I’m sure many of us have grown up hearing the term, “putting oneself in another’s shoes”. In other words, empathy involves attempts to understand someone else’s perspective or experience and how they may be feeling. However, research by Psychologist Mark Davis suggests that this is only one type of empathy. He identified three main types, including the Cognitive or perspective-taking type, the Personal Distress type, and Empathic Concern. The first type is commonly heard about, where one attempts to see things from someone else’s point of view. Personal Distress refers to the type of empathy in which you actually feel the emotion that another person is feeling. For example, while watching a movie if one begins to empathize with a character, they may actually feel scared, happy, sad, or some other emotion. I often experience this and laugh at myself for crying as if I knew the person in the show. The third type, Empathic Concern may be most frequently recognized as empathy and it involves identifying someone else’s emotional state, understanding it, and feeling and demonstrating suitable concern.
What are some of the benefits of having empathy?
Oftentimes when working with my clients to address some form of social or familial conflict, it’s empathy that helps them to be more understanding of what the other person may be going through. They are sometimes so focused on how they feel that they don’t consider the other person until it’s pointed out to them. With greater understanding for the other person, they are usually more open to and better able to improve the relationship(s) or resolve the conflict(s).
It increases pro-social behaviour which is assisting or helping other people without expecting anything in return. For example, the recent natural disasters such as Hurricane Irma and Mariaand the mudslides in Sierra Leone have led to persons providing support and relief.
It helps people feel connected. For example, listened to, valued, understood, and not judged.
It can also increase positive feelings by reducing the likelihood of negative interactions being taken personally, thus lessening feelings of aggression or distrust. For example, someone who bumped into another person while walking may have done so because they were rushing to an interview they were trying to get for months.
What may be some of the negatives of having empathy?
It’s possible to become overwhelmed by someone else’s feelings, especially negative ones, causing your own suffering, and affecting your mental and emotional health. For example, a study from the Pew Research Centre in 2015 that incorporated the digital age, where people often read about friends’ stressors on Facebook or Twitter, established that the problems that one person goes through can be felt by others. Women who saw online that an acquaintance experienced the loss of a family member had a 14 percent higher stress level compared to other women. Men who read that a person they were close to was accused of a crime reported a higher stress level than other men by 15 percent. Both genders experienced a 9 percent heightening of their stress level when someone they knew made a post about a demotion or pay cut.
If you’re in a helping profession (e.g., nurse, doctor, psychologist) you can feel burned out or fatigued, and it could make you more biased to certain persons over others.
Empathy tends to affect our judgment and moral reasoning, for example, when we have to make decisions that involve more than one person. If we become too emotionally attached to those who mean a lot to us, we can exclude or neglect others and those who have a greater need for something compared to those in our social circle.
What disorders often present with low empathy?
Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autism has numerous characteristics, from restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities to weaknesses in social communication and interaction. Persons with autism have challenges responding appropriately in social circumstances, sometimes lacking facial expression and having difficulty maintaining a conversation. However, many researchers have queried the conjecture of a deficiency of empathy in autism. It has been suggested that it isn’t actually empathy that is compromised in people with autism, but rather their ability to communicate socially or comprehend, explain or, articulate one’s emotions. Some persons with autism feel the negative and positive emotions felt by those around them, and begin to display the same emotions, such as being upset or happy. This suggests they may feel more personal distress type of empathy, rather than the cognitive type and empathic concern.
Conduct Disorder: This consists of a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour in which the violation of the basic rights of people or key age-appropriate societal norms or regulations occurs. In addition to aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness and theft and serious breach of rules, it often involves lack of remorse or guilt, callousness or lack of empathy, and limited affect. In other words the person fails to feel bad or culpable when he/she does something wrong unless they are conveying remorse due to being caught and/or facing a consequence, ignores and appears indifferent to the feelings of others, and does not communicate feelings or demonstrate genuine and deep emotions to others. Persons with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which involves a lot of anger, defiance, and vindictiveness may appear similar.
Personality disorders such as:
Schizoid Personality Disorder: It entails a tendency to withdraw and disengage from social and familiar relationships, with a preference for solitary activities and isolation, and a limited variety of expressions of feelings in social settings.
Schizotypal Personality Disorder: This presents with social and interpersonal deficits that involve a weak ability to develop close relationships, and strange or unusual beliefs, appearance, and behaviour. Therefore, persons with this disorder tend to withdraw from others and when they do interact with others, they may display constricted or inappropriate emotions.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Individuals with disorder exhibit a pattern of a grandiose sense of self-importance, need for high admiration, and low empathy. They may show a sense of entitlement, believe they are very unique and can only be understood by or spend time with or at particular high status people or places, and/or be preoccupied with fantasies of infinite success, supremacy, beauty, or perfect love. They tend to be envious of others or feel that other people are envious of them. With such focus on one self, empathic responses are very unlikely, and any apparent helpful behaviour is utilized to enhance self-esteem.
Antisocial Personality Disorder: Antisocial Personality Disorder is associated with a pattern of disregard for or violation of other people’s rights and it stems from conduct disorder as an adolescent transitions into adulthood. Persons with this disorder exhibit a tendency to not adhere to social norms and their actions could lead to arrest, be dishonest and enjoy conning others for personal gain or pleasure, disregard the safety of others, lack remorse, be irresponsible, and/or aggressive, resulting in physical altercations.
Avoidant Personality Disorder: This disorder is characterized by a pattern of social inhibition and hypersensitivity to disapproval and criticism. People diagnosed with this disorder see them self as socially incompetent or otherwise inadequate in comparison to others, and are reluctant to interact with others without feeling sure that they will be accepted and liked, rather than being rejected, or embarrassed as they fear.
It’s important to note that personality disorders are only diagnosed during adulthood. This is because children and adolescents go through various stages of development as their personalities form. We all display some traits of various disorders or we carry out some behaviours that are associated with certain disorders. However, some carry out more than others which suggests that they could present with the disorder later in life, especially without any intervention or treatment.
There are many reasons someone could have or appear to have low empathy or concern for others. If you suspect your child or someone else has problems in this area, speak to a professional such as your child’s Pediatrician, guidance counsellor or a psychologist. A psychological assessment of their behaviours can help determine the reason behind their current functioning.
How does empathy develop?
Empathy takes time to develop. Many of us who have young children or have spent time around them know that they often express whatever pops into their head, even about people in their environment. This is because they haven’t yet formed awareness or understanding of what another person is feeling or what they might feel like in a particular circumstance them self. However, they may show very early signs of some awareness from birth to about 2 years. For example, newborns may trigger crying in other newborns, but this is said to be more of a response to a noise that is uncomfortable, and a child between the ages of 1 and 2 may try to comfort someone who appears sad. For example, my 1 year and 3 month old niece will hug or bring a gift to her older 4 year old cousin if he’s upset or crying. As they get older their empathy improves as they learn from their parents and others based on how they are treated by them when they experience undesirable emotions or states, such as being scared or upset. As children are better able to speak and have conversations, which develop at different rates, it’s important to try to talk to them about how they might feel in a situation or how they’ve felt in a similar situation in the past. For example, if a child takes a toy away from another child without asking, they may be able to think about a time in which that happened to them and how they felt.
Written by Justine East-Campbell, Associate Clinical Psychologist
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Bloom, P. (2014). Against empathy. In Boston Review. Retrieved from http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy
Dallas, K. (2015). “Too much of a good thing”: When empathy is overwhelming. In Deseret News. Retrieved from https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865622445/Too-much-of-a-good-thing-When-empathy-is-overwhelming.html.
Hampton, K., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Shin, I., & Purcell, K. (2015). The cost of caring. In Pew Research Center. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/15/the-cost-of-caring/
Personality disorders. (n.d.). In The Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from http://albertellis.org/personality-disorders/
Riggio, R. E. (2011). Are you empathic: Three types of empathy and what they mean. In Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201108/are-you-empathic-3-types-empathy-and-what-they-mean
Stosny, S. (2013). Limitations of empathy. In Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201302/limitations-empathy
Taylor, S. (2016). Negative empathy. Is it possible to feel too much. In Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201605/negative-empathy