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What is Lack of Empathy and How Does it Affect Human Connections?

Padma Mohapatra, Michael Quist, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Padma Mohapatra

    Padma has taught English for over four years. They have a Masters degree in English from Central University of Punjab. They also have experience in editing, reviewing, and tutoring.

  • Instructor
    Michael Quist

    Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

What does empathy mean? Learn the definition and types of empathy. Explore lack of empathy and its signs, causes, and impact on one's relationships and life. Updated: 09/30/2021

What does Empathy Mean?

Empathy is an inherent aspect of human nature. It is an ability to assume oneself as enduring the pain and suffering that a person undergoes. A genuine feeling of joyfulness for the other person and their happiness also counts as empathy. In English, we often use the idiom "to put oneself in another's shoes" that inventively carries this meaning. Additionally, the American novelist Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has a character who says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it," that carries a similar idea. Etymologically, the term derives from the ancient Greek word empatheia that indicates deep passion and sentiments towards others. Eventually, the word appeared in English towards the beginning of the 20th century to mean a person's ability to understand another person's feelings.

Sympathy vs Empathy

Empathy is the innate ability that helps a person to comprehend the emotional and physical state of another. Though the word rhymes with sympathy, both terms are different in their denotations. While empathy makes one understand the depth of another being's situation and see things from their perspective, sympathy involves feeling pity or condolence for someone's affliction and loss. An empathetic person does not see any difference between own self and another person, whereas sympathy goes without feeling connected to the other. Sympathy is mere participation in another's misfortunes as an onlooker, whereas empathy lets one imagine oneself as the sufferer.

A person showing empathy to another

Illustration of two people shown from the back. The second person holding the first person. The first person resting head on the shoulder of the second person.

Compassion vs Empathy

A term that is often confused with empathy is compassion. Even while these terms are closely linked, understanding their literal meanings and differences is crucial. Compassion can be regarded as the response that follows empathy. In fact, it includes taking action to mitigate the condition that evokes empathy. For instance, helping a person build a new home when they lost shelter is a compassionate act. Nevertheless, it is empathy that instigates one to be compassionate.

Empathy: Definition

Your friend Mary is just standing there, tears running down her face. She looks like her whole world has collapsed. She's hoping that you will make her feel better. But you just don't get it. You're feeling like, ''Who cares? Get over it!'' You're missing that normal human quality called empathy.

Empathy, derived from the Greek word empatheia, which means ''passion or state of emotion'', is the ability to feel what others are feeling. It is an important part of human interaction that is unfortunately lacking in some people. When that lack is extreme, severe problems can be the result.

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Types of Empathy

Since empathy involves understanding the pain of another person, it naturally carries the feature of recognition. As a quality that defines one's interaction with others, empathy is of interest to psychologists. The three kinds of empathy that are generally identified are:

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is characterized by the capacity to understand the perspective of another person and relate to their conditions. It is to find a rationale behind their circumstances, thought processes, and why they think in a particular way. While reading novels and watching movies, people exhibit cognitive empathy to properly enjoy the work of art. Moreover, it withholds judgment and allows one to participate in the world of imagination and fiction.

Affective or Emotional Empathy

Affective empathy involves the ability to feel what another person feels. It helps in forging an emotional connection with them as there is no distinction between the onlooker and the one who originally undergoes the pain. Feeling sad or crying and laughing while watching certain clips from movies are some of the instances wherein emotional empathy is elicited from a person. However, in real-life situations, too much emotional empathy can drain a person. It takes self-control and effective management of emotions to avoid getting overburdened.

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy inspires a person to physically respond to the emotion that is recognized within. Feeling motivated to help others through practical actions, being there for someone who is undergoing bereavement or loss, etc. are some of the ways through which compassionate empathy manifests. Additionally, people can feel physical pain while seeing others suffering. Among couples, though not exclusive to them, a phenomenon called sympathy pain or couvade syndrome is observable in which a partner feels physical agony when seeing their counterpart in labor. Like affective empathy, those who exhibit compassionate empathy also need to keep their emotions under check and display behaviors that do not overwhelm others.

Lack of Empathy

While empathy is unanimously acknowledged as a general trait of human beings, a lack of empathy is also observable among people. A lack of empathy, commonly called apathy, is the inability to consider the emotional state of others. Psychologists consider apathy as a result of depression, Alzheimer's disease, and other psychiatric and neurological conditions. In medical parlance, it is called empathy deficit disorder, and the British clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls it "zero degrees of empathy." It is the total ineptitude to recognize how one fares before the other in terms of mutual affection, cooperation, and anticipation of feelings.

A lack of empathy is understood as a behavior projected by psychopaths who face challenges in handling emotions. The word psychopath is derived from the Greek language psykhe and pathos, meaning 'mind' and 'pain', respectively.

Nonetheless, they can identify emotions that are felt by others, even though they are unable to form emotional connections with them. Thus, they are good at showing cognitive empathy but lack emotional empathy.

Causes for Lack of Empathy

The inability to recognize the emotions and feelings of other people is classified as a condition that comes with a history that is unique to an individual and their life.

Psychologists and biologists are yet to find a solid connection between genetics and empathy, though they have identified that women are found to be more empathic than men (though this could be attributed to social upbringing), and elements of empathy can be uniformly seen among twins. However, it is agreed that humans are born with the ability to feel and care for others. Nevertheless, this capacity is prone to change due to outside influences and occurrences in the environment that one is brought up in.

How a person is brought up largely determines the way they perceive human relationships. Children who experience a prolonged absence of their parents can be highly empathic or show no signs of empathy. For example, a child who feels emotionally neglected and ignored by parents could grow up to be an individual who struggles to cope with social relationships and interactions. It is only a natural occurrence that they turn inward and grow cold and insensitive towards others. Again, children who are pampered or mollycoddled might also come off as exceedingly assertive in their opinions, putting their interests over others' needs. When such abandonment issues and overindulgence that stem from childhood go unaddressed, it can become apparent as blatant disrespect of others' feelings. This can easily turn into a vicious cycle as people with empathy deficit disorder can find themselves battling with responsible roles, especially parenting.

Sexual assault is another reason that can possibly result in a lack of empathy. Children are vulnerable and their dependence on others for their physical and emotional needs is often taken advantage of, leaving them baffled and shaken. Such incidents have multiple long-term repercussions and children could also grow up into emotionally unavailable or vulnerable people. Excessive fear towards social interactions and anger at oneself and others are consequences that can emerge from being taken advantage of, which can eventually result in reclusive behavior.

Psychopathy & Disorders

There are many disorders related to a lack of empathy. They can be the result of genetics (or the characteristics you inherited from your parents), environment (especially in early childhood), disease, or physical or psychological damage and trauma related to an event.

Two psychological terms particularly associated with a lack of empathy are sociopathy and psychopathy. Psychopathy, which comes from the Greek roots psykhe, which refers to the mind, and pathos, which means suffering, has shifted in popular meaning over the years, but it has always been associated with mind sickness.

Think about what that means. Mind sickness. Damage to your ability to think, feel, imagine, maintain your sense of proportion, control your emotions, and understand reality. Imagine what it would be like to have one part of your mind either not working at all, or working against you, affecting your ability to think, feel, and understand.

Mind sickness can take many forms. For example, a breakdown in your understanding of reality can produce the following effects:

  • Paranoia: a constant unfounded sense of anxiety and fear
  • Schizophrenia: fragmented mental processes
  • Hallucinations: seeing or otherwise experiencing non-existent things, or
  • Delusions: believing things unsupported by experiences to be true

Any breakdown in one or more of your mind's workings can create enormous difficulties, but what happens if the part of your mind that is damaged is your ability to feel or understand others' emotions? The empathy that you were supposed to have is diminished or gone. People become little more than shadowy figures to you, acting in strange ways within your world. It's like watching a musical program with the sound off. Without the words and music, the performers can look ridiculous or even frightening.

But there's more. Your lack of empathy may extend to yourself, as well. You are dead to your own feelings. Nothing moves you. In an emotional sense, you are a person on a desert island, desperate for a drink of water. You want something to happen that will make you feel alive.

So how do you behave when you feel like that? How do you act? When you see people as distant figures that don't relate to you, when you have no attachments or feelings for them, and when you're desperate for stimulation or comfort, then there are few, if any, barriers to what you're willing to do.

Sociopathy

So let's now move on to sociopathy (coined from the Latin word socius, which means companion or ally, and the Greek root pathos, or suffering). It essentially means an illness related to your ability to associate with other people. The term has varied in popular meaning, but the essence is always the same. The sociopath has a damaged ability to deal with others.

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Video Transcript

Empathy: Definition

Your friend Mary is just standing there, tears running down her face. She looks like her whole world has collapsed. She's hoping that you will make her feel better. But you just don't get it. You're feeling like, ''Who cares? Get over it!'' You're missing that normal human quality called empathy.

Empathy, derived from the Greek word empatheia, which means ''passion or state of emotion'', is the ability to feel what others are feeling. It is an important part of human interaction that is unfortunately lacking in some people. When that lack is extreme, severe problems can be the result.

Psychopathy & Disorders

There are many disorders related to a lack of empathy. They can be the result of genetics (or the characteristics you inherited from your parents), environment (especially in early childhood), disease, or physical or psychological damage and trauma related to an event.

Two psychological terms particularly associated with a lack of empathy are sociopathy and psychopathy. Psychopathy, which comes from the Greek roots psykhe, which refers to the mind, and pathos, which means suffering, has shifted in popular meaning over the years, but it has always been associated with mind sickness.

Think about what that means. Mind sickness. Damage to your ability to think, feel, imagine, maintain your sense of proportion, control your emotions, and understand reality. Imagine what it would be like to have one part of your mind either not working at all, or working against you, affecting your ability to think, feel, and understand.

Mind sickness can take many forms. For example, a breakdown in your understanding of reality can produce the following effects:

  • Paranoia: a constant unfounded sense of anxiety and fear
  • Schizophrenia: fragmented mental processes
  • Hallucinations: seeing or otherwise experiencing non-existent things, or
  • Delusions: believing things unsupported by experiences to be true

Any breakdown in one or more of your mind's workings can create enormous difficulties, but what happens if the part of your mind that is damaged is your ability to feel or understand others' emotions? The empathy that you were supposed to have is diminished or gone. People become little more than shadowy figures to you, acting in strange ways within your world. It's like watching a musical program with the sound off. Without the words and music, the performers can look ridiculous or even frightening.

But there's more. Your lack of empathy may extend to yourself, as well. You are dead to your own feelings. Nothing moves you. In an emotional sense, you are a person on a desert island, desperate for a drink of water. You want something to happen that will make you feel alive.

So how do you behave when you feel like that? How do you act? When you see people as distant figures that don't relate to you, when you have no attachments or feelings for them, and when you're desperate for stimulation or comfort, then there are few, if any, barriers to what you're willing to do.

Sociopathy

So let's now move on to sociopathy (coined from the Latin word socius, which means companion or ally, and the Greek root pathos, or suffering). It essentially means an illness related to your ability to associate with other people. The term has varied in popular meaning, but the essence is always the same. The sociopath has a damaged ability to deal with others.

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  • Activities
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Prompts About Lack of Empathy:

Study Prompt:

Create a set of flash cards with the definitions of all of the terms that are in bold found in the lesson (empathy, psychopathy, mind sickness, paranoia, schizophrenia, hallucinations, delusions, sociopathy). If the lesson provides a Greek or Latin root and definition of a term, be sure to include that on your flash card as well.

Example: Psychopathy comes from the Greek words psykhe (mind) and pathos (suffering).

Essay Prompt 1:

In an essay of about one page, describe how mind sickness can lead to lack of empathy.

Tip: Consider how difficulty in perceiving reality can impact a person's empathy for others and for themselves.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that explains how sociopathy can affect a person's ability to empathize. Also include in your essay a description of possible causes of sociopathy.

Example: Brain damage from physical trauma can cause sociopathy.

List Prompt:

Make a list of at least six ways a person can display a lack of empathy. You can refer to the lesson, but try to recall as many ways from memory as possible.

Example: Extreme focus on self.

Scenario Prompt:

Think about a time when you witnessed someone displaying a lack of empathy. In about one page, write an essay describing how that incident played out. If you are uncomfortable with sharing a story from your own life, simply make one up.

Example: You saw your uncle watching TV, and a commercial for an agency that helps starving children in third-world countries came on. Your uncle's reaction was, "I don't care about these stupid kids!"

What do you do when your partner lacks empathy?

If your partner lacks empathy, it is important to be patient with them as it can be a result of their upbringing or the way they were taught to behave in life. You can calmly let them know what you seek or expect from them. You can also show them how their actions negatively affect them and those around them. Finally, being there and encouraging them to open up to their own emotions and those of others can prove helpful. If these steps do not prove effective, it is better either to accept the person for who they are or move out of the difficult relationship.

How do I show more empathy?

Empathy can be shown by seeing oneself in another person. When you come across a person who is going through a difficult situation, you can offer words and actions that bring solace. Instead of using words or indulging in actions that might hurt the other person, it is imperative to be understanding. You can also ask whether the other person needs any specific kind of help and provide the same, if possible. Similarly, expressing happiness for another person's achievements can also show empathy.

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