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(Krznaric 2008)

Roman Krznaric

"What is empathy?

Empathy as shared emotional response  [affective empathy]
If you pick up a psychology textbook and look up the meaning of ‘empathy’ you will usually find two definitions.5 The first is the idea of empathy as a shared emotional response, sometimes called ‘affective’ empathy. For instance, if you see a baby crying in anguish, and you too feel anguish, then you are experiencing empathy – you are sharing or mirroring their emotions. This idea is reflected in the original German term from which the English word ‘empathy’ was translated around a century ago, ‘Einfühlung’, which literally means ‘feeling into’.

However, if you see the same anguished baby and feel a different emotion, such as pity, then you are experiencing sympathy rather than empathy. Sympathy refers to an emotional response which is not shared. One of the reasons people often confuse the two is historical. Up until the nineteenth century, what used to be called ‘sympathy’ is what we mean today by empathy as a shared emotional response. Thus when Adam Smith begins his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) with a discussion of ‘Sympathy’, he is actually referring to a concept closer to the modern idea of empathy.

A second definition of empathy is the idea of empathy as ‘perspective-taking’, which the psychology literature refers to as ‘cognitive’ empathy. This concerns our ability to step into the shoes of another person and comprehend the way they look at themselves and the world, their most important beliefs, aspirations, motivations, fears, and hopes. That is, the constituents of their internal frame of reference or ‘worldview’ (Weltanschaung, as the sociologist Karl Mannheim called it). Perspective-taking empathy allows us to make an imaginative leap into another person’s being. This approach to empathy became prominent in the 1960s through the work of humanist psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers....

Occasionally the psychology literature introduces a third approach to empathy, which is the idea of having an ‘appropriate response’ to a person, after having engaged in either or both of the two kinds off empathy noted above.8 This could be described as ‘consequentialist’ empathy. Those who bring in this third definition often emphasise that if you have shared the emotions of someone, or gained an understanding of their perspective, yet take no action as a result, then you have not fully experienced empathy. In a sense, it hasn’t really touched you. Empathy, by this definition, needs to make a difference. It has to inspire moral action of some form."