What Is Empathy? You Thought You Knew
Just in case you don’t remember the anecdote about the blind men and the elephant: Several blind men touch the elephant but on different parts of its body, and each thinks they are touching a completely different object. The man touching the leg thinks it’s a tree, the one touching its side thinks it’s a wall, and so on.
What does this have to do with empathy? In our version, the parable is reversed: the blind men are all touching different things, yet they all proclaim, “It’s an elephant!” Empathy fits this version of the story. Researchers have long complained that there are too many different behaviors, attitudes, values, emotions, physiological reactions, and skills that are all called “empathy.” Yet experts continue to argue and, worse, bicker over different definitions. (See our previous Character and Context blog, “Empathy: A Word with Too Many Meanings,” Sept. 24, 2019.)
We discovered that, remarkably, researchers have not asked regular people—by which we mean non-researchers—how they define the term, even though the concept is important to and used frequently by many people, researchers and non-researchers alike. But researchers don’t know what regular people mean when they use the word “empathy.”
One might ask how researchers could not know how ordinary people define empathy when dozens of measures of empathy have been administered to many thousands of people. The answer to that question is easy: the measures of empathy used in research do not ask people how they define empathy, and the items on such measures almost never include the word empathy or empathic. Instead, people are asked to rate or describe themselves (or, sometimes, another person) in various ways that the researcher believes reflects the person’s level of empathy. Moreover, different researchers’ measures don’t always cover the same ground, although they are all called empathy.
So, we asked over 500 people, both college students and community people who were recruited online, how they personally define empathy. Some of these research participants were asked to tell us in their own words, in an open-ended manner, what empathy was to them. These responses showed us, first, that people’s definitions differed greatly. This is important: there is no lay consensus on what empathy is.
Second, the landscape of definitions was similar to the landscape of researchers’ definitions. For example, perspective-taking (seeing the world through other people’s eyes), sharing others’ emotions, and being prosocial (behaving in helpful or kind ways) were the most frequently mentioned features of empathy, and these concepts have also been frequently called empathy by researchers.
Third, while the landscape was similar, there were also notable differences between lay people’s definitions and researchers’ definitions of empathy. Not a single person in our sample spontaneously suggested that “anxious reactivity”—feeling upset and not very capable in stressful situations—was empathy, but this definition is commonly used in research. Furthermore, a sizeable minority of people defined empathy as relating, connecting, and bonding with other people; this social aspect of empathy is seldom mentioned in published studies.
All of our research participants were asked to rate a list of specific behaviors and tendencies, adapted from standard measures of empathy, for how well each one matched their personal definition of empathy. The items fell into four groups or factors: being prosocial, being interpersonally perceptive (such as judging another person’s emotions correctly), taking other people’s perspectives, and experiencing anxious reactivity. People differed in how much they regarded each of these things as “empathy.”
In general, endorsement of any one kind of empathy was only weakly related to endorsing another kind, with the exception of a strong tendency to view empathy as involving both interpersonal perceptiveness and taking other people’s perspective. But, overall, the four definitions didn’t seem to converge on the same general idea. Overall, the results paralleled the open-ended answers. Participants were most likely to say that taking others’ perspective was empathy, while anxious reactivity was endorsed the least (and to a very small degree).
To circle back to our version of the parable, we knew from our earlier study that researchers are touching different things and calling them all an elephant—or, in our case, empathy. This study now shows that regular people are also touching different things and calling them empathy. There is little general consensus on what empathy is, whether you ask researchers or regular people.
It is not our goal to endorse any particular definition of empathy. Rather, our goal is to call attention to the fact that definitions of empathy vary a great deal, both for regular people and for researchers. This finding is important to encourage clearer scientific discussion among researchers and to caution the public that what they think “empathy” is may not match a researcher means, or what their friends, lovers, and co-workers think it is. Given that the empathy concept encompasses a vast terrain with many competing and conflicting definitions, clarity could often be achieved by sidestepping the term completely. All of us, researchers and non-researchers alike, should be more exacting and talk about the specific behaviors, emotions, values, skills, or tendencies that we are interested in. “Empathy” is just too vague.
For Further Reading
Hall, J. A., & Schwartz, R. (2019). Empathy present and future. Journal of Social Psychology, 159, 225-243.
Hall, J. A., Schwartz, R., & Duong, F. (2020). How do laypeople define empathy? Journal of Social Psychology. Advance online publication.
Judith A. Hall is University Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology, Northeastern University. Her research interests are interpersonal communication, especially nonverbal communication and interpersonal accuracy, and she has pursued these interests in the laboratory as well as in the context of medical care. She has been an author or editor of several books on these topics, as well as numerous empirical articles and meta-analyses.
Fred Duong is a doctoral student at Northeastern University in the Department of Psychology. His research interests are in emotions and their effects on moral judgment, decision-making, and behaviors.
Rachel Schwartz is a health services researcher and communication scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her research focuses on clinician wellness, physician-patient communication, and medical education initiatives that provide support for navigating psychosocial aspects of the clinical encounter.