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Empathy is "an emotional experience that is shared among individuals."

Current views of empathy see empathy as an evolved state where one can identify emotional states in others which transmits discomfort or alarms in other members of the group so that they respond, protecting the group. Typical responses inspired by empathy are greater levels of nurturing, consolation or increased vigilance towards a threat.

There are also chemical changes to the systemic physiology when we recognize a distressed states in others. In mice, the heart rate changes when they hear other mice in distress and that genetic factors influence the degree of the response. Source: Plos One - Peer Reviewed Science

Helping others

Research classify three reasons to help others
  • Material gain, social gain or some self-reward
    • Earn a reciprocity credit - someone owes you a favor in return. This is instilled in most all cultures as important. We can help people who have no way of helping us in return, but generally there is a belief in society reciprocity - where someone else will return the favor.
    • Improved reputation is another motivation.
    • To feel better about yourself - if you feel bad about yourself, doing something nice improves self worth and probably gives a hormonal positive response.
    • Volunteering is doing your half of the societal reciprocity to make up for having done something socially negative.
    • Maintenance of a good mood. When someone feels good, they are more likely to help others in order that the other person doesn't bring you down from the high.
    • Empathetic relief - you can mirror the good feeling someone else has when they receive a good deed.
  • Avoidance of punishment or loss
    • Good Samaritan Laws in Europe: One can be fined or jailed if they don't help someone in life threatening situation when there is no personal risk or someone better qualified to help.
  • Reduce aversive arousal - escape a situation you don't like.
    • You feel the pain of the other person, by helping them, you alleviate your own pain too.
    • You feel uneasy about the situation the other person is in - cognitive dissonance - and help to relieve that feeling in yourself. Some people respond just the opposite - they blame the victim for causing the situation so alleviate the need to get involved.
    • You believe someone gets what they deserve in life - any interference will prevent the person from "learning the lessons" or you will interfere in the natural order of things. People learn from consequences.


Helping someone for no personal reason. Some argue there is always a benefit to the person who helps, even if it is in improved self esteem or maintaining self-image.

The more a person empathizes with another, the more likely the person is to help that person.

Note: this can explain why people want to do something or someone famous or someone they admire - they have spent a lot of time empathizing with the situations as they read them on the cover of the national enquirer and therefore feel personally involved in the famous person's life.

  • Altruism alleviates guilt at doing nothing.
  • People want to be recognized as being altruistic so they will be praised for their deeds.

Helping the group

  • Benefits of improving the situation for the group you belong to.
  • Doing it on principle - because you believe in the principle.

Notes from "Handbook of Motivation Science", by James Y. Shah (Editor), Wendi L. Gardner (Editor), 2007

“Empathy” - Who’s Got It, Who Does Not Written by Daniel Goleman on May 2, 2009 – 12:06 pm -

Originally published at

President Obama told us he wants a compassionate Supreme Court justice with “empathy” for people’s struggles.

Empathy has 3 varieties

  • Cognitive empathy, means that we can understand how the other person thinks; we see his point of view.
    • Cognitive empathy is good for debaters, sales people and negotiators.
    • Cognitive empathy alone does not include compassion: The cognitive empath understand how you see things, your point of view, but like a camera viewing the world from your position, they DON'T CARE. they get how you see it, but don’t care about you.
    • The “Dark Triad” - narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths, who can be slick with their arguments but have a heart of stone (think Dick Cheney).

  • 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.

  • Empathic concern means we understand how the person sees things and feels in the moment AND 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.

  • Women tend to be more empathetic on average than men, especially when it comes to emotional empathy.
  • 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. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who inspired the TV series “Lie To Me,” developed a web-based training tool that lets anyone 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.

Related pages:

Motivation Notes from "Handbook of Motivation Science", by James Y. Shah (Editor), Wendi L. Gardner (Editor), 2007. This is a large book which summarizes the body of knowledge and research related to human motivation.

Last edited May 17, 2009 (history)

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