Have you ever experienced someone else’s emotions as your own?
Has a book, film, or photograph ever driven you to tears?
Or have you ever felt driven to ease someone else’s emotions?
If you have answered yes to at least one of these, then you have experienced empathy.
Empathy is a complex psychological process that allows us to form bonds with other people. Through empathy, we cry when our friends go through hard times, celebrate their successes, and rage during their times of hardship. Empathy also allows us to feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment, as well as understand jokes and sarcasm.
In this article, we explore empathy, its benefits, and useful ways to measure it. We also look at empathy fatigue – a common experience among clinicians and people in the caring professions – and provide beneficial resources.
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What Is Empathy in Psychology?
In psychology, empathy is loosely defined as an ability to understand and experience someone else’s feelings and to adopt someone else’s viewpoint (Colman, 2015). The term ‘empathy’ comes from the German word Einfuhlung, which means “projecting into” (Ganczarek, Hünefeldt, & Belardinelli, 2018) and may explain why empathy is considered the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Difficulties with defining empathy
Defining empathy clearly and exhaustively enough to be studied in psychology is difficult. For example, is empathy the ability to understand or feel or share or interpret someone else’s feelings?
Each of these verbs differs slightly, providing a different meaning to empathy. As a result, the underlying psychological mechanism and part of the brain responsible for empathy also differ.
Part of the difficulty defining empathy is that it comprises multiple components. For example, Hoffman (1987) argued that empathy in children develops across four different stages and that each stage lays down the foundation for the next.
These four stages are:
- Global empathy or ‘emotion contagion,’ where one person’s emotion evokes the same emotional reaction in another person (or the observer).
- Attention to others’ feelings, where the observer is aware of another person’s feelings but doesn’t mirror them.
- Prosocial actions, where the observer is aware of another person’s feelings and behaves in a way to comfort the other person.
- Empathy for another’s life condition, where the observer feels empathy toward someone else’s broader life situation, rather than their immediate situation right at this instance.
Fletcher-Watson and Bird (2020) provide an excellent overview of the challenges associated with defining and studying empathy. They argue that empathy results from a four-step process:
- Step 1: Noticing/observing someone’s emotional state
- Step 2: Correctly interpreting that emotional state
- Step 3: ‘Feeling’ the same emotion
- Step 4: Responding to the emotion
Empathy is not achieved if any of these four steps fail.
This multi-component conception of empathy is echoed across other research. For example, Decety and Cowell (2014) also posit that empathy arises from multiple processes interacting with each other.
These processes are:
- Emotional: The ability to share someone else’s feelings
- Motivational: The need to respond to someone else’s feelings
- Cognitive: The ability to take someone else’s viewpoint
The Empathy Quotient
The terms “empathy,” “Empathy Quotient,” and “emotional intelligence” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same construct.
Part of this confusion stems from their corresponding definitions.
Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s emotions and perspectives. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, interpret, and manage other people’s emotions, as well as your own. This last inclusion – your own emotions – is what distinguishes emotional intelligence from empathy.
The Empathy Quotient is a measurement of empathy (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). It is akin to the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) but is a measure of empathy rather than intelligence. Like IQ, higher scores of the Empathy Quotient are meant to represent higher abilities of empathy.
Importantly, the Empathy Quotient differs from the Emotional Quotient. Emotional Quotient is measured using the BarOn Emotional Quotient-Inventory (Bar-On, 2004) and aims to measure emotional intelligence rather than empathy. It’s easy to confuse them because “EQ” is used to refer to both.
To determine whether the Empathy Quotient is a suitable test of empathy, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) administered the measurement to a group of neurotypical people and a group of people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and compared their scores.
On average, individuals with Asperger syndrome scored significantly lower than neurotypical people. From this study, a score of 30 was determined to be a critical cut-off mark. Scores less than 30 were typically found among the participants with Asperger syndrome. Furthermore, the test-retest reliability of the Empathy Quotient was high, suggesting that the test reliably measures empathy.
7 Real-Life Examples
Since empathy is so complex and involved in so many social interactions, there are many examples of empathy in the real world.
In a discussion with a friend, have you ever felt so moved that you experienced the same emotion that they did? Or maybe a friend shared a cringe-worthy story of sheer humiliation, and that feeling was mirrored in you.
These situations when you experienced the same emotions as your friends are examples of empathy. Other examples of empathy include understanding someone else’s point of view during an argument, feeling guilty when you realize why someone might have misunderstood what you said, or realizing something you said was a faux pas. These scenarios require you to take someone else’s viewpoint.
Some of the best examples of empathy can be found in the work by Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande. Sacks was a neurologist who had a profound impact through his thoughtful, patient-driven books on the field of psychiatry and neuropsychology.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who worked with the World Health Organization and has published several books on improving healthcare and healthcare systems. Both authors address their patients in a sensitive, thoughtful manner that evokes a lot of empathy in the reader.
The following books are highly recommended:
- Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
- Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Is It Important? 3+ Benefits of Empathy
We do not exist in a vacuum.
We participate in many scenarios in which we convey and receive information with other people, verbally and nonverbally.
Regardless of whether or not these interactions are important, we have to perceive, interpret, and respond to numerous cues.
Empathy is more than ‘just’ the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Empathy is an essential skill that allows us to effectively engage with other people in social contexts (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).
Without empathy, we would struggle to:
- understand other people’s feelings, motivations, and behaviors;
- respond appropriately to someone else’s feelings; and
- understand social interactions that rely on subtle behaviors, cues, and social norms, such as jokes, faux pas, and sarcasm.
The ability to respond appropriately to someone else’s emotions is extremely important for forming bonds. Empathy underlines the bond that forms between parent and child (Decety & Cowell, 2014).
Some researchers even consider some aspects of empathy to be a defining feature of humans. Our ability to consider another person’s viewpoint is considered uniquely human (Decety & Cowell, 2014).
Jean Decety and Jason Cowell (2014) argue that empathy is one process that contributes to understanding and engaging in complex social behavior, such as prosocial behavior, which includes volunteering as well as providing care for people who are terminally ill.
Earlier in this article, we mentioned the studies by Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) in which they compared Empathy Quotient scores between people with Asperger syndrome and neurotypical people.
People on the autism–Asperger spectrum are believed to have a diminished capacity for empathy and, as a result, struggle with social contexts. However, their lower empathy scores do not mean that they are without feeling or should be considered psychopaths (who also have lower scores of empathy).
People on the autism spectrum often report that their intention is not to hurt other people’s feelings, and they feel guilty if they caused someone else’s hurt feelings (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).
Furthermore, people on the autism spectrum often report that they want human connections; however, they struggle to make them because they are not aware of how their behavior affects how other people perceive them (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). This shows how important empathy is in developing relationships and interpreting subtle social cues.
Empathy vs Sympathy and Compassion
The three terms – empathy, sympathy, and compassion – are often confused with each other, because they are often used when referring to someone else’s feelings. For example, in response to a friend’s bad news, do you feel empathy, sympathy, or compassion? The terms are used in similar contexts, but they refer to different behaviors.
- From the definitions provided above, empathy involves interpreting, understanding, feeling, and acting on other people’s feelings. Empathy is a multidimensional process and relies on affective, cognitive, behavioral, and moral components (Jeffrey, 2016). Remember, empathy is the ability to adopt someone else’s viewpoint or to put yourself into someelse’s shoes.
- Sympathy is the feeling of pity for someone else’s misfortune or circumstances.
- Compassion is the desire and act of wanting to alleviate someone else’s suffering. Compassion includes the affective components of empathy and sympathy, but it is accompanied by an action to change the circumstances of the person who is suffering (Sinclair et al., 2017). A compassionate act can also result in our suffering alongside the other person; this is referred to as co-suffering. Compassion is also linked to altruistic behavior (Jeffrey, 2016).
Examples of Empathy vs Sympathy vs Compassion
To further cement the difference between these three terms, consider the following examples:
Emma relays a recent event where she was extremely embarrassed. As she retells the story, her friend, Tamika, groans and mutters “Oh my word, I would feel so embarrassed. I would want the world to swallow me whole!”
In this example, Tamika doesn’t actually want to disappear into a hole. Instead, she’s correctly understanding and interpreting the situation that Emma found herself in. She is most likely experiencing empathy for Emma’s situation. She is not feeling pity, nor is she acting compassionately.
Jerome’s mother recently suffered a near-fatal heart attack. He listens to his mother retell her sisters about her experience. As she recounts her experience, she starts crying, because she was so afraid, and she realized that she might never see her loved ones again. Jerome starts crying as he listens to his mother.
In this example, Jerome is feeling sympathy (pity) for his mother and what she went through.
On his route to university, Jamal sees the same homeless man every day. The homeless man sits in the same place, regardless of the weather, with a sign next to him that asks for assistance. Jamal decides to donate some of his clothing to the homeless man.
Jamal’s behavior is an act of compassion. By donating his clothing, he is trying to alleviate the homeless man’s suffering. He may also be experiencing sympathy towards the man, but the act of trying to change the man’s situation is an act of compassion.
Assessing Empathy: 4 Helpful Questionnaires
The Empathy Quotient, including the entire questionnaire, its psychometric properties, and the scoring, is described in the original paper by Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004). Professor Simon Baron-Cohen works with the Autism Research Centre (ARC), and the 60-item Empathy Quotient, as well as the scoring matrix, is available from the ARC website.
The Empathy Questionnaire (EmQue)
The Empathy Questionnaire (EmQue), designed by Rieffe, Ketelaar, and Wiefferink (2010), measures empathy in young children (average age of around 30 months) and reflects Hoffman’s (1987) theory of how empathy developed in children.
The questionnaire comprises three subscales, which map onto the first three stages of empathy development posited by Hoffman (1987). The questionnaire correlates well with other measures that aim to capture similar constructs. You can access this questionnaire on Professor Carolien Rieffe’s website as a free downloadable PDF.
The Empathy Questionnaire for Children and Adolescents (EmQue-CA)
A similar version of the EmQue also exists for older children. This version is known as the Empathy Questionnaire for Children and Adolescents (EmQue-CA; Overgaauw, Rieffe, Broekhof, Crone, & Güroğlu, 2017).
Unlike the EmQue, the EmQue-CA is a self-report measure. In other words, the adolescents and children must answer how much they agree with each statement, rather than their parents observing their behaviors.
The final version of the EmQue-CA measures the following three subscales: affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and intention to comfort. The 14 questions and the psychometric properties of the questionnaire are reported in the original paper, which can be accessed on Professor Carolien Rieffe’s website as a free downloadable PDF. To find the EmQue-CA, scroll to the section titled ‘Children and adolescents.’
The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ)
The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ) was developed by refining a collection of questionnaires that measure empathy into a core set of questions (Spreng, McKinnon, Mar, & Levine, 2009).
Researchers collected questions from multiple empathy questionnaires, administered these questions to a large sample of students, and then using exploratory factor analysis, refined the questions to a core set of 16.
The questionnaire and scoring rules are described in the appendix of the original paper (Spreng et al., 2009), which can be accessed on the Measurement Instrument Database for the Social Sciences.
Finally, the TEQ and the Empathy Quotient have a strong, positive correlation, confirming that the questions in both measure the same psychological construct.
A Note on Empathy Fatigue
Feeling empathy is a very useful skill, especially for health professionals such as clinicians, therapists, and psychologists. But the ability to feel empathy for other people comes at the cost of empathy fatigue.
Empathy fatigue refers to the feeling of exhaustion that health professionals experience in response to constantly revisiting their emotional wounds through their clients’ experience (Stebnicki, 2000). For example, a therapist whose client is going through bereavement may be reminded of their own grief and trauma.
By being emotionally available for their client through emotional and stressful periods, the therapist experiences fatigue at a psychological, emotional, and physiological level (Stebnicki, 2000).
Besides manifesting as a sense of fatigue, we can consider empathy fatigue as a form of re-trauma, and as a result, the symptoms resemble that of secondary traumatic stress disorder.
Empathy fatigue in the clinical domain is also referred to as ‘counselor impairment’ because the clinician’s ability to perform their job is impaired (Stebnicki, 2007). An outcome of empathy fatigue is burnout, with a particularly sudden onset (Stebnicki, 2000).
Stebnicki (2007) provides a comprehensive list of strategies that clinicians can use to prevent empathy fatigue:
- Self-awareness of the symptoms of empathy fatigue
- Self-care strategies and lifestyle behaviors that protect the clinician from empathy fatigue
- Using a support group and supervisor during periods of empathy fatigue
Finally, PositivePsychology.com’s post detailing self-care for therapists can be easily adapted to other industries. For example, these tips could be incorporated into a wellness session in the workplace to help prevent empathy fatigue.
Below is a list of four items, each targeting a different aspect of empathy.
To help children better understand what is meant by empathy, we recommend the What is Empathy? worksheet. In this worksheet, children are asked to recall scenarios when they experienced a similar emotion as someone else. Children are also asked to think of reasons why empathy is a good thing and how they can improve their sense of empathy.
To practice looking at things from a fresh perspective, we recommend the 500 Years Ago Worksheet and the Trading Places Worksheet. Both worksheets can be used in group exercises, but only the second one is also appropriate for individual clients.
This worksheet is especially useful for clinicians and health professionals but is also very appropriate for anyone working in a profession where they need to communicate with other people constantly.
A Take-Home Message
If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes — as my mom would say — just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life: there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand.
U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Inauguration speech
And that is what empathy is: being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Humans are social creatures, and empathy is an important skill. Without empathy, we will struggle to connect and form bonds. Underdeveloped empathy results in awkward social interactions, which can also weaken social bonds.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
By connecting, by understanding, by having empathy, we can all stand together, lend a hand when needed, and be given a hand when we, in turn, may need it.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
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- Bar-On, R. (2004). The Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i): Rationale, description and summary of psychometric properties. In G. Geher (Ed.), Measuring emotional intelligence: Common ground and controversy (pp. 115–145). Nova Science Publishers.
- Colman, A. M. (2015). A dictionary of psychology. Oxford University Press.
- Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 337–339.
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- Gawande, A. (2017). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Picador.
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- John Donne. (2020, October 17). Wikiquote. Retrieved January 20, 2021, from https://en.wikiquote.org/w/index.php?title=John_Donne&oldid=2878168
- Overgaauw, S., Rieffe, C., Broekhof, E., Crone, E. A., & Güroğlu, B. (2017). Assessing empathy across childhood and adolescence: Validation of the Empathy Questionnaire for Children and Adolescents (EmQue-CA). Frontiers in Psychology, 8, Article 870.
- Rieffe, C., Ketelaar, L., & Wiefferink, C. H. (2010). Assessing empathy in young children: Construction and validation of an Empathy Questionnaire (EmQue). Personality and Individual Differences, 49(5), 362–367.
- Sacks, O. (1998). The man who mistook his wife for a hat: And other clinical tales. Touchstone.
- Sacks, O. W. (2011). Awakenings (New ed.). Picador.
- Sinclair, S., Beamer, K., Hack, T. F., McClement, S., Raffin Bouchal, S., Chochinov, H. M., & Hagen, N. A. (2017). Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences. Palliative Medicine, 31(5), 437–447.
- Spreng, R. N., McKinnon, M. C., Mar, R. A., & Levine, B. (2009). The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire: Scale development and initial validation of a factor-analytic solution to multiple empathy measures. Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(1), 62–71.
- Stebnicki, M. A. (2000). Stress and grief reactions among rehabilitation professionals: Dealing effectively with empathy fatigue. Journal of Rehabilitation, 66(1).
- Stebnicki, M. A. (2007). Empathy fatigue: Healing the mind, body, and spirit of professional counselors. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 10(4), 317–338.