Empathy is certainly one of the most popular concepts in science today . Most people use it as one more word within their linguistic heritage, to define the way in which others (or themselves) are usually emotionally involved in their relationships.

Nevertheless, empathy is a very complex phenomenon, with deep roots that sink into the phylogenetic history of the human being. It is very certain that, without it, we would not have reached the degree of social development (and cooperation) that has allowed us to arrive until here.

In the following pages we will delve into this phenomenon, unraveling what are the types of empathy that science has been able to classify and the way in which each of them is expressed.

What is empathy?

Empathy has a central role in human behavior, and particularly in its social correlates. Any close bond between two people is subject to the influence of emotion, which allows maintaining the foundations on which it is built, despite all the inclemencies of the relational conflict. In a simple way, it could be said that through empathy we transcend the limits of our skin and enter into the experience of the other.

Science has shown that, even during the first months of life, newborns can show it in the face of the pain of others. Or that they even react empathetically when they hear other children crying. However, it is a skill that is often refined over the years as we bond and share our relevant experiences. It is, therefore, a result of learning and relational exchange, although some genetic factors may also contribute.

In general, empathy could be defined as the capacity to reconstruct within ourselves the “mental states” of others , both in their cognitive components and in the purely emotional ones. In this way, it would be possible for us to take a precise picture of what our interlocutor is feeling, mobilizing the will to help him or to predict his behavior and/or his motivation. Altruism between two human beings cannot be understood by eliminating empathy from the equation.

Types of empathy

Although it could be contradictory in some way, the last investigations on the matter show that empathy is also a relevant element to understand the antisocial behavior, and not only from the point of view of an alleged absence of it. The fact is that some of the components of this skill can be deprived of the emotional nuance , participating in processes such as the simple identification of affects or intentions in the other, but without any degree of self-recognition in them (that is why it is usually used as a basis for manipulation or blackmail).ç

Empathy implies at least three different processes: emotional recognition, emotional integration and the implementation of congruent behaviours. All of them follow each other in a linear way, so that the first one is necessary for the appearance of the second one, and the second one is necessary for the appearance of the third one. In recent years, a fourth step is being considered: the control of one’s own emotional reactions, which aims at preventing this phenomenon from overflowing the internal resources and resulting in damage .

Each of these phases has received its own label, becoming related but independent realities to some degree. With this article we try to explore them and to detail in what they consist, tracing the characteristics of what popularly has come to be called “types of empathy” (although remembering that in fact all are part of a same cognitive-affective process).

1. Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is the name that has been assigned by consensus to the first part of the process: the identification of the mental state of our interlocutor. From the verbal (testimonies, confessions, etc.) and non-verbal (facial gestures, for example) contents that the other person emits during the interaction, deep and very primitive structures are activated in our brain that have the objective of codifying the information of a social type, recognizing in the same act (through inferences) what is going on in the mind of the person in front of us.

At this point in the process, which is elementary so that the rest can unfold, a general vision of what the other person thinks and feels is articulated; but there is not yet any personal involvement in all this. That is why it has very often been a phenomenon equated to the theory of mind, a basic milestone by which one acquires the ability to recognize the other as a subject with his or her own internal experiences and motivations, independent of one’s own. This initiates the differentiation of oneself from others, which happens in the first years of life as a key part of neurological maturation.

The informative analysis of cognitive empathy focuses on the logical/rational elements, extracting from the equation any affective correlation that (logically) could be predicted in the future. Most people go immediately into the weighing of other shades, including the way in which all these intellectual “impressions” resound in their own emotional life, but in other cases the process finishes here. This last assumption is the one that can be found among psychopaths, to cite a well-known example.

Cognitive empathy has many uses, for example in the field of business negotiations . This is so because it would allow the identification of needs/expectations without the emotional components of the decision, which can be useful in the context that is being considered. However, the latter is very important for everyday life; for there is much evidence that without the contribution of affection, problems tend to be solved in a more imprecise and inefficient way.

2. Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy requires that, first, we are able to cognitively “capture” the experience of others. Once this is achieved, we move to a second level of elaboration, in which the emotional dimensions stand as a beacon in the vast ocean of inner lives. In general terms, this form of empathy gives us the capacity to be sensitive to what others feel , which is essential to respond adequately to what they demand in the private sphere.

It is a way of sharing the inner world vicariously. The observer of affection would synchronize with the intimate experience of the one being observed, and would experience a series of internal states very similar (although never identical) to this one. At a cerebral level, it has been proven that the right supramarginal turn has a key role in empathy and even compassion; a region that is located in the intersection between the temporal, frontal and parietal lobes.

This structure is necessary in order to contribute to the distinction between one’s own affections and those of others , so that if it suffers any damage, a dramatic decline in this capacity is manifested. On the other hand, it is essential to bear in mind that constructive empathy requires an adequate ability to regulate what we feel, something that connects directly with the activity of the prefrontal cortex. Without adequate management of all this, we may end up overwhelmed by the pain of those around us.

And the fact is that emotional empathy is not equivalent to “emotional contagion”, but it would become the ability to immerse ourselves in the world of the other without being inexorably swallowed by it.

  • You might be interested in: “Are we rational or emotional beings?”

3. Sympathy or empathic concern

The word “sympathy” comes from the Greek, and could be translated as the act of “feeling the same as the other”. It is a concern for the experience of others, which arises from being able to identify it and feel it in one’s own skin , and which often ends up leading to helpful (prosocial) behaviour. It is, therefore, a step beyond within the empathic process, from which all would be manifested in the social scene through some deliberate act of altruism (and even delivery).

People who reach this point within the empathic process feel motivated to act; since they contribute with their effort to help in an unconditional, spontaneous and disinterested way. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that sometimes the reinforcement for these acts is of a social type (the respect of the environment or the relief of a feeling of guilt, for example), reason why they would not be altruistic, but rather prosocial (when being carried out with the objective to obtain a reward).

In spite of this, this dimension of empathy supposes the culmination of a long process of cognitive-emotional analysis, transforming the intention into facts aimed at relieving the pain of others . It is also the nuance that gives empathy an evident adaptive value, since it stimulates the sense of collaboration and compassion for those who belong to the group itself (to a greater extent than for people who do not belong to it).

4. Ecpathy

Ecpathy is perhaps the most recent scientific contribution to the field of empathy and compassion, although it has often fallen victim to misinterpretations that do not fit reality at all. Through it, people learn to recognize which of the emotions they feel at a given moment do not really belong to them , but rather come from an external source that has “transferred” them.

By using them, the confusion would be stopped, and these contents would be approached in a different way than if they were their own, so that one would not lose one’s own experience in the internal convulsion of those who are exposed to the pain of others.

It is therefore a mechanism through which it is feasible to avoid the “excesses” of empathy, whose main risk lies in emotional contagion and manipulation. Thus, it is possible to say that it prevents that the inner life of the other drags us in such a way that it blocks the capacity to act, but still preserving the possibility of recognizing and feeling everything that happens to him. It supposes the possibility of feeling, but without falling into a harmful identification.

Bibliographic references:

  • Cuff, B.M., Brown, S., Taylor, L. and Howat, D. (2016). Empathy, a Review of the Concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153
  • Vignemont, F. and Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: How, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 435-441