Emotional & Cognitive Empathy

Empathy Opens in new window occurs when you see the situation from the other person’s point of view, leading you to feel the other person’s feelings. In the sphere of social psychology, researchers observe that empathyOpens in new window may refer to an emotional or cognitive response. Thus, they distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

Emotional Empathy

On the emotional side, there are three commonly studied components of empathy.

  1. The first component consists in feeling the same emotion as another person (sometimes attributed to emotional contagionOpens in new window, e.g., unconsciously “catching” someone else’s tears and feeling sad oneself).
  2. The second component refers to personal distress, which involves one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving the plight of another person. This distress may or may not mirror the emotion that the other person is actually feeling. For example, one may feel distress, but not actual pain, when one sees someone fall. This type of empathy is especially relevant when it comes to discussions of compassionate human behavior.
  3. The third emotional component, feeling compassion for another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology. It is often called “empathic concern” and sometimes “sympathy”.

Empathic concern is thought to require more self-control than either emotional contagion or personal distress, although these earlier components (along with the ability to imitate) probably lay the groundwork for later, more sophisticated forms of empathy.

Indeed, empathic concern merits special attention for its role in triggering prosocial and helping behaviors. There exists a positive correlation between how much empathic concern individuals report feeling for another person (or group of people) and their willingness to help those people, even when helping requires some sacrifice—time, effort, or money.

Developmental research on empathic helping has prompted a never-to-be-resolved debate about whether empathic helping is truly altruistic (motivated by an ultimate goal to benefit the other person) or whether it is motivated by selfish rewards, such as reducing one’s own distress caused by seeing another person’s situation, saving one’s kin (and thus some portion of one’s genes), or securing public respect or the promise of reciprocal help in the future.

Attempts to decide whether the helping behavior is selfless or selfish are complicated by the fact that self-interest and benefits to the other person may overlap.

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Cognitive Empathy

The other aspect of empathy, the cognitive empathy, refers to the extent to which we perceive or have evidence that we have successfully guessed someone else’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is intimately linked to the development of a theory of mind, that is, understanding that someone else’s thoughts may differ from one’s own.

The spectrum of cognitive empathy includes very simple tasks such as visual perceptive taking (e.g., standing in one’s living room and imagining what a person outside can see through the window) and extends up to very complex mental challenges, such as imagining another person’s guess about what a third person believes (e.g., “I think Fiona still believes that Seth doesn’t know about what happened in Taiwan”).

Whereas greater emotional empathy is associated with more intense emotions, greater cognitive empathy (often called empathic accuracy) entails having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how that person feels.

Thus, cognitive empathy still requires sensitivity and knowledge about emotions. However, cognitive empathy generally does not include any reference to caring about the other person, thus allowing for the possibility of a kind of Machiavellian cognitive empathy that can be used to harm others (e.g., “know thy enemy”). This concept runs counter to most, if not all, conversational uses of the term empathy.

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