged when one partner transgresses. Forgiveness also helps release bitterness and anger and aids in emotional healing. Feelings of empathic concern are especially important here. In general, the more sympathy we experience for a transgressor, the greater is our willingness to forgive. In turn, such feelings of forgiveness lead to a reduced desire for revenge and a diminished desire to simply avoid the transgressor.

Reducing Aggression

Another way in which empathy can influence social life lies in its inhibiting effect on aggression. Although it has not been studied as extensively as the empathy-helping link, the association between empathy and aggressive behavior has received substantial interest, with two major mechanisms hypothesized to operate. The first is largely affective in nature. Witnessing the distress cues of another person (fearful expressions; crying) can produce sympathy or distress in the observer. Such feelings in turn may make the observer less likely to aggress against the victim because doing so tends to reduce the distress cues, and as a result, minimizes the observer's own discomfort. Another mechanism is more cognitive in nature. By taking the perspective of others, we may come to have more understanding and tolerance, and as a result become less likely to act aggressively toward them when provoked.

Some evidence exists for both mechanisms. For example, studies of delinquent and nondelinquent youth consistently find lower levels of dispositional perspective taking among the delinquents, and comparisons of abusive and nonabusive mothers display similarly lower levels of cognitive empathy among the abusive samples. The relation between perspective taking and aggressive behavior in the more general population is not as consistent, but is often found. Investigations of the link between emotional empathy and aggression in adults have fairly consistently found such a connection, with higher empathy associated with lower aggression; the evidence from studies of children has been more spotty. It seems likely that one reason for the somewhat inconsistent association between empathy and aggression is that it is often difficult to empathize with a potential target of aggression—someone who by definition has frustrated or provoked you. Susan may find it difficult to feel sorry for Harry, and thus inhibit her verbal attack on him, when she is also angry at his thoughtless behavior. As a general rule, empathy is more likely to reduce aggressive responding when the provocation is not too extreme.

Cognitive Representations

A final way that empathy may influence relationships is a bit less obvious—by altering the way that we construct and store mental representations of other people. In particular, empathy can influence the degree to which our cognitive representations of self and other overlap or “merge.” Seeing the self and other as being connected rather than separate is something that frequently and naturally occurs in close relationships, and in col-lectivist cultures in which value is placed on the individual being integrated into larger social groups. Even in individualistic cultures, however, deliberately imagining the perspective of other people may increase the degree to which our mental representations of self and other overlap.

Such merging is associated with at least two important social outcomes. First, it leads to a diminished use of stereotypes when perceiving other people. That is, when our cognitive representations of self and other are more intertwined, we are less likely to see the other as simply possessing the stereotypical features of the social categories to which he or she belongs. Thus, if Harry empathizes with Susan and as a result represents her mentally in a way that resembles how he sees himself, then he is less likely to attribute characteristics to her that are stereotypical of her gender, age, or ethnicity. Second, self-other merging is also associated with greater liking for others and more positive treatment of them. For example, we are more likely to offer help to needy targets when we perceive a greater degree of self-other overlap with them.

In a sense, what happens in these cases is an expansion of the usual boundary that separates the self from others. Our “circle of moral regard” is increased, and as a result we come to value and care about the welfare of individuals who are ordinarily outside this circle. Although this process is probably more common when the other person is not too dissimilar, it can occur even when the other is clearly a member of some identifiable outgroup.


Empathy has a generally positive effect on relationships, and this influence takes two broad forms. One is the beneficial impact that empathy has on the mundane details of everyday life. Unconscious and nearly constant mimicking of interaction partners produces an emotional synchrony that makes us feel closer and more attuned to those with whom we spend time. Dispositional empathic concern leads us to communicate more openly and to act in more considerate ways. The creation of overlapping cognitive structures corresponding to self and other produces greater feelings of similarity and liking. Thus, in a host of small and nearly invisible ways, empathy smoothes the rough edges of social intercourse and makes for more satisfying relationships.

But there is another way in which empathy makes its positive contribution to social life: It also operates during less routine, more dramatic moments—times of provocation, bad behavior, and betrayal by others. Perspective taking reduces the tendency to respond immediately and destructively to bad behavior by relationship partners, and thus helps avoid the escalatory cycles that often result from provocation. Perhaps even more important, feeling empathic concern for transgressors contributes strongly to a willingness to forgive, and with this, a readiness to forgo retaliation and embrace reconciliation. Empathy may therefore be said to have at least two important functions in social life—a maintenance function that operates all the time to keep relationships running smoothly, and reparative function that is apparent during times of relationship strain. Which of the two is more important is probably impossible to determine; a case might be made for either. What does seem clear is this: Because both are undeniably important to the long-term viability of relationships, empathy's importance for the ongoing vitality of relationships is substantial.

See also

Cognitive Processes in Relationships, Emotional Contagion, Emotion in Relationships, Empathic Accuracy and Inaccuracy, Helping Behaviors in Relationships, Interpersonal Sensitivity, Perspective Taking

Further Readings
  • Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Davis, M. H. (1996). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Eisenberg, N.; Guthrie, I. K.; Murphy, B. C.; Shepard, S. A.; Cumberland, A.; Carlo, G. Consistency and development of prosocial dispositions: A longitudinal study. Child Development 70 : 1360-1372., 1999.
  • Galinsky, A. D.; Ku, G. The effects of perspective-taking on prejudice: The moderating role of self-evaluation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30 : 594-604., 2004.
  • Ickes, W. (2003). Everyday mind reading. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Stürmer, S.; Snyder, M.; Omoto, A. M. Prosocial emotions and helping: The moderating role of group membership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88 : 532-546., 2005.
  • Davis, Mark H.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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