The Science of Empathy

By Danielle Sonnenberg

Ever since I can remember I have been very aware of the suffering of the people around me. I am cognizant of their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. The first time I remember being empathetic was when my parents paid a stranger ten dollars to thank him for getting their car keys after they fell in a grate below the street. I remember this man looking back at my parents and saying in a really grateful tone, “Thanks, I really needed that.” I began to imagine what his life was like—was he homeless, did he have a family, why did this $10 mean so mean to him? As I grew older, I became more aware of the emotional reactions of people around me including family members, friends, and even strangers. The sadness of other people would have a large impact on me. I started to ask myself why I was so affected by the suffering of people around me. Was I really being altruistic or was I simply trying to relieve my own discomfort?

11984559914_be77fb9031_oThe word empathy comes from the German word einfullung meaning “feeling into.” Essentially, it means putting yourself in the position of another person. According to Tania Singer, the director of Social Neuroscience department at The Max Planck Institute, the lay definition of empathy refers to affect sharing and mental state attribution. It is important to stress that although empathizing can be defined as “affect sharing,” just experiencing another person’s emotions, which is also known as emotional contagion, is not sufficient to be considered empathy.

It is important to differentiate empathy from theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other peoples’ mental states that is associated on structures in the temporal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. According to Singer, empathy refers to the ability to share feelings (emotions and sensation) and is associated on the sensorimotor cortex as well as the limbic and para-limbic structures (Singer, 2006). These concepts are very difficult to differentiate because, in a way, they all reflect an ability to put oneself in the “shoes of another person,” whether it is a person’s mental or emotional shoes.

While reading about the science of empathy, I’ve realized that in order to have affective empathy one must first be able to recognize another person’s emotional states. I have asked myself, what is the purpose of affective empathy? Is it a good skill to feel other people’s pain or would it be more productive to not always feel what other people are going through? Because empathy involves focusing on another person’s feelings as well as putting oneself in their shoes, I imagine that relieving the other person of their suffering can also be seen as egoistic. This concept has been something I have been wrestling with a long time, particularly after hosting Dr James Fallon, a scientist whose work on the neuroscience of psychopathy became widely discussed after he concluded that he, himself, had the brain of a psychopath and thus lacks the ability to feel empathy.

There are many different opinions of whether people can be truly altruistic. The empathy-altruisim hypothesis proposed by C. Daniel Batson and colleagues (1991) states that altruism is associated with the degree of initial empathy (the emotional response felt toward the welfare of another), the benefit to the empathetic person, and the ease of psychological escape. At its core, the empathy-altruism hypothesis states that empathic concern for another person is a selfless attempt to help that other person. However, others such as including John Maner and Matthew Cialdini (2007) argued that altruism does not exist. Cialdini constructed the negative affect model that suggests that people only help others because they want to relieve their own suffering, and is not about genuine concern for the other person.

Brain activity related to physical pain and empathy. From Singer, 2006
Brain activity related to physical pain and empathy. From Singer, 2006

A major difficulty in the study of empathy is measuring the various variables involved, particularly differentiating if the motives behind a helping behavior are the result of empathy or simply an attempt to avoid personal distress. Neuberg et al. (1997) stated that three conditions are imperative in investigating if nonaltruistic accounts are responsible for helping behavior: (a) measuring a set of relevant nonaltruistic motives (that increased helping), (b) reliably and validly measure those motives, and (c) assess the empathy-helping relationship while controlling for the full set of nonaltruistic motivations. Bateson and collegues’ study did not meet these qualifications. No study yet has met them. Maner & Gailliot (2007) also did not find any direct evidence for altruism and found only negative affect and perceived oneness had any impact whether the likelihood of helping behavior.

Part of the challenge in analyzing whether people are being truly altruistic is separating negative affect and empathy since they are very similar. The general specific (GS) model works to separate and measure negative affect and empathy. The GS model includes two latent factors. The first is a general negative affect factor, indicated by seven items—sad, low-spirited, heavy-hearted, sorrowful, sympathetic, compassionate, and soft- hearted. This factor accounts for variance shared by all of these items and, therefore, assesses participants’ general experience of negative emotion. The model also includes a specific empathic concern factor, which accounts for the shared covariation among the items sympathetic, compassionate, and soft-hearted, above and beyond the factors accounted for by general negative affect.

After doing all this research, I’ve come to realize that the picture is very complicated. As human beings it is not uncommon for us to connect with, and be affected by, the pain of others. However, sometimes feeling another person’s pain can actually deter us from wanting to take empathetic action. I do wonder if feeling other people’s pain is always positive when, instead of feeling the pain of others, we could be using our energy to help the world in more proactive ways. At the same time, empathy allows us as humans to connect and not feel so alone. I have concluded that even if being empathetic is not truly altruistic, perhaps the motives behind helping behaviors should not matter as much as the action itself. If someone is helping someone else, isn’t that what truly counts?


Batson, C. D., Batson, J. G., Grittitt, C. A., Barrientos, S., Brandt, J. R., Sprengelmeyer, P.,  Bayly, M. J. (1989). Negative-state relief and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(6), 922–933.

Maner, J. K., & Gailliot, M. T. (2007). Altruism and egoism: Prosocial motivations for helping depend on relationship context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37(2), 347-358.

Neuberg, S. L., Cialdini, R. B., Brown, S. L., Luce, C., Sagarin, B. J., & Lewis, B. P. (1997). Does empathy lead to anything more than superficial helping? Comment on Batson et al.(1997)Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(3), 510–516.

Singer, T. (2006). The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(6), 855-863.

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