Empathy is often talked about in popular culture, particularly within the realms of politics, advertising, and psychology. Articles from ‘Why Empathy May Be Your Most Important Business Skill’ to ‘How to Avoid the Empathy Trap’ are popping up all over the internet. Generally, popular culture labels empathy as a positive, sociable trait.
Despite its universality, though, it seems that there is very little consensus on what empathy actually means. The common confusion is a result of the term’s complexity and wide scope.
“The problem is that empathy is one word that we use for a whole bunch of different things,” Jeffrey Mogil, a professor in McGill’s Department of Psychology, said. “You can functionally define it, but, then, it’s hard to categorize what it is. Is it a cognitive ability, is it an emotional ability, is it something else entirely? [….] That’s why it’s so interesting, right? Precisely because it’s so mysterious and hard to pin down.”
The general consensus is that empathy refers to the understanding and experiencing of another’s emotions. Though both of these endeavours are intertwined in the general definition of empathy, scientists consider each as their own distinct cognitive processes.
“Consistent evidence has emerged for two broad forms of empathy at least partially separable at the neural and cognitive levels,” David Vachon, an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Psychology, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “Cognitive empathy [is] the ability to detect or understand emotions, [while] affective empathy, [is] the tendency to feel the emotions of others.”
One way that scientists have understood the different types of empathy is by studying people with external behavioural disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy. While psychologists often broadly characterize these disorders by a decreased amount of empathy, it is important to note that empathy does not decrease across the board.
“People with externalizing [behavioural] disorders are not any different in their cognitive empathy, but tend to have lower affective empathy,” Vachon wrote. “They can tell what you are feeling, but they care less.”
Meanwhile, people on the autism spectrum may have the opposite condition. They can have high, sometimes overpowering, affective empathy, and are able to experience the emotions of others. Conversely, though, they generally have lower levels of cognitive empathy, meaning they can have more trouble understanding how other people are feeling in the first place.
Both popular culture and science often link low levels of empathy to violent tendencies. However, unlike certain forms of psychopathy, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is rarely associated with violent crimes. Based on a meta-analysis, Vachon pointed out that the current model of empathy actually has very little predictive power when it comes to aggression. To address the unpredictability, Vachon and his colleagues posited a third sub-scale of empathy, known as affective dissonance, or ‘anti-empathy.’ This scale measures cognitive and affective empathy in addition to the emotional ‘resonance’ of subjects.
“Empathy can be extended beyond resonant responses (e.g. empathy, sympathy, compassion) to include a lack of response (e.g. callous, unemotional, indifferent) and dissonant responses (e.g. sadism, scorn, schadenfreude),” Vachon wrote.
There is a distinct difference between someone who feels neutral when viewing a sad person and someone who is elated by another’s sadness. The ACME scale Vachon and his colleagues developed includes this important distinction in its measurement, and is a promising predictor of aggression.
Stress, another key factor in aggression, also plays a vital role in the process of empathy. In 2015, Mogil and his team published a study that found a strong relationship between empathy and stress.
Mogil, a pain researcher, initially came across the link while experimenting on mice. He noticed that a mouse’s pain response would be more dramatic when a mouse that they knew was present in the same room. He explained this as a sign of an empathetic ‘emotional contagion’ between the two mice.
“Emotional contagion is when the emotional state of one animal affects the emotional state of another animal,” Mogil said.
Mogil decided to try this same experiment on humans and found similar results: A person with their hand immersed in ice water experienced more perceived pain when in the presence of a person they knew, as opposed to a stranger. Moreover, the most interesting thing the study found was how to foster emotional contagion.
Mogil’s experiment had three conditions. He divided participants into a control group where two subjects immediately went in, a treatment group where the subjects took a stress-blocking drug, and another treatment group where the two strangers played the music video game Rock Band together for 15 minutes before participating in the experiment.
There was little difference between those that took the stress-blocking drug and those that played Rock Band; both exhibited significantly-higher emotional contagion than the control group that immediately walked in with the stranger. This suggests that the bond of familiarity is more important than the particular activity.
“Once the strangers got into the room to have their pain tested to see if they had emotional contagion, they weren’t strangers anymore, [since] they had just been doing something together for 15 minutes,” Mogil said.
Mogil’s study further showed that the instinctive stress response triggered when encountering a new person blocked emotional contagion, and that this immediately prevents the formation of empathic connections with strangers.
Despite the widespread perception of empathy as morally-sound, there are situations in which it can be a hindrance. Empathy deficits can be favorable in high-stress fields that require quick and unemotional decision-making, such as in surgery or stockbroking.
In fact, empathy’s weaknesses form the entire basis of //Against Empathy//, a book written by Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University. In a 2017 interview with Vox, Bloom explained some of the key misconceptions about the term, most notably the prevalence of empathic bias.
“I’m [more] likely to feel empathy toward you [the interviewer], a handsome white guy, [than] somebody who is repulsive or frightening,” Bloom said. “I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language [.…] Empathy is as biased as can be.”
Bloom cited empathy as a factor influencing individual donations to charities in developing countries. While unconditional donations from sympathetic foreigners can provide short-term benefits they can bankrupt local businesses in the long-term.
“It might feel good, but empathy often leads us to make stupid and unethical decisions,” Bloom said.