“Empathy” – Who’s Got It, Who Does Not

When President Obama tells us he wants a compassionate Supreme Court justice with “empathy” for people’s struggles, he’s wandered into arguments within psychology of what we mean by the term.

There are at least three varieties of empathy, each with very different implications for spotting the right candidate. The first, cognitive empathy, means that we can understand how the other person thinks; we see his point of view. This makes for good debaters, sales people and negotiators. On the other hand, people who have strengths in cognitive empathy alone can lack compassion – they get how you see it, but don’t care about you. Psychologists speak of the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths, who can be slick with their arguments but have a heart of stone (think Dick Cheney).

The next variety, emotional empathy, refers to someone who feels within herself the emotions of the person she’s with. This creates a sense of rapport, and most probably entails the brain’s mirror neuron system, which activates our own circuits the emotions, movements and intentions we see in the other person. This lets us feel with the other person – but not necessarily feel for, the prerequisite for compassion.

That requires empathic concern, the third variety of empathy. Empathic concern means we not only understand how the person sees things and feels in the moment, but also want to help them if we sense the need. A study of empathic concern in seven-year-olds found that those who showed least concern when they saw their mother in distress were most likely to have a criminal record two decades later.

All three varieties of empathy should be at play in the compassionate nominee President Obama seeks.

Does that point to a woman as the likely best candidate? Maybe. Converging data confirms that women tend to be more empathetic on average than men, especially when it comes to emotional empathy. On the other hand, Ruth Jacobs, who coaches executives to boost leadership essentials like empathy, has found that among those who perform in the top ten percent on business outcomes, the men’s empathy is as strong as the women’s.

Empathy can be strengthened – at least some varieties. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who inspired the TV series “Lie To Me,” developed a web-based training tool that lets anyone (at least, me, when I tried it) up their ability to read another person’s emotions from their facial expressions. You can learn to detect super-fast facial tics that reveal a person’s true feelings – a way to sense when they might be lying, or denying that something upsets them, or that they are really attracted to so-and-so despite their protestations to the contrary.

Then there are the studies on “mindsight” of Dr. Daniel Siegel, a child psychiatrist at UCLA, that suggest these are essential human abilities we should be teaching every child. Since empathy is the basis of concern and compassion, should it be just for Supreme Court Justices?

Originally published at Huffingtonpost.com

13 thoughts on ““Empathy” – Who’s Got It, Who Does Not

  1. just wondering what empathy has to do with interpreting the constitution? Not sure that empathy and the law mix real well.

  2. Daniel,
    As always, I love your posts. I appreciate your explaining the differences in empathy, and while I have looked at Paul Ekman’s work, it never occurred to me that this would be a way to boost empathy. I have always thought there was something “off” about Dick Cheney, even back in the day that I agreed with his positions, and so thanks for that example.

    Carolann Jacobs
    President, Vivid Epiphany
    Brain-Based Coaching

  3. Empathy – as it says that feel the emotion of someone by putting yourself in his shoes. On ear and paper the word sounds to be an excellant tool of counselling and understaning the situation of other; but, in real life it just becomes a formality. One person who has suffered, lost, seduced, molested, looted, robbed, failed, weakened – he himsef only understnds situation. No one can understand his feeling exactly the same as he is even with the best thechniques of empathy. Rather it becomes a mask to express the feelings as othere feel.

  4. Interesting breakdown of empathy. I had never considered it in quite this way although it is a very sensible perspective and explains some behaviors that seem incongruent with empathy especially the empathic component.

  5. I found this site after view the “Emotional Learning” report on “The News Hour”.

    I have been bringing this same awareness to people by introducing the tools and paths into the intuitive and playful place used by actors and improvisers.

    The work is explained in detail on my web site and I could not help but think that the 47 steps of the Workshop section point to the same areas of learning and awareness that you explore in “Emotional Learning”.

  6. Where does this leave me? – I have Asperger’s (with alexithymia). I’ve never felt love for another human being in all my 35 years but I don’t fit into the ‘triad’ nor am I a misanthrope. Should I really be classified a sociopath or narcissist purely because I am intolerant of people who don’t strictly adhere to the law or consistent and logical patterns of behaviour? Is not there a double standard going on here?

    James (Australia)

  7. Response to James Fahey:
    Nothing in the post suggests that the lack of love, caring, or compassion for other human beings automatically classifies someone as one of the dark triad, it simply says that none of the dark triad feel compassion.

    I would accept that inability to feel these things towards others would disqualify someone from being a judge, just as an inability to understand complex legal documents would do so. I see that ability as being a necessary, but certainly not sufficient, requirement for making decisions that affect the quality of life (and/or death) of millions of human beings.

    I’m tone deaf, and so should be disqualified from a job judging musical works. It may not be fair to me, but it wouldn’t be fair to others for me to play that role.

  8. To Jim Fahey,

    I wonder if you’re irritated or puzzled when you read the classifications. It sounds as though you’d like understanding, even if a love connection has been unattainable. Perhaps you also want to protect yourself from judgment and you’d like people to know that one can lack the ability to feel certain feelings, yet not intend to harm others?

    To Daniel G. and others,

    I’m grateful for your breakdown of “empathy.” The best empathy I’ve experienced falls into the third definition and I rarely find it.

    A process developed by the phychologist, Marshall Rosenberg, has helped me develop my empathic ability. See http://www.cnvc.org.

  9. @James

    It seems like what you could be talking about are boundaries (re: adhere to the law or consistent and logical patterns of behaviour). These are especially important imo, for Aspies, since Aspies may not have the same ability non-Aspies have to sort out emotional behavior that is unwholesome.

    I think the difference is that those in the Dark Triad just act. There is no thought to law or rules of behaviour. It’s just “me me me.”

    With rules, you – imo, are actually acting with “you and me” in mind. What are you doing, what are they doing, and is what they are doing in alignment to what I am needing/feeling?

    Hopefully that makes sense. I think you make a great point too. =)

  10. Dr. Goleman –

    I am reading Working with Emotional Intelligence and just finished Ch. 7 – Social Radar which is about empathy. Utilizing the highest end of the empathic competencies would seem to be integral for judgement.

    As I was reading (ch. 7)you mention “coalitions” several different times. Would you share your definition of “coalitions” in the context in which it is written? I work with local programs that form coalitions to work on achieving policy and other outcomes. I’m always looking for a different way of seeing that process. I think your picture of “coalitions” in ch. 7 is a different pane than mine. I’m interested in your view.



  11. Dr. Goleman, I’m so grateful that you wrote those books on Emotional Intelligent, Social Intelligence, etc. I love psichology and I think that in this field of E.I. you have been an “Aristotle”. You have contributed to the promotion of human being by spreading the knowledge of numerous psichologists and helped apply this knowledge to practice in life.
    I have read Social Intelligence and am reading Emotional Intelligence.
    Now my favourite authors are Luis Rojas Marcos, José María Castillo and you.

  12. The Law exists for real humans in the real world. It is not some isolated, academic exercise conducted in a vacuum. The Law is meant to guide, protect and serve us, not the other way around.

Leave a Reply to Eliane Geren Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *