Empathy has gotten a bad reputation of late, largely undeserved. That negative spin occurs because people fail to understand the nuanced differences between three aspects of empathy.
The first kind, cognitive empathy, allows me to see the world through your eyes: to take your perspective and understand the mental models that make up your lens on events. The second kind, emotional empathy, means I feel what your feel; this empathy gives us an instant felt sense of the other person’s emotions.
It’s the third kind, empathic concern, that leads us to care about the other person’s welfare, to want to help them if they are in need. Empathic concern forms a basis for compassion.
The first two, while essential for intimate connection, can also become tools in the service of pure self-interest. Marketing and political campaigns that manipulate people’s fears and hatreds require effective cognitive and emotional empathy—as do conmen. And, perhaps, artful seductions.
It’s empathic concern—caring about the other person’s welfare —that puts these two kinds of empathy in the service of a greater good.
Brain research at the University of Chicago by Jean Decety and at the Max Planck Institute by Tania Singer has established that each of these varieties of empathy engages its own unique neural circuitry. Neocortical circuitry, primarily, undergirds cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy stems from the social networks that facilitate rapport, and tune us into another person’s pain—my brain’s pain circuitry activates when I see you are in pain.
The problem here with empathic empathy: if your suffering makes me suffer, I can feel better by tuning out. That’s a common reaction, and major reason so few people go down the whole arc from attunement and emotional empathy to caring and helping the person in need.
Empathic concern draws on the mammalian circuitry for parental caretaking—the love of a parent for a child. Research finds that lovingkindness meditation—where you wish wellbeing for a circle expanding outward from yourself and your loved ones, people you know and strangers, and finally expanding to the entire world—boosts feelings of empathic concern and strengthens connectivity within the brain’s caretaking circuits.
On the other hand, a longitudinal study in Norway found that seven-year-olds who showed little empathic concern for their own mothers had an unusually high incidence of being jailed as felons in adulthood.
When we think of empathy as a spur to prosocial acts, it’s empathic concern we have in mind. When we think of the cynical uses of empathy, it’s the other two that can be twisted in the service of pure self-interest.