This post examines empathy, as part of a sequence of posts about virtues. It is mostly an exploration of what other people have learned about empathy, rather than my own research or opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will help people who want to know more about empathy and how to practice it skillfully.

This was a particularly interesting (and difficult) post to research and write. There is a wealth of literature about empathy, and I found a lot of it surprising. I feel kind of like the kid who opened up the back of dad’s watch to see how it works and now is sitting amidst a cubic yard of springs and gears wondering how to put it all back together.

What is empathy?

The word “empathy” is pretty new. It apparently was coined in 1908,[1] and only really caught on in the last half of the 20th century.[2] (The concept itself is not so new; earlier authors sometimes deployed the word “sympathy” to cover similar experiences.)

a Google Books Ngram view

The definition of empathy is contested.[3] What sort of thing empathy is also defies agreement: is it a sense or emotion (an immediate and visceral mirroring of another person’s state), or is it more like an intellectual feat (accurately discerning another person’s viewpoint), or maybe a social skill (the ability to respond appropriately to another’s condition)?

Some authors narrowly define empathy as a sense or feeling, like “the coexperience of another’s situation”[4] or “feeling what you think others are feeling.”[5] Others apply the term to a constellation of feelings, cognitive interpretations, and responses, for example “a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support”[6] or “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”[7]

In some descriptions of empathy it is restricted to feeling distress upon noticing someone else exhibiting distress in circumstances such as pain, fear, or loss. But in others, you might just as easily empathize happily with someone experiencing more enjoyable emotions like joy or triumph (“I’m so proud of you!”), or empathize curiously with someone who is not experiencing any strong emotion at all but whose perspective you want to explore for other reasons (“I wonder what’s on his mind.”).

If all of this weren’t confusing enough, authors will sometimes slide between different definitions without seeming to realize that they’re doing it. (I’ll probably end up doing this too.)

There is plenty of interesting speculation and research about the evolutionary pathways that led to human empathy, the neurological correlates to empathic behavior, the expression of empathy (or its building blocks) by other animal species, and the developmental stages of empathy in children. I’m mostly going to leave such stuff out of my summary of the topic here, which is going to focus on how adult humans can characteristically empathize well. One important take-away from such research, however, is that different components of empathy have different foundations in development and in the brain. So people will probably differ in which components they are better or worse at. If I find myself to be unskilled at empathy I might want to look more closely at which specific component seems to be lagging. And if I try to strengthen my empathy, I may have more luck if I look for ways to strengthen individual components.

People sometimes speak of empathy as a perception that operates automatically and subconsciously—or even as a variety of emotion. Other times empathy is described as a deliberate and cognitive skill of creating and working with mental models about other people. Some models incorporate both of these possibilities, working in tandem. I will also be considering empathy as a variety of virtue, which puts it more in the deliberate-skill category (a virtue is also a characteristic skill). So I want to examine (a) whether characteristic empathy is good for you (is it part of how to flourish as a human being); (b) if so, how is empathy best practiced; and (c) what practical steps can you take to get better at it.

An applause light often accompanies the word “empathy.” Authors who write about empathy sometimes gush about other things that fall into the halo surrounding empathy—like being kind, civil, tolerant, cosmopolitan, peaceful, or gentle—seemingly without realizing they’ve changed the subject. A lot of short-form popular writing on empathy doesn’t look at it critically, but assumes that it is good, full-stop, and that everybody just needs more of it. But on closer examination empathy seems not to be a more-is-better sort of virtue, but one that follows the Aristotelian “golden mean” theory: virtuous empathy is empathy characteristically practiced at the right times, in the right ways, and to the right extent. Even Karla McLaren, the most enthusiastic empathy booster of those I read, agrees that “there’s a sweet spot with empathic skills” between too little and too much.[6]

Just about everybody empathizes. One of the more empathy-skeptical writers I read nonetheless concluded that “If there were people lacking empathy completely, we would not recognize them as people.”[4] Indeed, people seem to be “hyperempathic.” It is a little weird how eager we are to empathize, for instance when we invent gods and spirits whose moods and whims we intuit to explain natural phenomena, or when we attribute emotions and motivations to things we have no reason to believe possess any, such as animated geometric shapes:

What are the components of empathy?

There seems to be some agreement that empathy is not a simple thing, but is a composite of things. There is less agreement about what those things are, or which things are part of empathy and which ought to be carved off and assigned to something else.

One common way to divide empathy is between its affective (“experience sharing,” “emotional empathy”) and cognitive (“understanding,” “mental state attribution”) aspects.[8]

Some authors restrict the term “empathy” to the affective aspects.[9]

Others add a third category that I’ll call “behavioral empathy” (a.k.a. “empathic concern”[10] or “perceptive engagement”[6]). This concerns how, once you have felt and understood another person’s point of view, you make use of that to take some appropriate action.

Affective empathy

The affective aspects are usually thought to be temporally, developmentally, and evolutionarily primary. They begin with simple mirroring or mimicry of the current emotional state of another person. You see them startle, you get frightened too (before you know what you’re supposed to be afraid of). You see them crying and tears come to your eyes (before you know what’s wrong). You laugh along at the punchline (before you get the joke). You watch Two Girls, One Cup and find yourself gagging as if you were one of the stars.

(Inevitably, “mirror neurons” are invoked to explain some of this, so I feel obligated to mention them here. These are neurons, first discovered in macaque monkeys, that fire both when a creature performs some particular action and when they view someone else performing that same action.)

Sometimes this mirroring is called “emotional contagion,” but other authors use that phrase to refer only to a pathological empathic overreaction in which you become so overwhelmed by an empathic emotion that you lose track of where it came from and feel it as though it originated with you. (Still other authors recognize that same pathology, but give it different labels, like “empathic distress” or “personal distress.”) In any case, mirroring primes the pump for the rest of the empathic process. You begin by mimicking another person’s affect, and then, by perceiving what feelings this mirroring evokes in you, you get some insight into what feelings might be going on in the other person.

People can get tripped up at this early stage of empathy. If they find empathically-evoked emotions overwhelming or unwelcome, they may try to escape from them and to suppress the affective empathy response. For example, people who have learned aversion to certain emotions, or people who learned from bad childhood experiences that emotional extremes in others can be precursors to abuse, may react in that way. People with heightened sensitivity to emotional stimulus may also find affective empathy overwhelming. Karla McLaren theorizes that the empathy deficits measured in people with autism spectrum conditions may be caused this way.[6]

A subset of “empathic accuracy” is sometimes teased out from the rest of affective empathy.[6] When you mirrored the other person’s affect, did you hit the target? Your empathy can get off to a bad start without this sort of accuracy: They laugh nervously, you laugh uproariously; they are pleasantly surprised, you become bewildered; they express amused chagrin, you become indignant on their behalf. If certain emotions trigger things in you idiosyncratically (e.g. fear⇒panic or embarrassment⇒shame), this can also interfere with empathic accuracy.

Elizabeth Segal adds “affective mentalizing” as a subcomponent of affective empathy.[11] This additional step provides more raw material for cognitive empathy to operate on. It involves appraising another’s emotional state by pulling together additional clues like body language, facial expressions, knowledge about the other’s beliefs & situation, and context (what just happened). This process can cause you to engage in an additional cascade of mirroring behavior. You can also summon affective mentalizing deliberately, without the trigger of an initial acute emotional outburst from someone else, just by deciding to pay closer attention to someone. When you develop an emotional response to a character in a story or a daydream, for example, you are doing so by means of affective mentalizing.

Cognitive empathy

“When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter your grief, I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die; but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you; and I not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your account, and not in the least upon my own.” ―Adam Smith[12]

Cognitive empathy also has a few subcomponents.

“Emotion regulation” is a damper on the emotional contagion process.[6] It allows even an alarming empathic emotion to appear as a cool blue info-light on your dashboard rather than a blinking red warning. Without emotional regulation, you might let such an emotion run away with you in a way that doesn’t do you or anyone else any good.

You will sometimes hear people described as “extremely empathic” because they overreact to the emotions of others—going into hysterics at another person’s distress, for instance. But this is better thought of as poorly-calibrated empathy. Some people respond to others’ pain/distress/etc. with avoidance, anti-social behavior, aggression, or personal distress, any of which demonstrates that something is amiss here.[13]

“Self-other awareness” enables you to empathize with another person while keeping your sense of self intact. It helps you realize that you are empathizing—that you are experiencing a borrowed emotion—and that you can therefore more dispassionately decide how much you want to get wrapped up in it. Without it, you can become mistaken about the nature of your feelings and your empathy can become narcissistic (“look at all the suffering your distress is causing me”).

“Perspective taking” is when you try to imagine the other person’s experience from their point of view. The first part of this is to shift from considering how you feel about what they feel to considering how they feel. This is the difference, for example, between being happy that your child is happy because it’s more pleasant to be around a happy child and being happy that your child is happy because you share in their happiness.

(This is where “theory of mind” tends to enter the discussion, but I’ll try to avoid the temptation to go down that rabbit hole.)

There are two ways to go about this shift in perspective. The first and easiest is to imagine how you would feel if you yourself were in the other’s situation. But this can be misleading.[14] Another approach is to imagine how you would feel if you were them in their situation. That requires you to engage in some difficult and speculative modeling of what it is like to be the other person, but as a result may give you a more accurate model of them to work with.

If you know the other person and their agenda well, taking their perspective is easier. If they’re a stranger to you, you have little to go on but your model of a typical person, combined with whatever stereotypes you have about people-like-them, and whatever clues you have picked up during “affective mentalizing.” This suggests that you will be better able to empathize accurately if you have better models of people in all their rich variety: which things are peculiar to you and which are more general to humanity, in what ways people are diverse, what sorts of traits and attitudes tend to cluster in people, and so forth.

Knowledge of context and social nuance comes in handy at this stage too. What signals are people putting out? Are subtle things—like plausibly-deniable slights, back-handed compliments, or damning with faint praise—coming into play? If you do not have a sophisticated understanding of social dynamics, it can be easy in some circumstances to draw the wrong conclusions about another person’s state and what triggered it.

It’s important to distinguish all of this from a colder sort of assessment: “so-and-so is in such-and-such a situation, and so I intend to feel for them in some way.” In the empathic process, you go through at least an initial phase in which you feel, not for but with them. In the cognitive phase of this process, you may begin to move from this feeling-with to deciding on an appropriate feeling-for (e.g. sympathy, compassion, pity, concern), which leads us to behavioral empathy.

Behavioral empathy

So you are experiencing empathy, you feel what you believe to be a reasonable facsimile of what someone else is feeling… now what? Part of the promise of empathy is that this insight into the other person’s headspace will help you to come up with a way to interact with them that optimally fits the situation. Perhaps they have a need you could help them to meet, or perhaps they’re about to blow their top and you should beat a hasty retreat, or perhaps they’re feeling generous and now would be a great time to ask for that favor.

Typical examples of empathy-provoked responses include compassion, kindness, care, and consolation. These are often altruistically helping behaviors prompted by another’s distress.

One theory about this is that empathy prompts us to help a person who is experiencing a distressing emotion because we find empathically sharing that emotion to also be distressing and we’d like that to stop. This theory leaves it something of a mystery why we should help rather than stop empathizing, which would be as effective for that purpose and probably simpler. Empathy seems sticky: you can turn away but you can’t get it out of your head; you could have helped and that bugs you. Experimentally, even when people are given the option of an easy, clean exit from an empathically distressing situation, they still often opt to help instead.[15]

Paul Bloom believes a better explanation is that empathy helps to trigger preexisting humane motives (or, perhaps, “virtues”). Empathy does not goad us to be compassionate in order that our compassion will indirectly relieve our empathic distress, but it makes us aware that an occasion for compassion has arisen so that we can rise to the occasion if that is our wont. “It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering salient. [In contrast, i]f you made a sadist more empathic, it would just lead to a happier sadist…”[16]

Another example of an empathy-provoked response might be forgiveness, which is easier for us to give when we empathically verify the other person’s remorse. And, from the other direction, apology is more effective if it appears to come from a place of vivid awareness of the harm caused (not just from an abstract acknowledgment of wrongdoing), and you can better understand that harm if you feel it empathically.[17]

Social empathy

Elizabeth Segal would like to add “social empathy” to the list. Social empathy involves a more sophisticated understanding of large-scale social dynamics: how people’s perspectives are affected by things like class, race, culture, history, systemic barriers, and so forth. It gives you the “ability to understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities.”[18] It seems to be in part an attempt to shoehorn sometimes-parochial modern social justice concerns into empathy, and I was skeptical about how Segal et al. went about it.

A proposed Social Empathy Index test includes questions like “I think the government needs to be a part of leveling the playing field for people from different racial groups,” “I believe adults who are poor deserve social assistance,” and “I believe that each of us should participate in political activities,” that seem to uncritically import certain contested ideas into the definition of social empathy.[19] (For example: What if I think I should give a hand to adults who are poor even if they don’t “deserve” it? Does that make me more or less socially empathic? What if I think they could probably use financial assistance more than “social assistance” whatever that is?) Another such question—“I believe government should protect the rights of minorities”—seems to me like it only potentially measures empathy for others if the answerer doesn’t consider themselves one of the minorities who would be protected (that Latinos in the U.S. have higher SEI scores than Whites shouldn’t be surprising even if you suspect both groups have a similar amount of “social empathy,” given questions like that).

In part, “social empathy” is meant to address well-documented common biases in human empathy, such as those that favor ingroups over outgroups. “How do we cultivate the type of empathic reactions that people demonstrate toward friends and family members in their responses to groups who differ from them, particularly groups that have historically been the focus of prejudice and oppression?”[20]

Other models

Fritz Breithaupt has an idiosyncratic model for empathy.[21] If I understand him right, he says that a typical person has most of the various “abilities and mechanisms related to empathy” described in the Affective, Cognitive, and Behavioral sections above, “and a [hyperempathic] tendency to use them;” but also has a vigorous set of empathy suppression mechanisms. These suppression mechanisms operate at multiple levels, from the neural, to the conscious (e.g. evaluating when someone is emotionally manipulating us; deciding when someone had-it-coming), to the societal (e.g. learning which animals we ought to feel empathy toward and which ones we can mercilessly chop up for bait). They prevent empathy from disturbing us unless certain conditions are met. In Breithaupt’s model, these suppression mechanisms are as important to well-regulated empathy as any of the positive abilities and mechanisms, but they also have biases and idiosyncrasies.

How is empathy measured?

There has been a lot of research into empathy, of a more-or-less scientific nature. Much of the challenge of such research comes from how to measure empathy. A typical approach is to give people self-assessment questionnaires in which they are asked how much they feel certain descriptions apply to them (e.g. “When someone else is feeling excited, I tend to get excited too” or “I become irritated when someone cries”).

But this means researchers are not measuring empathy itself, but how much people report that statements about empathy apply to them. This sort of indirect measurement is flawed. It is not unheard of for people to have inaccurate self-images, for example. And people may respond to such questions aspirationally (what they would like to be, or what they think they should be) rather than accurately.

One puzzled researcher found that students scored as less empathetic on such an empathy questionnaire after taking her empathy class. Why? After learning more about empathy, the students became more exacting in how they judged their own feelings and behavior, expected more from themselves, and so rated themselves more severely.[20] So someone with a low “empathy quotient” might either be someone who has little empathy or someone who has plenty but has even higher standards.

Similarly, when gender differences in empathy scores are found, it turns out to be very difficult to tease out whether this is because one gender is really more empathic than another, or whether people are just conforming to gender expectations in their self-image or in how they think it is appropriate to present themselves.

Another problem is that as the science of empathy has matured, and additional facets of empathy have been teased out or theorized by researchers, new questionnaires have been developed to try to capture these nuances. There are now multiple competing empathy questionnaires, which can make it difficult to compare results from study to study.

Even when the same questionnaire is used, it may not really measure the same thing over time because language changes. One study, which used a single questionnaire to measure 13,737 college students between 1979 and 2009, found that empathy measures had been falling substantially over that time.[22] The press of course went with the “kids these days” angle.[23] But one critic noted the results might be explained by the fact that the wording of the questionnaire had become anachronistically quaint (it used idioms no longer in common use, like “tender feelings”, “ill at ease”, “quite touched”, or “go to pieces”), and today’s students might not identify with such statements for that reason.[4]

Other ways to measure aspects of empathy include fMRIs and things of that sort, in which subjects are asked to perform empathy-related tasks while their brain activity is measured. Researchers can monitor different sorts of people (e.g. sociopaths, autistic people, children, meditators) or people in different circumstances or undergoing different interventions to see if their brains light up in different ways, for what that’s worth.

Some researchers have tried to measure empathic accuracy by filming one person, later asking that person what was going through their mind at various points during the filming, asking a second subject to watch the film and to try to empathically discern those subterranean thoughts and feelings, and then comparing that person’s answers to what the first person reported. It’s a complex experiment design that leans heavily on human memory, introspection, language-use, and subjective judgment. But it may be as close as we can expect to get to measuring and comparing the subjective and ephemeral.

Is empathy altruistic? is it moral?

Paradigmatically, empathy is a tender feeling toward someone else in crisis, followed by consolation or kind assistance. You feel someone’s pain and then you work to relieve it, for their sake. Is empathy essentially altruistic? This is also contested. It turns out to be pretty easy to tell a story in which seemingly altruistic acts turn out to be motivated primarily by self interest after all. But it is difficult to test whether this says as much about the seemingly altruistic acts as it does about our story-telling abilities.

“You say: How sad to think that the noblest altruism is, after all, merely a refined kind of selfishness.

“I say: How good to think that selfishness, when it is purified and stops being stupid, is exactly the same thing as the noblest kind of altruism.”

―Pierre Cérésole[24]

Empathy has been proposed as the primitive foundation on which humans established moral ideas (Martin Hoffman calls empathy the “bedrock of morality” for example).[25] Once empathy allowed us to see things from other people’s points of view, we then became able to entertain ideas like The Golden Rule, mutual tolerance, and so forth.

This further extends into political rights: If other people have aspirations, needs, etc. just like I do, they perhaps ought to have rights that I should respect, and vice-versa. Jeremy Rifkin for this reason called empathy the “soul of democracy.”[26]

Empathy skeptics, however, argue that because of the strong, demonstrable, and not particularly defensible biases of human empathy, it makes a poor foundation for morality or for political rights (see below for more about this). But Roman Krznaric points out that in historical accounts of societal moral progress, such as the abolition of the slave trade, successful appeals to empathy can seem to have played a crucial role. “Empathy and reason are not polar opposites, as critics like [Paul] Bloom would have us believe, but rather mutually reinforcing ideals on which we can build a more humane civilization. Indeed, it is ‘the gut wrench of empathy’ [quoting Bloom] that forces open the door of our common concern—and only then does reason have a chance to wedge it open with laws and rights.”[27] While it may be important that we use reason rather than biased empathy to make decisions about the worth of human lives, “the explanation for why we believe all humans should be treated and valued equally… is because empathy has made us care about the plight of strangers outside our local community.”[27]

Filtered empathy

Fritz Breithaupt is one of those who disagrees with the assessment that empathy is altruistic. “Like most other human abilities, empathy probably serves the empathizer first and foremost and not the target of empathy.”[4] He believes that empathy is better understood as a self-serving feeling: a mostly aesthetic indulgence and a way of satisfying our curiosity about others.

Breithaupt points out that in humanitarian empathy in particular it’s questionable whether we really empathize with those in need or rather with a (perhaps imaginary) rescuer whose hero role we empathically inhabit. Such empathy allows us to feel not the suffering of someone in crisis, but the praise due to the rescuer, and so makes empathy more alluring—we don’t feel bad for them but good for us. He calls this “filtered empathy”—empathy that is absorbed by a third party before reaching its ostensible target. (This may help to explain the common Hollywood trope of telling stories of struggling people in a roundabout way through outsiders who intervene to help them, e.g. Schindler’s List, Amistad, Avatar.)

This also may explain why we sometimes empathize with people we cannot possibly help (victims we hear about on the news, fictional characters, historical figures). Such empathy can’t culminate in helpful action, but if Breithaupt is correct, that is not its purpose: instead it culminates in a pleasant Walter Mitty-like daydream along the lines of “if only I had been there, I would have helped heroically.”

Empathic accuracy

Native Mandarin Chinese speakers overestimated how well native English-speaking Americans understood what they said in Chinese, even when they were informed that the listeners knew no Chinese. These listeners also believed they understood the intentions of the Chinese speakers much more than they actually did. This extreme illusion impacts theories of speech monitoring and may be consequential in real-life, where miscommunication is costly.[28]

When I empathize with someone, I have the sense that I really feel what they feel. Part of this comes from how visceral the emotion is: it doesn’t seem like I’m making up a story but like something has affected me. But do I have good cause to believe my empathic feelings are any more accurate than any other guesswork I might engage in about the contents of other people’s heads?

Is there even theoretically enough information available to a maximally astute observer to accurately surmise the inner state of the person observed? How transparent are we, really? People often seem to throw up clouds of ink in the waters around them, and can be mysteries even to themselves.

Even given the information that is available, just how clever can we expect imperfect mortals to be in putting it all together? Can we trust our intuition about how well we do at this complex task?

Correspondence bias a.k.a. the fundamental attribution error is one example of how we predictably mislead ourselves by observing others and then jumping to conclusions about their motives and outlooks.

Even assuming you have good, representative, unambiguous data about another person, and you use that data wisely to come up with a good model of how they work, is that anything like understanding how it feels to be them? What is it like to be a bat? I necessarily use myself as the only available model for what a subjectivity feels like, and so I’m bound to make errors if I try to generalize from my n=1. Every once in a while I learn something new, for instance that some people don’t have an inner monologue, and I have to throw out big hunks of my model of what makes other people tick. There’s lots of stuff like this, apparently.

“When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.” ―Edgar Allan Poe[29]

Fritz Breithaupt is among those who think empathy is deceptive in this way. An empathizer simplifies the situation of the person they are empathizing with to what seem to be the most relevant features; to that other person, the situation is messier. “[T]he feelings of the other person become a fact to [the empathizer], appearing transparent and perceptible.”[4] This can give the empathizer “a clarity not available to the other”—a clarity that may sometimes even be helpful, if the person being empathized with is lost in a thicket of details and uncertainty.

But this oversimplification may just be true of rudimentary, naive empathy. Another author stressed that more proficient empathy doesn’t have to be so reductive. “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see… Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.”[30]

Empathic accuracy is hard, but I don’t want to just give up. Awful things can sneak in through that door. For instance, you can justify doing cruel things to others if you can convince yourself that there’s just no way of knowing whether it’s really cruel from their point of view: e.g. “the Arab mind is different from ours,” “homeless people probably just like to live that way,” or “animals probably don’t really suffer.”

Karla McLaren recommends that to improve the accuracy of your empathic sizing up of someone else, you just frickin’ ask them. “The way to gauge your Empathic Accuracy is both very simple and infinitely hard: you ask people if what you’re sensing from them is true.”[31] You’re never going to become a supernatural mind-reader. People exhibit themselves in diverse and complex ways, and to some extent each person has to be interpreted anew as if they were written in a foreign language. Your guesses will be prone to errors, but you can always go to the expert: the person whose feelings you are trying to discern. McLaren recommends that you ask like this:[32]

“When you [objectively described behavior], it seems to me that you [want/feel x]. Did I get that right?”

For example:

“When you cross your arms like that, it seems to me that you feel impatient. Did I get that right?”

(She stresses that it’s important that you not import your guesses about their feelings or inner state into your description of their behavior. So, for instance “when you gaze out the window…” is okay, but “when you start ignoring me…” is less helpful.)

When we learn that our empathic assessments are incorrect, we can recalibrate and bring the other person into better focus. Unfortunately, according to Fritz Breithaupt, “false empathy is a powerful drug” and it can be difficult for people to abandon bad guesses once they’re empathically established.[4] Sometimes people respond to being told their empathic accuracy is off by accusing the person they are empathizing with of not knowing their own mind (this isn’t to say all such accusations are false, but it does take some chutzpah to assert that I know your feelings better than you do), or by getting angry at them for not feeling the way they’re supposed to or for not being sufficiently legible.

Relation to other virtues

Empathy can contribute to other-attending virtues like compassion, kindness, care, sympathy, pity, consideration, courtesy, nying je, consolation, altruism, recognition, respect for others, persuasion/education/tutoring, loyalty, amiability, and connection.

It can be helped by mindfulness/attention, emotional intelligence, curiosity, and imagination. Roman Krznaric thinks “sheer courage” can come in handy too, for instance in asking difficult questions that can improve your empathic accuracy.[33]

There is some tension between empathy and objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and justice. On the one hand, it can exacerbate biases that hurt such things; on the other hand it may help us more vividly see “both sides” of a case and may assist mercy and epeikeia.

The good and bad of empathy

There is extreme disagreement about the value of empathy: ranging from Karla McLaren, a self-described hyperempath, whose book calls empathy “Life’s Most Essential Skill,”[6] to Paul Bloom, whose Against Empathy says we’d be “better off without it.”[5] I’ll start with the case in favor of empathy.

What good is empathy?

“If there is one emotional intelligence skill that we would recommend developing, it’s definitely empathy. Empathetic people are happier, more self-aware, self-motivated, and optimistic. They cope better with stress, assert themselves when it is required, and are comfortable expressing their feelings.” ―Dr. Ilona Jerabek, president, PsychTests[34]

Empathy is (nearly) universal in humans. It develops in children in a predictable way at an early age. Forms or components of it are found in other animals. All of this gives the impression that it’s something that’s been selected for, and so is probably good for us at least in the for-our-reproductive-success sense of “good.” Why might this be? Here are a few common theories for how empathy might have been selected for:

  • Mirroring allows us to react more quickly to threats. When we see a fight-or-flight reaction in someone else, we can get our guard up before we know why.
  • Empathy helps us intuit and meet the survival needs of our ridiculously inept children.
  • Empathy also helps us as children to understand and manipulate the adults whom we rely on to get our needs met.
  • Empathy helps us navigate our social environment. It tells us whether someone means us help or harm, helps us better detect deception, helps us discern who is allied with whom, helps us distinguish an accidental jostle from a hostile poke, and so forth.

If you mimic the posture, facial expressions, and vocal style of someone you are with, you can thereby encourage them to help you and to form a favorable opinion of you.[35] Savvy business people consciously take advantage of this in job interviews, negotiations, and sales pitches. Police interrogators use this to build rapport with suspects. This may seem pretty far-removed from what we usually think of as empathy, but it may be more evidence for how the early mimicry/mirroring stages of empathy can help strengthen one’s social position.

Empathy seems to improve the quality of social relationships. People who score more highly on empathy questionnaires also report having more positive relationships with other people.[36] People also tend to value empathy in their friends and romantic partners. A friend goes up a notch in my book if it seems they “get where I’m coming from,” and I think demonstrating empathy is often an effective way for me to say that I care about a relationship and want to deepen it. Empathy might also improve your gift-giving proficiency.[37] 

Being empathic seems to correlate with feeling better about your life. In one longitudinal study of adults, researchers found that “[p]eople with higher empathy scores reported greater life satisfaction, more positive affect, less negative affect, and less depressive symptoms than people who had lower empathy scores.”[38]

Children who exhibit more empathy also have more resilience.[39] Empathically sampling other people’s situations and emotional states may help you to prepare for such things in your own life. This may also help you to learn culturally-legible ways to request an empathic response from others. When I roll my eyes and throw my hands up to heaven, I reenact a theatrical way of broadcasting “empathize with me in my exasperation!” that I had to learn somehow.

Thinking about other people’s problems can be a welcome distraction from your own (or can put your own into perspective), thus making you feel better. In one study, for example, peers who helped other peers with their depression found their own depression symptoms improving.[40] (Another explanation, but one that also favors empathy, is that when you give advice to others you may realize it’s good advice and take it yourself, but you wouldn’t have come up with it on your own for some reason.)

Empathy helps you to read the room, which can make you more courteous, persuasive, and so forth.

Empathically feeling unusual emotions in others (or in fictional characters) helps us to recognize them in ourselves and broadens our emotional intelligence. The more emotions we encounter in others, the more we are able to associate certain behavior and visible bodily changes with those emotions, and the better emotional vocabulary we develop. That helps us to potentially better understand ourselves, and also feeds back to improve our empathic accuracy.

When we look at the world through someone else’s eyes, we can use this as a mirror to look back at ourselves and get some idea of how we appear to others.

Empathy can be an aesthetic pleasure, “by widening the scope of that which we experience… by providing us with more than one perspective of a situation, thereby multiplying our experience… and… by intensifying that experience.”[41] It can sometimes be harmlessly pleasurable, for instance when we take joy at the joy of children discovering things or playing make-believe, or when we use empathy to satisfy our curiosity about other people’s lives.[42]

Paul Bloom suggests that empathy might work best in a backwards way: rather than a empathic person becoming distressed by seeing another person in distress, a person in distress may look at a bystander who is not so freaked out and become calmer as a result.[17] “Calm is contagious,” as the saying goes. For example, Leslie Jamison spent some time as a “medical actor” helping to teach med students to demonstrate empathy toward their patients. When the time came for her to be a genuine patient, she realized what she wanted from her doctor was different from that sort of empathy: “I wanted to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”[43]

Religious applications

Empathy is occasionally used to heighten religious feelings. Group worship and ritual (and chanting and song) can have the effect of synchronizing the worshipers’ emotions and outlook.

But there are also some practices that seem to use empathy to strengthen communion with the divine. For example, Christians may imagine themselves on the cross, in all of that gory awfulness, so as to better appreciate Christ’s sacrifice. Some Christians are said to have developed sympathetic wounds (stigmata) as the result of intense contemplation of the crucifixion. In some varieties of Buddhist tantric meditation, the meditator tries to merge their identity with a deity so completely as to lose their own identity.

Business applications

Empathy has become a business buzzword. It is supposed to have applications in management and marketing for example. Harvard Business Review (US) and The Empathy Business (UK) have produced “most empathetic” rankings of businesses. The “leadership consulting firm” DDI found in 2016 that 20% of U.S. employers offered empathy training to managers.[44]

If you can empathize with your (potential) customers, identify their problems, and come to understand how you can help them, you presumably can develop new products & services for the niches you thereby identify. This can be done through field observation & study of (potential) customers, and by empathically trying to get into their heads: why do they act the way they do; what are they trying to accomplish; how might we help them meet their goals more effectively? “It’s a process informed by deep qualitative data rather than statistical market data.”[45]

Patricia Moore was a pioneer of this technique. In one example, she used makeup and prosthetics to simulate the experience of elderly people, and used the insights she gained from this to inspire friendlier products for that customer segment.[46] Design engineers at Ford Motor Company wore prosthetics to simulate effects of pregnancy and of old age, in order to help them design cars that would work better for a broader set of customers.[47] Fidelity uses a virtual reality training application to put its phone bank “associates” in a (dramatized) customer’s home so they can see what it is like to be on the other side of their conversations.[48]

Customer empathy is exploited in advertising, which often invites us to empathize with characters in brief vignettes (who eventually buy product or service x and feel glad they have done so). See for example the old television ad below. It tells the story of a protagonist who meets and overcomes a challenge. We are meant to empathize with her in her struggle (and to imagine successfully seducing our husbands back with Yuban).

Charity marketing is particularly sensitive to the empathy⇒compassion⇒generosity pipeline. It is notorious for the sometimes ham-fisted ways it plays to the biases that accentuate human empathy, for example our propensity to empathize more with individuals than groups, or with the adorable over the homely:

We can expect marketing to become increasingly manipulative in this way, especially now that AI is being trained to intuit and respond to human emotions.[49] After all, even ELIZA was oddly engaging.

What about psychopaths?

A lack of empathy is a defining feature of the psychopath. Because of this, sometimes the psychopath is trotted out as an example of what empathy is good for (the implication being that lack of empathy is what made the psychopath the way they are).

But this is less clear-cut than it may seem. For one thing, the logical structure of that implication is faulty. (A lack of hair on the scalp is a defining feature of alopecia, but avoiding alopecia is not a good reason to let your hair grow long.)

For another, it isn’t entirely clear what the nature of the empathy deficit is in psychopaths. There is some evidence that psychopaths are perfectly capable of empathizing, but just don’t typically care to.[50] Psychopaths can be very manipulative and deceptive, which means they likely have good models of other people’s emotions, points-of-view, and so forth; they typically do fine on theory-of-mind tests.[51] They just don’t seem to give a damn about anyone else. On the other hand, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, researchers announced that they found people with psychopathic tendencies are less likely to yawn contagiously, implying that the deficit may prefigure affective empathy.[52]

The abhorrent behavior we associate with psychopaths may have less to do with their supposed lack of empathy than with other things that diagnosed psychopaths typically have in common (such as poor impulse control, criminal history, and low emotional engagement).[5]

What bad is empathy?

“The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy. Actually, they are often due to too much of it.”

“If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop.” ―Paul Bloom[5]

Empathy boosters invited a backlash with some of their over-hyped claims. From reading Roman Krznaric’s Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, for example, you would think that without empathy, mothers would let their children starve, charities would dry up, and nobody would help anyone else or commiserate with suffering friends. Without empathy, we would be damned to a “heartless world of indifference”;[53] and yet even now we are plagued by an “empathy deficit” and “epidemic of narcissism” that explains everything from Syrian civil war to child-molesting priests to insufficient action on global warming.[54] “Empathy is like a universal solvent,” wrote researcher Simon Baron-Cohen. “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”[55]

So now there are many strong and persuasive criticisms of empathy. From the point of view of empathy-as-a-virtue it is important to discern whether these describe ways empathy is wrong, or just ways empathy can go wrong. If the former, we should consider dropping empathy from the list of virtues we aspire to; if the latter, we need to carefully attend to how to be empathic more wisely and well.

Note also that some of these criticisms hinge on a particular definition of empathy. Paul Bloom, for example, in Against Empathy, mostly draws the line against affective empathy, and has kinder things to say about being understanding (part of cognitive empathy) and compassionate (part of behavioral empathy), which he thinks are valuable things that should be insulated from (affective) empathy in order that they should operate more effectively.

Some of the criticisms also push back against the idea that empathy is altruistic, or is the wellspring of altruism. They insist instead that empathy is really mostly for the benefit of the empath. From my point of view, though—examining empathy as a virtue—this is not damning in the least. I should hope that empathy helps the empath to thrive: then I know I’m not barking up the wrong tree.

All that said, here are many of the criticisms of empathy:

Empathy may make you more vulnerable to emotional predators and parasites. Dishonest panhandlers, for example, rather than asking for money outright will sometimes concoct an intricate “sob story” to encourage you to cough it up. If you are used to taking guidance from your empathy, you may be more likely to fall victim to such cons.

If you are not sufficiently critical in your empathic response, you may get caught up in someone else’s enthusiasm or rage when you would be wiser not to. This too can make you vulnerable to manipulation, both by individuals and by institutions that want you to help further their agendas. For example, it’s common for sympathetic victims of particular (real or imagined) atrocities to be repeatedly and vividly referenced in the rhetoric of those drumming up wars, pogroms, moral panics, and the like. When rational appeals to justice and interest fail to persuade, the unavenged suffering of that innocent child orphaned by the Hun might do the trick.

If you know you can evoke empathy in people, it can be difficult to avoid the temptation to play to the camera. Instead of feeling and behaving in an authentic manner, you feel and behave dramatically, with an eye to the effect this has on others. You see this even in young children, who may, for example, skin their knees and then look around to see if anyone else is watching before they decide whether or not to cry. (Is this a bad thing, or is it just a human thing? Is there such a thing as an authentic, genuine emotion that precedes its expression, or are emotions essentially signaling devices from the get-go?)

Empathy can discourage you from making necessary decisions that hurt or disappoint other people (for example, the decision to subject your child to a vaccination, or to say “no” when asked for an imposing favor).

Empathy may enforce conformity with other people’s standards, and discourage independent thought. If you would empathically feel someone else’s disappointment, disgust, judgment, or upset, in an unpleasant way, this may encourage you to conform to their desires and expectations instead, even when non-conformity would have been a better option.

The aesthetic appeal of empathy, or the emotional fix you can get from it, can be intoxicating and can sometimes cause what looks like pathological empathy-seeking behavior. This may be a factor behind things like outrage porn, poverty porn, and the popularity of videos capturing other people’s embarrassments, failures, and Jackass-style injury-inflictions. On the other hand, this same appeal probably explains a lot of the attraction of literature and drama. For example: when you read a mystery story you want to share the curious befuddlement and eventual a-ha of the intrepid detective. That’s part of the fun.

Empathy can be a mirage. People seem prone to believe their empathic intuitions are more accurate than they really are (see “Empathic accuracy” above). If you act on the strength of such belief without adjusting for this bias, you may act poorly. If you have an exaggerated belief in your empathic powers, you may lose the curiosity you need to really know what’s going on with someone else.

Clumsily-expressed or overconfident empathy can seem presumptuous and condescending. A politician turns on the puppy-dog eyes and tells me “I feel your pain.” Do you really? Leslie Jamison, who acted the part of a patient to help physicians in training with their bedside manner, rankled at the awkward tropes of empathy they were trying out:

I grow accustomed to comments that feel aggressive in their formulaic insistence: that must really be hard [to have a dying baby], that must really be hard [to be afraid you’ll have another seizure in the middle of the grocery store], that must really be hard [to carry in your uterus the bacterial evidence of cheating on your husband]. … “I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing an excruciating pain in your abdomen,” one says. “It must be uncomfortable.” [56]

Empathy can be emotionally wearying, especially in the case of distressing emotions or situations. Medical caregivers for example may need to suppress empathy in order to avoid burnout.[57] It seems people only have so much empathy to give, and so they need to ration it. If you use up your empathy at work (or in fretting over the benighted people of Borrioboola-Ghâ), you might not have any left for your family.[58]

If you cannot control your empathy, you may instead turn away from things that could really use your attention, if those things trigger an unpleasant empathic response you want to avoid. And that can encourage you to come up with quasi-rational excuses for not caring about those things, which can make you irrationally callous or neglectful. A less empathic, more level-headed problem-solving approach might have more staying power and therefore be more helpful.

To the Stoic philosophers, to condition your emotional disposition on the emotions or fortunes of someone else would seem to be foolishness of the first order. Cicero, summarizing (though not fully endorsing) the Stoic point of view, said that someone who feels distress at another’s misfortune is committing as much of an error as an envious person who feels distress at another’s good fortune.[59]

Is empathy unnecessary?

Empathy (feeling-with) is often defended as important in the development of compassion (feeling-for). Paul Bloom wonders why we cannot simply be compassionate without jumping through the biased and disorienting hoops of empathy first? When we are happy about our children’s triumphs, why feel the need to first be triumphant when we can just be whole-heartedly glad for them? When someone close to us is sad or nervous, what’s wrong with going straight to being consolatory or calming rather than mirroring their sadness or nervousness back at them first?[17]

Bloom shares the results of an fMRI study of a Buddhist meditator (Matthieu Ricard) doing “various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering” and reports that this “did not activate those parts of the brain associated with empathic distress—those that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain.” The same meditator “put himself in an empathic state” and got the more typical results, but also found it comparatively exhausting. Experiments on meditation-naive people in which they’re trained in either compassionate or empathic mediation apparently show something similar: the former is more pleasant and also leads to kinder behavior.[5]

Some researchers have had difficulty finding the expected evidence that empathy makes you a better person, or that lack of empathy makes you worse.[60]

Empathy does seem to be effective at goading people to altruism, but its biases and flaws mean that this altruism is often poorly-targeted and -executed. The cases of Baby Jessica who was rescued after falling down a well (“sympathetic strangers showered the family with teddy bears, homemade gifts, cards, and cash”[61]) and the #Kony2012 phenomenon are examples of empathy-induced altruism being both impressively strong and questionably-targeted.

Empathy is biased

Empathy is demonstrably biased in terms of whom we are likely to empathize with and in what situations and in what manner. These biases are hard to defend as bases for our compassion, kindness, respect, and so forth. If we rely on empathy to guide our decisions and priorities, we may unthinkingly import those biases. These are some of the biases that have been documented:

Empathy causes unconscious favoritism

If you feel empathy towards someone, this may cause you to practice unjust favoritism towards that person without recognizing that you are doing so.[62]

Empathy seems to encourage us to take sides with whomever we empathize with first. Fritz Breithaupt goes so far as to claim that “we do not act morally because we feel empathy; rather, we moralize to justify our quick and empathetic side-taking.”[4]

This bias is subject to exploitation. When you hear a party to a conflict say something along the lines of “you can’t stand aside at a time like this; you have to take a side!” you’re also being implicitly told “and try on my side for size first” which then stacks the deck. Once someone decides to empathize (with e.g. Brett Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford), that person is likely to view emerging evidence from an empathically-biased perspective and to be less able to evaluate it on its merits. In this way, “empathy not only fails to end conflicts, but deepens them.”[21]

Another way this plays out is that people who score higher on empathy scales are more likely to advocate harsher punishments of those who transgressed against whomever they are empathizing with.[63]

Your empathy is likely biased against people who are different or who are in the outgroup

People empathize more with those who are like them in certain ways (such as the usual suspects of language, culture, race, and nationality).

This effect is even measurable at early, pre-cognitive stages of empathy. For example, it’s easier to recognize emotions in ingroup members than in outgroup members (even when the ingroup/outgroup distinction is artificially imposed, not based on previous experience).[64]

The “othering” that applies to empathy (and other things) is somewhat flexible. “For example, in research where temporary group identifications were arbitrarily manufactured, dominant group identity such as race became secondary.”[65]

A good case can be made that this bias contributes to loyalty and group cohesion / coordination (and perhaps this is why we are biased in this way). In a conflict, you empathize most readily with those who are like you or in your ingroup, that triggers empathy’s side-taking bias, and that causes you to line up with your squad in the conflict.

We are also less likely to empathize with people we envy or otherwise dislike.[66]

Since empathy has biases that make you more likely to empathize with someone who is like you or for whom you have fonder feelings, when you empathize with someone you may thereby inadvertently suggest to others that you feel yourself to be like them or are fond of them. This can make it costly to (and can disincentivize you to) empathize with unpopular people. Why are you empathizing with that person convicted of possessing kiddie-porn? You some kind of pervert-lover?

The internet allows us to discover people who are uncannily like us in very specific ways. I wonder if this raised the bar for whom we see as similar-enough to empathize with? Since most people we meet aren’t like the select people we’ve become companions with on-line, are we now more apt to find we “can’t relate” to them?

Your empathy is subject to change with your social/political power

People tend to empathize less when they have more social or political power. Indeed lack of empathy may be a kind of status symbol.

Melania Trump visited a detention center for migrant children while wearing a jacket painted with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”

This effect is most noticeable in extreme cases, such as when an abusive parent or a hostage-taker has arbitrary power over another person. The Stockholm Syndrome is one way this can play out. The vulnerability of the hostages drives them to extremes of empathic awareness so they can try to anticipate their captors’ actions. This has such a strong effect that the captives begin to sympathize with and defend their captors. 

People who are more empathic seem more likely to experience the “traumatic bonding” phenomenon seen in domestic abuse that sometimes causes victims to become powerfully emotionally attached to their abusers.[67] One interpretation of this is that the empathic perspective is one from which the victim can rationalize the abuse.

But this effect is also measurable in less-extreme circumstances. For example, people from lower-strata economic backgrounds exhibit better empathic accuracy (judging others’ emotions) than those from higher-strata economic backgrounds.[68] 

We should be cautious, given how some “priming”-style social science studies failed to replicate, but with that disclaimer attached: In a variety of experiments, people who were asked to recall a situation in which they had power over someone else then demonstrated reduced ability to mirror others, to comprehend their viewpoints, or to learn from others’ perspectives.[69]

However for some people who attain power, “if they feel responsible for those who have less power or they already value being empathetic” they can be more than typically empathic, counter to the usual trend.[70]

Given the various flaws and biases associated with empathy, maybe it’s good that powerful people typically don’t empathize as much or as well. Maybe this helps them make tough, rip-the-bandaid-off decisions that cause short-term pain for long-term gain. Or maybe their lack of empathy helped them make more rational decisions that also helped to empower them.

There are many suggestions for why people exhibit this bias, among which are these:

  • If you’re already high on the ladder, you don’t need to put as much effort into understanding others. You can relax; you’ve made it.
  • If you have power, you have authority and coercion on your side and you don’t need persuasion as much, so you don’t need to get inside others’ heads to get them to do what you want.
  • It’s a valuable survival skill to understand the inner workings of those in the dominant culture if you’re not in it; it’s not so valuable to understand the dominated culture if you’re in the dominant one.
  • This could be an effect of a pyramid-shaped hierarchy with more powerless people and fewer powerful ones. It’s easier for each employee to be concerned, say, about whether their manager woke up on the wrong side of the bed, than it is for the manager to keep track of all of the various headspaces of their many employees. (However, supervisors seem to score higher on accurately recognizing the emotions of others than their reports do.)[71]
  • Some leaders have a management style that involves giving direction in terms of vaguely-stated aspirational goals, and then humiliating and browbeating subordinates who disappoint them. The subordinates are thereby incentivized to “get out ahead” of what the leader explicitly asks for and to try to anticipate what will make the leader happy instead. This can require those subordinates to devote a lot of extra attention to empathic mind-reading.

Other empathy biases

People prefer to empathize in “clear, relevant, and decisive” situations.[4] And we do so in a way that makes them clearer, more relevant, and more decisive—that is, in a way that papers-over ambiguities and nuances that don’t fit a simple story.

We tend to empathize with the here-and-now, with what is immediately available to our senses. Empathy is good at prompting prosocial behaviors that are informal, unplanned, and directed at someone right here right now, but not very good at prompting things that require more abstract, long-term concern (like giving blood, donating to charity, or volunteering).[72] We also have a harder time empathizing with what is not immediately apparent (for example, with the struggles of someone with an outwardly invisible brain injury). Empathy can operate on the “out of sight, out of mind” principle.

Empathy operates best at the level of the individual, and so we may empathize with one person facing a plight, but if we hear about multiple people undergoing a similar plight, empathy has a harder time gaining a foothold. (Mother Theresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”)

Empathy favors known/nameable/picturable individuals over unknown/anonymous/invisible ones. An example of how this can pervert decision-making is vaccine reluctance. If some child has a bad reaction to a vaccine, that child is known, has a face and a name, and can therefore be more-easily empathized with. But if a child avoids catching a deadly or crippling disease thanks to vaccines, well, can you even point to them? They’re a statistical projection, barely even a rumor so far as empathy is concerned.

People with different levels of experience empathize differently: A child may not empathize with a situation because they do not yet know what its relevant features are and have not had similar experiences of their own to compare it to, while a world-weary person may find it hard to empathize with the anxiety and surprise of a tyro.

We empathize more with people in distress whom we feel are “innocent”—that is, they were not responsible for bringing the distress upon themselves, or in any case that distress is disproportionate to any cause they participated in.[73]

We are less likely to empathize in “hopeless cases” of distress, in which we don’t think anything can be done to make it better.

It may not be realistic to say “be empathetic, but try to be on guard about your biases.” Paul Bloom thinks advice like that is hogwash, especially when people propose deploying empathy to mitigate the harmful effects of ingroup/outgroup biases. “Asking people to feel as much empathy for an enemy as for their own child is like asking them to feel as much hunger for a dog turd as for an apple—it’s logically possible, but it doesn’t reflect the normal functioning of the human mind.”[74]

Vampiristic and sadistic empathy

Fritz Breithaupt highlights two harmful forms of empathy.

One, he calls “vampiristic empathy.”[75] This sort of empathy is more aggressive in how it attempts to import the experience of another person. The empathic vampire is not content with sampling that experience in order to understand it better, but they want to go further and appropriate that experience for their own. Examples of this include “helicopter parents, stage mothers, …fans…[, and] stalkers” who engage in “obsessive observation” of their subjects “while supplanting [the other’s] objectives, goals, or desires with [the empathizer]’s own.” The goal of this sort of empathy is to enrich the self with something that is envied about the other. For example, obsessive celebrity fans empathize with the objects of their obsessions in the hopes of feeling what it’s like to be special, worthy of admiration, and worthy in particular of the obsessiveness of the fan. But this technique is self-frustrating. By obsessively concentrating on the other, the self just gets emptier, and the quest to assimilate the other person’s life becomes increasingly desperate.

The other he calls “empathetic sadism.”[76] Some people get a charge out of empathically feeling the suffering of someone else. And many of us can be tempted by, for example, wanting to see someone who has hurt us suffer as we suffered. Breithaupt wants us to recognize that in such cases empathy is what allows us to imagine what will most hurt our victim, and also allows us to revel in that pain.

In empathetic sadism “[a] person creates, encourages, wishes for, or tolerates a scenario in which someone else is placed in danger or made to suffer, precisely in order to feel empathy with that person, now cast in the role of the victim.” And this is not limited to brutal psychopaths or revenge fantasies. Why do we enjoy daredevils, like for example tightrope walkers or Evel Knievel-style stunt performers? We enjoy safely empathizing with their peril, maybe with their courage or fear—which they have taken on for our entertainment. Is this not a sadistic form of empathy?

Breithaupt himself puts forward “empathy rape” as an example. Contrary to theories that the rapist treats their victim as an object, devoid of feelings, Breithaupt says that at least to some rapists, the opportunity to empathize with the suffering of the victim is part of the motivation for the crime. He points out that “non-consensual” porn fantasy stories attend in detail to the feelings of the victim (a typical trope is for the victim to start off horrified and in pain, and end up begrudgingly delighted and humiliatingly grateful). Though I suspect that non-con porn fantasy stories probably represent genuine rape at least as unrealistically as other porn fantasies represent their real-world analogues.

There are also milder forms of “manipulative empathy”—“behaviors on the part of the empathizer intended to guide the other into a particular situation in which they will be emotionally predictable and it will be possible for the empathizer to coexperience their emotions.” Consider for example jumping out from behind a bush to scare someone, or telling a puzzling riddle. Internet trolls who try to push people’s buttons on-line are another example.

Sometimes people cooperate to converge on a shared and predictable emotional state: for example when you sing in a choir, attend a concert, watch a thriller, or attend a football game. There is something valued about the shared emotional experience (it wouldn’t be nearly so fun to go to a rock concert or a football game if you were the only one in the audience, even if that meant you had a front row seat and never had to wait in a long line to get a beer).

What’s common to all of these is “empathy for empathy’s sake. The empathetic response becomes its own goal, independent of any consideration for—or, indeed, detrimental to—the well-being of the other.”

A safer outlet for the sadistic empathy impulse is (theatrical) tragedy. Why do we enjoy a tragedy like Hamlet, in which everyone we care about over the course of the play dies and everything goes to shit? Our empathy for the characters evidently does not mean we are disappointed at their unhappy endings. This is a clue that it’s “empathy for empathy’s sake” we’re after. “[F]iction allows us to enjoy empathy without compassion or obligation to help.”

The Nietzschean critique

Fritz Breithaupt also analyzed empathy from a Nietzschean perspective.[77] This is my summary of his summary of Nietzsche’s ideas, so salt to taste:

In Nietzsche’s view, people tend to have poorly-developed, weak senses of self, to their detriment. When you empathize with someone, you further suppress your self in order to simulate their point of view (other ways in which you might respond that do not weaken the self would include loving or hating that person, praising or condemning that person, helping or hindering that person, or judging that person from your own point of view).

Empathy simplifies the other person to make them more comprehensible, and this process of simplification exaggerates how unified and coherent the other person is: in other words, it makes their self look stronger than it really is. The empathic person “project[s] onto others the self that they are lacking” and “feels empathy for that which they must give up in order to be able to feel empathy: a strong self.” This makes empathy somewhat vampiric in the sense described above, and also makes it a source of envy: we can dislike those we empathize with because we envy the strong self we believe they have.

Breithaupt calls this the “empathetic endowment effect” and suggests that it explains, among other things, why people like to follow the goings-on of celebrity stars and charismatic politicians. I wonder if this also explains some of the “why we love sociopaths” phenomenon. Sociopaths, because they typically don’t display much empathy, don’t dissolve their selves in other people the way most of us do. This may suggest to us that they have the strong selves that we lack and envy and fantasize about having.

Nietzsche sees people’s attempts to be “objective” as a variety of this same disorder. To see something objectively is sort of like empathizing with the point of view of God, and it is subject to the same sort of distortions as empathizing with another person (for example, we can be tempted to project a strong self onto this God that we hypothesize). If you try to be “objective” you undermine your self: You see your own priorities, passions, and judgments as just one of many, not as of any particular importance. You distrust and denigrate what is merely subjectively yours. You don’t form firm opinions because after all there are diverse opinions to take into account, and objectively no values by which to distinguish good and bad. (It sounds to me like Nietzsche would find the attempt to counter biased empathic engagement with rational “effective altruism” just makes the problem worse.)

In my own reading of Nietzsche (detouring from Breithaupt), I see what I interepret (through his bombast) as an argument[78] that when people sympathize with the suffering of others, at least sometimes what they are doing is giving themselves a safer way to experience their own suffering—deflected or projected onto the person they are sympathizing with.

How can you improve at empathy?

Since empathy seems to be a composite skill, we should be on the lookout both for things that may improve empathy writ large and for things that may improve the functioning or interoperation of its component parts. A good first step for improving your empathy might be to examine more closely which components of your empathy need the most improvement.

There is plenty of advice on how to become better at empathy and its components (and, less usefully, on how to become simply more empathic). And there is evidence that empathy is a skill that can improve with deliberate training.[79] I’ll try to summarize some of this advice here.

Asking questions, and listening well

As touched on in the “empathic accuracy” section above, one way to improve your empathy is to use the gift of language. You don’t have to painstakingly intuit what another person is thinking and feeling if they’re happy to just tell you when prompted.

This is a two-part skill on the empath’s part: asking the right questions, and attending well to the answers. It also only works well with a cooperative partner who is not being reticent or deceptive (or poorly self-aware or emotionally inarticulate).

“Active Listening” and “Nonviolent Communication” techniques are often recommended for this purpose. Some of this stuff can seem off-putting if it’s not used with a gentle touch: “they’re very obvious techniques, and I could see through them even as a toddler,” says Karla McLaren “You don’t have to parrot me to empathize with me. You need to interact—honestly, authentically, and as yourself.”[80]

Sometimes people engage in small talk with the goal of avoiding conversation that will be emotionally taxing. When we want to empathize, we need to shift from that mode to asking questions that go more to the heart of things and that invite more revealing answers. “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard,” says Leslie Jamison. “It’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking questions whose answers need to be listened to.”[30]

Another thing that can help is a broad emotional vocabulary that, for instance, doesn’t have to fall back on something vague like “excited” when you really mean something more precise like frantic, aroused, expectant, agitated, enthused, or manic. Karla McLaren insists that “empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.”[81] She, and other writers on the subject, recommend improving your emotional intelligence skills as a way of also improving your empathy.

If you want to practice asking good questions and listening well, you can borrow a human from the Human Library and do just that. Or you might go out for a Conversation Meal. If that seems like too much fuss or involves too much vulnerability, there’s always Chatroulette, which you can enjoy over your computer from the comfort of home.

Karla McLaren also recommends the back-channel communication technique of gossip. Gossip can give you important context about the people around you that you might not be able to learn directly from them and that can help you improve your empathic accuracy about them. Gossip has a bad reputation, for instance because it can surface things like envy and jealousy and because people dislike feeling gossiped about, and malicious gossip can be pretty awful, but good gossip can be informative and helpful in the empathic project.[82]

Literature, film, and other such media

“The greatest benefits we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” ―George Eliot[83]

“It’s not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains.” ―Steven Pinker[84]

When you engage with good literature (or film, or what-have-you), you will often empathize with its characters. Consider a movie in which the protagonist is at a crossroads; there are pros and cons to both decisions, and the stakes are serious. The protagonist pauses, anxious and indecisive. If it’s a mundane but okay movie you’ll be curious about what happens next. If it’s a great movie, you’ll be anxious and indecisive along with the protagonist.

Good literature can also let you inside of other people’s heads in a way that is normally not possible in real life. Consider stream-of-consciousness writing like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. Woolf shares her extraordinary talent for empathy with us—takes us by the hand and lets us empathize vividly too, by illuminating the insides of her characters for us.

Literature can help you learn what it feels like to empathize with someone very different from yourself or in a very different situation than yourself, when you otherwise might not have known where to start. The author can also spell out for you certain social nuances that you might otherwise have difficulty picking up on your own, and thus prime you to be aware of them in similar real-life situations in the future. Some literature operates as a kind of mystery story in which you have to be attentive to clues that help you piece together the motivations and attitudes of various characters; such fiction may prepare you for real-world challenges of empathic accuracy. In short, maybe literature is good practice for empathy.

A meta-analysis designed to determine whether existing research supports the claim that fiction-reading causally improves social cognition determined that “fiction reading leads to a small, statistically significant improvement in social cognitive performance.”[85]

Lynn Hunt argued in Inventing Human Rights: A History that the concept of human rights developed how it did and when it did in part as a result of the influence of mid-eighteenth-century European novelists, particularly those whose use of the briefly-in-vogue “epistolatory novel” form gave readers a more vivid sense that they were gaining access to the candid details of a real life. These novels became something of a craze, and the culture was swept up in this new, shared experience of empathizing with a (fictional) person in unaccustomed intimacy.[86] “The epistolatory novel did not just reflect important cultural and social changes of the time. Novel reading actually helped create new kinds of feelings including a recognition of shared psychological experiences, and these feelings then translated into new cultural and social movements including human rights.”[87]

This sort of thing may be true of non-fiction as well. There’s a genre of non-fiction (sometimes called “role reporting”) that describes the empathic process by having the authors immerse themselves in an unfamiliar lifestyle in order to see it from within with fresh eyes. I’m thinking of things like John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and Günter Wallraff’s Lowest of the Low. This is a sort of empathy-extreme. It is designed explicitly to help the reader empathize with the people the author has learned to empathize with, but may also model the process of empathizing more generally. (An interesting fictional example of where extreme empathy is central to the plot, rather than incidental to the storytelling, is the film Being John Malkovich.) Biography and autobiography also seem designed to satisfy that empathic urge in us to know what was it like to [grow up as a reincarnated lama, walk on the moon, cross the continent in a covered wagon, etc.]. 

One problem with this sort of empathy is that it may leave you at the mercy of cultural creators, who may not be very careful in how they form and direct your empathy. Your child’s developing empathy may be piqued by reading The Diary of Anne Frank or by The Turner Diaries, depending on which one gets into their hands first. Only certain sorts of stories and certain sorts of protagonists can get Hollywood budgets.

Sometimes works of literature use shortcuts to help you quickly decide whom to empathize with and whom you can disregard as an NPC or obstacle (the villain has a scar, speaks with an accent, and so forth), and these may influence your real-world empathy in ways you wouldn’t want. Actors exaggerate their body language & other emotional expressions, in order to make them easier for us to read. There may be some danger that this teaches you only an artificial stage-dialect of emotions that translates awkwardly to the real world (imagine trying to understand people if all you knew about them was what you learned from Noh drama). However I suspect people who have grown up in the post-television era have learned how to express their emotions in part by what actors have modeled for them, so there’s some convergence between the artificial and the real; maybe this just helped people adopt a common dialect.

Fiction writers sometimes try to get their readers/viewers to empathize with a morally repulsive character. (And here I’ll plug Why We Love Sociopaths again.) That’s all fun and games if fiction is just recreation, but if it does indeed help to shape our empathy, do we really want our empathy shaped in such a way that we see-things-from-their-side when they are a brutal serial killer or what have you?

Empathy may be a limited resource. If you do too much of it, you have to recharge before you can do it again. For this reason Karla McLaren is concerned that people turn to potentially empathy-draining activities like fiction, movies, television, video games, or outrage porn to relax. She recommends that you cultivate some non-emotionally-receptive, solitary recreation options—and that you create physical spaces where you can retreat and escape from the intrusion of others’ emotions—if you find your empathy waning.[88]

Because fiction allows us to empathize with a character in a way that keeps us actually aloof from them, it could also conceivably atrophy behavioral empathy. When you empathize with a fictional character, that never requires anything further from you. (In this way, it is a form of the narcissistic “empathy for empathy’s sake” that Fritz Breithaupt identifies as “dark empathy”.)

Walk a mile in their moccasins

The aforementioned “role reporting” authors went to great lengths to experience the lives they were attempting to empathize with. Sometimes people will try to boost their empathy by doing more limited, short-term performances of that sort. For example, they might spend one night sleeping rough on the streets in an attempt to gain more empathy for homeless people, or live on the spending allowed by a minimum-wage income for a week, or something of that sort. The Dialogue in the Dark museum exhibit takes place in total darkness, with a blind museum guide. Such things have a stunty feel to them and can be easily mocked, but there’s something to the idea that you can understand more about another person’s life if you directly experience some representative elements of that life.

However, this may not reliably produce the effects you might expect (empathy that leads to compassion). Counterintuitively, one study “found that people who have endured challenges in the past… were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation” and that “people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.”[89] Why? One explanation is that the rosy retrospection bias makes people forget how hard past difficulties were.

If you have more experience of life, you may “know how that sort of thing always turns out” and find it difficult to empathize with someone going through it for the first time.[4] Your adolescent child may indeed feel that their latest crush or craze is the most imperative thing in the world, but try as you empathically may, and even having experienced your own momentous adolescent enthusiasms in your time, you may just be unable to take it seriously enough to go there with them.

Acting (for instance, improv) and role-playing games might also help you to practice empathy by slipping into and embodying characters who live lives, and have outlooks different from your own.

Edmund Burke noted that the body language mirroring that sometimes accompanies empathy can also be done deliberately in order to heighten empathy:

When [the celebrated physiognomist Campanella] had a mind to penetrate into the inclinations of those he had to deal with, he composed his face, his gesture, and his whole body, as nearly as he could into the exact similitude of the person he intended to examine; and then carefully observed what turn of mind he seemed to acquire by this change. So that… he was able to enter into the dispositions and thoughts of people as effectually as if he had been changed into the very men. I have often observed, that on mimicking the looks and gestures of angry, or placid, or frighted, or daring men, I have involuntarily found my mind turned to that passion, whose appearance I endeavoured to imitate; nay, I am convinced it is hard to avoid it…[90]

Imagine ways in which the other is not so other

One possible way to overcome the ingroup/outgroup or othering biases that make it difficult to empathize with someone different or distant from yourself is to try to imagine them as though they were not so different or distant. Children are sometimes helped to develop empathy through what is called “multiple empathizing”: they are encouraged to imagine that some stranger in distress were really (say) their own mother, and how they would then feel.

In Matthew 25:31–46, Christians are told that Jesus will judge them in the last days in this way:

Then the King will say to those at His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in. I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and come to You?”

The King will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you have done it for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you have done it for Me.”

So Christians will sometimes strengthen their empathy by “Jesusing” the other. Mother Theresa again: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him.”

If you find yourself complaining “I just can’t seem to empathize with such-and-such people,” try instead to isolate a single such-and-such person to empathize with. It’s much easier to empathize with a particular person than with a group of people.

Then, consider what you share with that person, even at the most basic level. This is one of the most common and ancient empathy-related interventions. Consider Shylock’s plea in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

“The shift to seeing others not as different but as similar seems to be the strongest way to influence empathic resonance or insight.”[91] There’s also a potential feedback effect, in that the more you empathize with someone the more you recognize (or suppose that you recognize) similarities between them and you.

If you somehow come to feel empathy toward a member of an outgroup, this can also increase your propensity to feel empathy toward other members of the outgroup.[92] And if you learn examples of other members of your ingroup helping members of the outgroup, this can also increase your empathy for members of the outgroup.[93]

Try to see things from both/all sides

As mentioned before, when you empathize with someone, you tend to take their side, and this can make it difficult to evaluate conflicts dispassionately. One possible remedy is to make an effort to see things from other sides as well. Ideological Turing Tests are one way of testing your empathy in this regard.

But it’s not clear that this sort of intervention is reliable. In one experiment, grade school students in Northern Ireland were taught to understand the historical conflict there from the perspectives of Catholics and of Protestants, in such a way that the students were able to skillfully explain both perspectives. But this did not seem to reduce polarization in the students. Instead it seemed to help the students in “assimilating the experience of the other into their own frame narrative.”[94] It’s even possible that asking the students to employ empathy to process additional examples of the conflict (though seen from various points of view) exacerbated their original empathy-induced side-taking bias.

Be cautious around demands for empathy

When someone pleads with you to show empathy, they can make it sound like they are asking nothing more from you than what you owe them: to see things from their point of view, to show some consideration for how they feel.

But empathy can be taxing. It is emotionally costly. It is not just anyone’s for the taking. You have the right to ration it out as your wisdom and priorities dictate.

As mentioned above, the “see things from my point of view” gambit can be a way to encourage side-taking. There are times when you do not want to begin by taking sides but instead you want to evaluate a conflict according to impartial standards of justice. In such cases it may be best to say, “no; I’m going to keep looking from my own point of view.”

Some people who are having a bad time think they will feel better if they can make other people around them feel miserable too. Thus the adage “misery loves company.” Pleas for empathy can be part of that game. Sometimes people will crave the attention and intimacy they receive from others who empathize with them in their distress, and this incentivizes them to undergo (or masquerade, or amplify) additional distress. If you are cautious around demands for empathy, you may avoid feeding dumpster fires like these.


Multi-person games sometimes incentivize trying to “get into the head” of your opponent or teammate. Even rock-paper-scissors has something of that. Bidding strategy in Bridge is a sort of formalized gameplay-empathy in which you use gameplay methods to intuit what your partner knows. There’s a frequently told tennis legend in which Andre Agassi was able to take advantage of a “tell” in Boris Becker’s body language to determine how Becker was going to serve.[95]

There are also a variety of games that are meant to be icebreakers or intimacy-builders. Sometimes these can provoke empathic responses, and some are even designed with this in mind. Questions & Empathy, for example, is a card game that is designed to get people to share less superficial parts of themselves by answering probing questions from unfamiliar perspectives. “It’s like a highbrow Cards Against Humanity. It escalates you from small talk to big talk ultra fast.”[96]

Prosthetics, virtual reality, and video games

Prosthetics can allow you to viscerally experience some aspects of lives that are different from your own. There are, for example, fake bellies that people can wear to empathize with pregnant people. A device called Sympulse transmits tremors from a Parkinson’s patient to another person, “to help foster clinical empathy… to give movement disorder physicians and caregivers a sense of what their patient or loved one is experiencing in real time.”

Invisible disabilities are particularly hard to empathize with. Detour: Brain Deconstruction Area Ahead is a (1994) film by someone who tried to show from their perspective how their traumatic brain injury causes distortions in how they perceive the world and the difficulties this causes.

Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips’s The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World describes a number of virtual reality simulations designed to prompt empathy. (Some of these are virtual reality in the sense of fully-immersive headset-style presentations, others are more like interactive 360° video essays. Some are dramatizations, while others are more journalistic attempts to place you at a real scene.)

  • 1000 Cut Journey — “participants embody a Black male, Michael Sterling, experiencing racism as a child through disciplinary action in the classroom, as an adolescent encountering the police, and as a young adult experiencing workplace discrimination”
  • 6×9 — “places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation”
  • Across the Line — “put[s] viewers in the shoes of a patient entering a health center for a safe and legal abortion”
  • After Solitary — “lets viewers walk around the cell with Kenny as he recounts his experiences in solitary”
  • The Alfred Lab — “embody Alfred, a 74-year-old African American man with macular degeneration and high-frequency hearing loss as he spends time with family, visits the doctor, and receives a diagnosis”
  • Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience — “spend days in the life of someone who can no longer afford a home”
  • Carne y Arena — “walk in a vast space and thoroughly live a fragment of the refugees’s personal journeys”
  • Clouds Over Sidra — “Meet Sidra. This charming 12-year-old girl will guide you through her temporary home: The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.”
  • The Displaced — “portrays the impact of war and displacement on children with heartbreaking, immersive realism”
  • Enter the Room — “experience the trauma of war through augmented reality”
  • Hunger in Los Angeles — “simulate the experience of watching a man go into diabetic shock at a Los Angeles food bank”
  • Project Syria — “witness a bomb go off in the streets of Syria, turning a normal Syrian afternoon to complete chaos and destruction”
  • Use of Force — “the homicide of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas who was beaten and tasered by more than a dozen border patrol agents”

Another source of interesting experiments in empathy-evoking technology is

I find some of this uncomfortably aggressive. I imagine someone saying “you ought to empathize with so-and-so, and we’re going to keep giving you the helmet until you do.” Advocacy documentaries can be manipulative enough without adding VR to the mix.

I also wonder, why on earth would anyone volunteer to “experience the trauma of war”? What kind of monster would design an app whose purpose is to inflict the experience of the trauma of war on people? (I suppose since there are whole industries dedicated to inflicting the real trauma of war on people, I shouldn’t be so shocked.) Either the viewers know that they’re really only going to get a voyeur’s peek at it (which kind of defeats the purpose) or they imagine they’re going to get the real thing but they naively think of the real thing as though it were something safely scary like a roller-coaster (and is VR likely to change their mind about that?).

Something like Across the Line does not seem to me as though it is meant to help people learn to empathize with a patient getting an abortion. It strikes me more as a sort of waving the bloody shirt tactic to further raise the ire of pro-choice activists toward their opponents. As one critic said of Carne y Arena, it “puts so many eggs in the basket of creating empathy, since its power so clearly depends on a foundation of preexisting sympathy.”[97]

Video games are a sort of virtual-reality-lite. In “first person”-style games in particular it’s difficult not to feel-with the struggles and perils of the character whose actions you control and whose eyes you see through. Does this exercise the same skills as empathy? (Does it do so to our benefit?)

Developers have also designed video games that are meant to teach or improve empathy. Several examples I’ve seen seem to be designed for children and adolescents.[98] Another, Life is Strange, gave the game’s protagonist “an ability to read, experience, and manipulate the emotions of her peers” as part of the gameplay dynamics.[99]

Dealing with hyperempathy

Karla McLaren says she was hyperempathic as a child and that this caused some difficulties for her (for instance she would sometimes shut down or behave strangely in social situations because of this exceptional sensitivity). While she has now turned this to her advantage by becoming particularly skilled in and understanding of empathy, it was a painstaking process to get to that point. Her book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill might prove inspiring to you if you have similar struggles.

I am far from hyperempathic, but I think I can empathize somewhat with this. I can remember times during my days of psychedelics enthusiasm when, under the influence of some drug or other, I became hyperaware of social nuances, subtext, and the multiple levels on which social interactions were simultaneously operating. All of the wheels-within-wheels of conversation and body language and insinuation and so forth left me reeling, unable to make a move in this 10-D chess game because I couldn’t possibly trace all of the ramifications of what I was communicating. While there may have been an element of paranoia / delusions of reference here, I’m inclined to think that this complex, multi-layered social interaction is the norm, but that we usually muddle through reasonably well letting most of it happen sub- or unconsciously. Conscious awareness of the complexity and breadth of it all can be enlightening, but also paralyzing.

It may be useful if you have hyperempathic tendencies to learn how to identify unwelcome empathy and put a damper on it.[100] Helen Riess of the Empathy and Relational Science Program of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital recommends exercises in deep breathing, detachment, and mindfulness as ways help you observe others without having your own reactivity or empathically-evoked emotions overwhelm you.


There are varieties of meditation that seem to exercise empathy. The Mahayana Buddhist “exchanging self and others” meditation in which you assume the perspective of somebody else towards you is one example. Mettā meditation sometimes includes a component in which the meditator tries to imagine the basic desires of an expanding circle of beings. That sort of meditation is apparently effective at improving empathic accuracy.[101]

As an aside, there seems to be some convergence between the Buddhist no-self teaching and the Nietzschean critique of empathy mentioned earlier. In the Nietzschean point of view, when we empathize, we seek for a strong self in the other and project it onto them. Buddhism would agree that this projected self is an illusion, but would go further and say that we constitute our own illusory selves in much the same way. So Buddhist empathy may imply a peculiar psychology that is hard to compare to other forms.

Miscellaneous advice

Maybe you can learn and memorize certain universal facial expressions that can help you to gain empathic access to another person’s state-of-mind if you have difficulty doing so in a more immediately intuitive way.

Several authors suggested that you can improve your empathy by engaging in more cooperative pursuits with others.

Becoming more curious about the people around you (or being more bold about indulging the curiosity you already have) may help.

Being more aware of the biases that accompany empathy, and bringing those to mind when you find yourself empathizing, may help you to bring your empathic responses more in line with your values.


Empathy is something people do. We can do it in a way that is better or worse at contributing to our human flourishing. If we characteristically empathize well, we exhibit the virtue of empathy. This seems to be, as with other virtues, something we can learn and improve at with practice. I hope this post will help.

  1. ^

    To describe a type of aesthetic appreciation. See: S. Lanzoni “Empathy is, at heart, an aesthetic appreciation of the other” Psyche 10 August 2021

  2. ^

    Susan Lanzoni “Empathy’s Evolution in the Human Imagination” Zocalo Public Square 17 July 2017

  3. ^

    C. Daniel Batson Altruism in humans (2011)

  4. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019)

  5. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016)

  6. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013)

  7. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014)

  8. ^

    Karla McLaren thinks the affective/cognitive description is misleading, though she also subdivides empathy in a similar way to people who use that primary division. Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013) pp. 26–42

  9. ^

    for example Paul Bloom (Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, 2016) says cognitive empathy isn’t empathy but “understanding,” while the empathy he’s Against is mostly the affective kind

  10. ^

    Daniel Goleman “What Is Empathy?” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  11. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)

  12. ^

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

  13. ^

    e.g. P.A. Miller & N. Eisenberg “The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing antisocial-behavior” Psychological Bulletin (1988) pp. 324–344

  14. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017) calls it “emotional egocentricity bias”.

  15. ^

    M. Toi, & C.D. Batson, “More evidence that empathy is a source of altruistic motivation” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 43 (1982) pp. 281–292

  16. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 2

  17. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 4

  18. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, “Social empathy: A model built on empathy, contextual understanding, and social responsibility that promotes social justice” Journal of Social Service Research 37 (2011) pp. 266–267

  19. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. “Developing the Social Empathy Index: An Exploratory Factor Analysis” Advances in Social Work 13 (2012)

  20. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)

  21. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 2

  22. ^

    Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, & Courtney Hsing “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis” Personality and social psychology review 15 (2011)

  23. ^

    e.g. Maia Szalavitz “Shocker: Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students Since 2000” Psychology Today 28 May 2010

  24. ^

    Pierre Cérésole For Peace and Truth (1954)

  25. ^

    Martin Hoffman Empathy and Moral Development (2000)

  26. ^

    Jeremy Rifkin The Empathic Civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis (2009)

  27. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp. 178–179

  28. ^

    B.K.Y. Lau, J. Geipel, Y. Wu, & B. Keysar (2022). “The extreme illusion of understanding.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

  29. ^

    Edgar Allan Poe “The Purloined Letter” (1844), quoting the fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin

  30. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014), p. 5

  31. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), p. 32

  32. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), pp. 188–189

  33. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp. 98+

  34. ^
  35. ^

    R.B. van Baaren, R.W. Holland, K. Kawakami, & A. van Knippenberg “Mimicry and prosocial behavior” Psychological Science 15 (2004) pp. 71–74

    B.C.N. Müller, A.J. Maaskant, R.B. van Baaren, & A. Dijksterhuis “Prosocial consequences of imitation” Psychological Reports 110 (2012) pp. 891–898

    R.B. van Baaren, R. Janssen, T.L. Chartrand, & A. Dijksterhuis “Where is the love? The social aspects of mimicry.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 364 (2009) pp. 2381–2389

  36. ^
  37. ^

    Jason Kottke “Giving Is a Form of Attention” 8 April 2022

  38. ^
  39. ^

    B. Bernard Resiliency: What we have learned (2004)

  40. ^

    Bruce P. Doré et al. “Helping Others Regulate Emotion Predicts Increased Regulation of One’s Own Emotions and Decreased Symptoms of Depression” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 43 (2017) pp. 729–739

  41. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), Epilogue

  42. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 6

  43. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014), title essay

  44. ^

    Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World (2020), pp. 101–102

  45. ^

    Jon Kolko “A Process for Empathetic Product Design” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  46. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp.ⅺ–ⅻ

  47. ^

    Adam Waytz “The Limits of Empathy” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  48. ^
  49. ^

    Rolfe Winkler, Daisuke Wakabayashi, & Elizabeth Dwoskin “Apple Buys Artificial-Intelligence Startup Emotient” Wall Street Journal 7 January 2016. Quote: “…amassing an enormous database of human emotions using technology that relies on algorithms to analyze people’s faces and potentially discover their deepest feelings.”

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    Harma Meffert, et al. “Reduced Spontaneous but Relatively Normal Deliberate Vicarious Representations in Psychopathy” Brain 136 (2013) pp. 2550–2562

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    Jon Sutton, Peter K. Smith, & John Swettenham “Social Cognition and Bullying: Social Inadequacy or Skilled Manipulation?” British Journal of Developmental Psychology 17 (1999) pp. 435–450

  52. ^
  53. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) p.ⅹⅶ

  54. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp.ⅹⅶ–ⅹⅷ

  55. ^

    Simon Baron-Cohen The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2012) p. 194

  56. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014) pp. 4–5, 12

  57. ^

    Ezekiel Gleichgerrcht & Jean Decety “The Costs of Empathy among Health Professionals” in J. Decety, ed. (2012) Empathy: From bench to bedside p. 255

  58. ^

    J. Halbesleben, et al. “Too Engaged? A conservation of Resources View of the Relationships Between Work Engagement and Work Interference with Family” Journal of Applied Psychology 94.6 (2009)

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    Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (~45BC), book Ⅲ “On Grief of Mind”

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    for example, David D. Vachon, Donald R. Lynam, & Jarrod A. Johnson “The (Non) Relation between Empathy and Aggression: Surprising Results from a Meta-Analysis” Psychological Bulletin 140 (2014) p. 16

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    Betsy Blaney “Baby Jessica turns 25, gains access to trust fund” Associated Press 26 March 2011

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    C.D. Batson, T.R. Klein, L. Highberger, & L.L. Shaw “Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68 (1995) pp. 1042–1054

    Anneke E.K. Buffone & Michael J. Poulin “Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others—Even Without Provocation” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014) pp. 1406–1422

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    Michael N. Stagnaro & Paul Bloom “The Paradoxical Effects of Empathy on the Willingness to Punish” (unpublished, 2016)

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    S.G. Young & K. Hugenberg “Mere socialization categorization modulates identification of facial expressions of emotion” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99 (2010) pp. 964–977

  65. ^

    description of (not quote from) J.J. Van Bavel & W.A. Cunningham “Self-categorization with a novel mixed-race group moderates automatic social and racial biases” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 (2009) pp. 321–335 [description from Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)]

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    M. Cikara & S.T. Fiske “Bounded empathy: Neural responses to outgroup targets’ (mis)fortunes” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23 (2011) pp. 3791–3803

    G. Bucchioni & al. “Do we feel the same empathy for loved and hated peers?” PLoS ONE 10 (2015) pp. 1–11

  67. ^

    Arash Emamzadeh “The Surprising Role of Empathy in Traumatic Bonding” Psychology Today 3 March 2023

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    M.W. Kraus, S. Côté, & D. Keltner “Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy” Psychological Science 2 (2010) pp. 1716–1723

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    J. Hogeveen, M. Inzlicht, & S.S. Obhi “Power changes how the brain responds to others” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143 (2014) pp. 755–762

    A.D. Galinksy et al. “Power and perspectives not taken” Psychological Science 17 (2006) pp. 1068–1074

    G.A. Van Kleef et al. “Power gets you high: The powerful are more inspired by themselves than by others” Social Psychology and Personality Science 6 (2015) pp. 472–480

  70. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017) ch. 4; Stéphane Côté, et al. “Social power facilitates the effect of prosocial orientation on empathic accuracy” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101 (2011) pp. 217–232

  71. ^

    M. Schmid Mast & A. Darioly “Emotion recognition accuracy in hierarchical relationships” Swiss Journal of Psychology 73 (2014) pp. 69–75

  72. ^

    Christopher J. Einolf “Empathic concern and prosocial behaviors: A test of experimental results using survey data” Social Science Research 37 (2008) pp. 1267–1279

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    J. Decety, S. Echols, & J. Correll “The blame game: The effect of responsibility and social stigma on empathy for pain” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22 (2009) pp. 985–997

  74. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 5

  75. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 5

  76. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 4

  77. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019)

    Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887)

  78. ^

    Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (1886) #222: “Wherever sympathy (fellow-suffering) is preached… through all the vanity, through all the noise which is natural to these preachers… hear a hoarse, groaning, genuine note of self-contempt.… He suffers, and his vanity wants him only ‘to suffer with his fellows.’”

  79. ^

    E. Teding van Berkhout & J.M. Malouff “The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials” Journal of Counseling Psychology 63 (2016) pp. 32–41

  80. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), chapter 8

  81. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), p. 71

  82. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), pp. 236–261

  83. ^

    George Eliot “The Natural History of German Life” Westminister Review ⅬⅩⅥ (July 1856) pp. 28–44

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    Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) p. 175

  85. ^

    David Dodell-Feder, et al. “Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 147 (2018), pp. 1713–1727

    For empathy in particular, see e.g. R.A. Mar, K. Oatley, & J.B. Peterson “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes” Communications (2009)

  86. ^

    Lynn Hunt Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007)

  87. ^

    Lynn Hunt “Inventing Human Rights” (lecture, March 2008)

  88. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013) chapter 6 

  89. ^

    Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, & Loran Nordgren “It’s Harder to Empathize with People If You’ve Been in Their Shoes” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

    Rachel L. Ruttan, et al. “Having ‘been there’ doesn’t mean I care: when prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108 (2015) pp. 610–622 

  90. ^

    Edmund Burke A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) Ⅳ.3

  91. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017), chapter 4

  92. ^

    C.D. Batson, et al. “Empathy and attitudes: can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (1997) pp. 105–118

  93. ^

    T. Saguy, et al. “Awareness of intergroup help can rehumanize the out-group” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6 (2015) pp. 551–558

  94. ^

    Keith C. Barton & Alan W. McCully “Trying to ‘See Things Differently:’ Northern Ireland Students’ Struggle to Understand Alternative Historical Perspectives” Theory & Research in Social Education 40 (2012)

  95. ^
  96. ^
  97. ^

    Ben Davis “Can VR Really Make Us Feel Empathy? Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Carne y Arena’ Proves That’s the Wrong Question” Artnet News 30 March 2018

  98. ^
  99. ^
  100. ^

    As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, Joanna Cannon’s “‘I feel your pain’: confessions of a hyper-empath” was published in the Guardian; it has a section with some advice on how to cope with hyperempathy.

  101. ^

    J.S. Mascaro, J.K. Rilling, L.T. Negi, & C.L. Raison “Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8 (2013), pp. 48–55

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This is a tour de force. I got a lot out of reading it, and expect to refer back to it in the future. Thanks.

Thank you, good Sir. This is a remarkable piece of scholarship. These days, most higher education institutions would salute this as more than adequate for a Masters dissertation. You  may, exercising your humility virtue, respond by suggesting that this is more about the decline of higher education, but try not to. It is a fine contribution, and clearly one that led you to rethink your assessment of this important virtue. As it did me. I guess good old temperance drops in, or should do so, whenever we have any unambiguous praise for, well, anything. I had considered being empathetic (and, importantly, empathic) as the key to the selflessness that seems to undergird all virtue, but now find myself wondering whether the disposition to be selfless is logically and behaviorally prior to empathy. And, if so, where the heck it comes from! Thank you again. And think, please, about consolidating your Notes into book form. That exercise would force you to expose more of your thinking about how the virtues hang together, and I for one would look forward to that.