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Empathy is the recognition and understanding of the beliefs, desires and particularly the emotions of others. It is often characterized as the ability to put oneself into another's "shoes". However, this metaphor is ambiguous concerning whether one imagines actually "being" the other person, with all their beliefs and character traits, or simply being in their situation (such as being the Prime Minister). Also, one must be careful not to confuse empathy with sympathy, which is a distinct social emotion characterised by a general pro-attitude towards another person and their goals.


While the ability to imagine oneself as another person is a sophisticated imaginative process which only fully develops later on in life, the roots of this ability are probably innate. Our capacity to recognise the emotions of others are related to our imitative capacities, and seem to be grounded on our innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions we see, with the propioceptive feelings of those same movements or expressions. We also make the same immediate connection between the tone of voice and inner feeling. Hence by looking at the facial expressions or bodily movements of others, or hearing their tone of voice, we are able to get an immediate sense of how they feel on the inside. We experience this as directly seeing their emotion (say sadness or anger) not just the behavioural symptoms of that emotion.

Empathy should be distinguished from emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is unconscious and automatic and is caused by unconsciously mirroring of another person's emotional behaviour which then arouses the same emotion in oneself, though the self-conscious reasons we then ascribe for that emotion may well be different. Empathy in contrast is usually conscious, deliberately performed and retains a sense that the emotion belongs to the other person and not oneself. For this reason, empathically sensing another person's emotion does not usually overtake the empathiser with that emotion.

More fully developed empathy requires more than simply recognising another's emotional state. Since emotions are typically directed towards objects or states of affairs (either real or imaginary) is it necessary for the empathiser to try and get an idea of what that object might be. In addition, it is clear that the emotional feeling will significantly affect the way in which we perceive the object. For example, what aspects of that object we focus on. Hence it is not enough that I recognise the object that the other is directed towards, then recognise the bodily feeling, and then simply add these components together. I have to somehow find a way into the loop where perception of the object generates feeling, and feeling affects the perception of the object. And all this is before taking in account the character of the other person as well as their wider non-psychological context (such as being short or being a lawyer).

In general there are two potential empathic methods here: either I simulate the pretend beliefs, desires, character traits and context of the other and see what emotional feelings this leads to. Or I start by simulating the emotional feeling I directly perceive and then look around for a suitable reason for this to fit to. Either way, full empathetic engagement is supposed to help me understand and anticipate the behaviour of the other. There are likely to be many more subtle methods available, depending on the purpose of the empathic act.

Psychological basis

It is widely accepted however that not all humans have an ability to feel empathy or perceive the emotions of others. Autism and Asperger's syndrome are often characterised by an inability to empathise with others. It is claimed that this is due to a lack of a theory of mind (which is grounded in either a theory-like analogy between oneself and others, or the ability to simulate pretend mental states, and then apply the consequences of these simulations to others).

In contrast, it seems possible that psychopaths are able to sense the emotions of others, and can use this ability to charm or manipulate, but they crucially lack the sympathy or compassion that empathy often leads to. Empathy certainly does not guarantee benevolence. The same ability may underlie schadenfreude, the malicious enjoyment of another's pain.

There is evidence that connects the prefrontal cortex with human empathy. In particular, the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it, is the current hot ticket in research for the neural basis of empathy (as well as a variety of other social skills).

There is some evidence that we are more able and willing to empathise with those most similar to ourselves. In particular empathy increases with similarities in culture and living conditions. We are also more likely to empathise with those with whom we interact more frequently (See Levenson and Reuf 1997 and Hoffman 2000: 62).

However, it is also possible to empathise with animals. As such, empathy is thought to be a driving psychological force behind the animal rights movement, whether or not using empathy is justified by any real similarity between the emotional experiences of animals and humans. Some students of animal behaviour claim that empathy is not restricted to humans as the definition implies. Examples include dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks, and a multitude of behaviours observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild. See, for instance, the popular book The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans de Waal.

Empathy may be painful: seeing the pain of others, especially as broadcasted by mass media, can cause temporary or permanent clinical depression; a phenomenon which is sometimes called weltschmerz.


The empathic process is exploited to a certain extent in all kinds of fiction, thus we may identify deeply with characters appearing in books, plays or films.

In some works of science fiction and fantasy, empathy is understood to be a paranormal or psychic ability to sense the emotions of others, as opposed to telepathy, which allows one to perceive thoughts as well. A person who has that ability is called an 'empath'. The most famous example of this is the character Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (on which the film Blade Runner was based) directly explores a number of issues surrounding empathy and the emotions. Most notably a test which distinguishes humans from androids based on involuntary empathic reactions, but also a religion based on collective experience and empathy for animals, as well as the 'mood organ'; a device which arouses any chosen emotion.

The information above is not intended for and should not be used as a substitute for the diagnosis and/or treatment by a licensed, qualified, health-care professional. This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It incorporates material originating from the Wikipedia article "Empathy".

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