Types of Empathy

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at studies conducted on the types of empathy. The three types of empathy - cognitive, emotional and compassionate - are discussed as to their positive and negative traits (if they have any) and a thorough definition of empathy is given based on these three types of empathy.

To Define Empathy

Do you have empathy? Being able to answer that question requires that you understand what is meant by empathy. It is not an easy word to define because it is a rather complex idea.

To begin the definition, it is important to understand what empathy is not.

  • Empathy is not sympathy: Sympathy is feeling pity for someone who is involved in some type of negative circumstance. It has nothing to do with understanding what that person is going through. It is a purely surface reaction to the immediate circumstance.
  • Empathy is not always a good response: People who think they understand empathy often only understand a very small part of the actual definition.
  • Empathy is not formed from just a single type of reaction: Researchers have actually identified three distinct types of empathy. These are cognitive, emotional and compassionate (or concerning).

To understand what empathy is, and define the concept, it is important to look at all three different kinds of empathy.

Cognitive Empathy

An old saying 'Walk a mile in someone else's shoes and you will understand them' seems to encompass what empathy is for many people, but this actually almost exclusively points to cognitive empathy. Cognition is thinking or knowing. It is the process of evaluating a situation and knowing what another person is going through because you can grasp the situation via your own knowledge. This is a form of empathy because it is projecting what you know about a similar type of situation and acknowledging to the other person that you understand their experience because you have, as an example, been through something similar. It is the type of empathy demonstrated when you say 'I've been there' to someone who has just experienced a traumatic event. Some term this perspective-taking. As in, you are applying your own perspective to what someone else is dealing with. Unfortunately, this type of empathetic response is often used by people to manipulate another rather than commiserate with them. Showing this type of empathy can be either positive or negative.

Emotional Empathy

The next level of the empathy definition, emotional empathy, includes not only knowledge about what is happening to someone else, but being able to feel what they feel. This has been termed by some researchers personal distress. Having an emotional reaction when you are in some way made aware of another's emotional pain it causes something called emotional contagion. That is, your reaction to their plight causes a contagious emotional reaction within you. People feel this, according to psychologists such as Daniel Goleman in his book 'Social Intelligence', due to the mirror neuron system. This system allows people to mirror what they see in another person, whether that be postures or emotions. It is key to feeling emotional empathy.

Compassionate Empathy

Luckily there is a third type of empathy that has been labeled compassionate empathy. This is a deeper response than just knowing or feeling; it is this type of empathy that leads a person to action because of what someone else is going through. This type of empathy prompts:

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