Defining Empathy Is Like Nailing Jell-O to a Wall

Cubes of red, yellow, and green jello stacked together.

I thought I understood empathy. Then I got a book deal to write about it.

As I started diving into the research, I read as many books, articles, and peer-reviewed papers as I could get my hands on. I wanted to home in on a precise and concise definition. Something easy to put into the obligatory “What Is Empathy?” section that kicked off the narrative. But in the process, I noticed something odd. There isn’t one. Or, more accurately, there are many. Let’s look at a sampling, shall we?

Susan Lenzioni, Empathy: A History - ”As many understand it today, empathy is our capacity to grasp and understand the emotional lives of others. It is variably deemed a trained skill, a talent, or an inborn ability and accorded a psychological and moral nature. Among its many definitions are: emotional resonance or contagion, motor mimicry, a complex cognitive and imaginative capacity, perspective taking, kinesthetic modeling, a firing of mirror neurons, concern for others, and sometimes, although rarely aesthetic self-projection, its earliest meaning. But even this list does not exhaust its possible definitions.”

*Jamil Zaki, The War For Kindness* - ”Most people understand empathy as more or less a feeling in itself—I feel your pain—but it’s more complicated than that. “Empathy” actually refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their emotions (emotional empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathic concern).”

*Heidi Maibom, Empathy* - ”Mainly, people have one of four slightly different things in mind when they talk about empathy. They are: 1) ‘emotional contagion,’…2) ‘affective empathy,’…3) ‘perspective-taking,’ sometimes called ‘cognitive empathy,’…, and ‘sympathy,’ sometimes called ‘empathic concern’ (particularly in psychology).”

*Helen Riess, The Empathy Effect* - “Empathy is best understood as a human capacity consisting of several different facets that work together to enable us to be moved by the plights and emotions of others. I prefer to use the term “empathic capacity” rather than “empathy” because this conveys that empathy is made up of many different psychological and physiological facets.”

*Neel Burton, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions* - ”Today, empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share in the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. Empathy involves two things: (1) seeing another person’s situation from her point of view, and (2) sharing in her emotions, including, if any, her distress. Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all reactions to the plights of others….Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings and often carries paternalistic or condescending overtones…Sympathy [Greek, ‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’] is care and concern for someone, often someone close or relatable, accompanied by a wish to see her better off…unlike empathy, sympathy does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions…Compassion, or ‘suffering alongside’ someone, is more engaged than simple empathy and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.”

So why is empathy so difficult to pin down? Is it just authors and academics who want to buff up their ego and put a unique spin on something? Well, ego I’m sure is a part of it. We’re all human, after all. But after hanging out with this idea for a while, I’ve found there are definitely bigger contributing factors at play here.

1. Empathy is an etymological baby.

Etymology focuses on word origins and how their meanings have changed throughout history. While some words, such as mother and father, can trace their lineage back over 15,000 years, empathy is a newcomer to the semantics party — it’s only 113 years old.

Empathy first appeared in 1908 as an English translation of a German art history term Einfühlung, which itself was only coined in 1873 in the philosopher Robert Vischer’s Ph.D dissertation. Vischer was commenting on aestheticism, which was a movement in the late 19th century that elevated the status of “art for art’s sake.” Instead of trying to prescribe a moral or allegorical meaning into a piece of art, as was common at the time, aestheticism advocated for the production of beautiful things for no other reason other than they are beautiful.

Exploring this context, Vischer looked at how humans relate to art through emotions and meaning. The concept, which was translated as “feeling into” conveys the idea that a person projects themselves into another object or body. If you were looking at a portrait or hearing a narrative account, you could theoretically shift your imagination to “feel into” what the character that is represented would be feeling in that context. The object or body is not necessarily physically present. Einfühlung is inserting yourself using imagination and perspective shift.

2. Empathy has come to also mean its opposite

In that short time, empathy has become a Janus word. Today’s meaning is also the opposite of the original, as Susan Lenzioni points out in her book Empathy: A History. “By the postwar period, influenced by a therapeutic and scientific ethos, empathy captured a way to understand another more objectively on his or her own terms… Rather than an expansion of the self into a form or shape, empathy came to mean the very opposite: the reining in of the self’s expressiveness to grasp another’s emotion in service to a therapeutic goal or moral imperative.”

The specific type of shift is what linguists call “semantic broadening,” whereby a word comes to mean more than what it originally intended. Peruse is another word that has taken this specific linguistic journey. While it originally meant to study something carefully, over time it has also come to mean scanning over something quickly.

3. Empathy has a history of moral (“activist”) judgment

In 2009, President Barack Obama made empathy a central trait he was looking for in a Supreme Court nominee. “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” To which Senator Orrin Hatch asked “A person of empathy —what does that mean? Usually, that’s a code word for an activist judge.”

Now, some of this is down to politics, and whether someone interprets the law using only the words in the U.S. Constitution and amendments, or if someone leans more towards the opinion of John Marshall and chooses to interpret both “the letter and spirit of the Constitution.” The latter are considered “activist” judges by their political opposites.

Senator Hatch was correct that empathy is semantically tied to moral philosophy and activism. For example, 18th-century moral philosophers, such as David Hume, made the case that considering other people’s sentiments is essential when considering ethics and making moral judgments.

Another example of empathy and activism is through the phrase, “walking in another person’s shoes,” a phrase which is so tightly coupled with empathy that’s it’s regularly cited as its definition.

The earliest primary source I’ve been able to track down so far is from a 1925 article in the Ithica Journal, where a Dr. Erl Bates gave a lecture on “Indian Lore” to the Ithica Women’s Club. The writeup concludes with, “An Indian axiom which it would be well for everyone to ponder says, ‘Never criticise a person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.’”

Some sources point to an 1895 poem, first titled “Judge Softly” then renamed to “Walk A Mile in His Moccasins” by Mary T. Lathrap, a temperance and women’s suffrage activist, as the original source of this phrase. (I haven’t personally seen enough evidence there to be convinced. I would love it if someone could point me to a primary source on this one.)

4. Sympathy means empathy… until it doesn’t.

Complicating matters is the semantic shift of empathy’s linguistic cousin, “sympathy” which was a central idea of David Hume, Adam Smith, and other moral philosophers. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “In contemporary use, the term is often used for a kind of concern for another. But Hume and Smith, in different ways, used it for sharing what another feels. The contemporary term for this kind of mechanism is empathy.”

Fast forward to 2009 with Barack Obama’s comments…

William Safire, a prominent linguist, weighed in on the empathy/sympathy distinction, stating “the Greek prefix sym- means ‘together with,’ but the prefix em- goes deeper, meaning ‘within.’ Thus, sympathy expresses ‘pity for another’s troubles’ while empathy reflects a stronger ‘emotional identification.’”

A few years later, empathy researcher Dr. Brené Brown, reiterated Safire’s interpretation of sympathy and empathy in her books and public lectures, which became immensely popular. This has created a challenge in academic literature because terms aren’t used consistently. It’s a semantic mess.

Still frame from YouTube video.

“It would simplify matters if empathy referred to a single object and if everyone agreed on what that object was,” empathy researcher C. Daniel Baston writes. “Unfortunately, as with many psychological terms, this is not the case. Both empathy and sympathy (the term with which empathy is most often contrasted) have been used in a variety of ways. Indeed, with remarkable consistency exactly the same state that some scholars have labeled empathy others have labeled sympathy. I have discerned no clear basis—either historical or logical—for favoring one labeling scheme over another. The best one can do is recognize the different phenomena, make clear the labeling scheme one is adopting, and use that scheme consistently.”

4. Generalized empathy implies projection, not perspective-taking.

An additional challenge is that the general public has a vastly different understanding of empathy from academic researchers. Over time, empathy, as it came to be understood for the general population, required a type of mind-meld where the self dissolves and becomes psychically linked to another through shared emotions. Dictionaries still commonly include this as a requirement in their definitions, even though empathy researchers today generally reject this idea as a requirement for empathy.

Researchers, such as Jodi Halpbern, note that this type of empathy poses the danger of projection, which is a psychological defense mechanism. With projection, instead of understanding how another person actually feels in a situation, a person takes their own emotions, ideas, or impulses and ascribes them to someone else. For example, Alex cares about financial security. When Alex is prompted to imagine what life would be like if he didn’t have money, he feels insecure. He then projects that feeling of insecurity onto Taylor, who doesn’t have money. Alex assumes that Taylor feels insecure because that’s how Alex imagines himself feeling if he were “in Taylor’s shoes.” The problem is that this can be vastly off from how Taylor actually feels, which might be a sense of freedom and adventure, not insecurity.

This is an important distinction because projection leads to entrenching and expanding stereotypes and biases. Halpbern has strongly advocated against teaching empathy as a projection activity, particularly in medical settings. “We misspeak if we describe empathic absorption as a total immersion in, or merging with another…In their zeal to teach empathy medical schools have unwittingly been deeply influenced by this inaccurate model. Medical students are taught to imagine themselves in their patients’ shoes. This differs from imagining what it is like to be in the patient’s position.”

Other prominent empathy scholars, such as C. Daniel Baston have also eschewed the notion that empathy requires projection. “This original definition of empathy as aesthetic projection often appears in dictionaries, and it has appeared in recent philosophical discussions of simulation as an alternative to theory theories of mind. But such projection is rarely what is meant by empathy in contemporary psychology.”

5. Empathy’s unintended consequences.

Empathy’s association with morality means that it’s often hailed as a type of panacea to the struggles of today’s challenges. And, while empathy certainly has its benefits, it can backfire, especially if we fail to recognize the balance of the rational and emotional forces at play.

One example is the effect of projection on how we view groups of people that we don’t understand or identify with. Because projection is a defense mechanism and is based on assumptions rather than understanding, it can entrench negative beliefs and lead to judgemental and discriminatory behaviors (racism, sexism, etc.) that we may not even be aware of. We may think that we’re being empathetic because we’re feeling connected to another person, but we’re actually making the problem worse with our good intentions.

Some examples here are the use of the term “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” In many instances of this sentiment, it’s used as a signal reserve judgment, especially for people who don’t fit your ingroup. Here are some examples:

  • In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the protagonist, Atticus Finch, is a white attorney defending a Black man in court. He reflects on how “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
  • Elvis Prestley recorded a song, “Walk a Mile In My Shoes” which referred to reserving judgment in racial relations. In 2020, the song was selected by the American Immigration Council for a campaign designed to heighten the human side of immigration and encourage kindness across political divides.

Since, as a society, we are conditioned to use projection as an aspect of empathy, media such as this could unintentionally lead to pity and “othering,” even if compassion and altruism are the ultimate goal. Two books that reveal more of these empathy misfires are The Dark Sides of Empathy by Fritz Breithaupt and Against Empathy by Paul Bloom.

As a former copywriter who used to construct advertising campaigns such as this, I find this detail most alarming. I was taught empathy techniques, but when I reflect, I can see that they were often rooted in assumptions and projections. What mistakes did I make? Where did I inadvertently use empathy incorrectly? How can I become more skillful going forward?

With all of this in mind, I find this description of empathy, from neuroscientist Helen Reiss, to be one of the most accurate:

“When people show empathy for others, they are usually good at perceiving what others feel, able to process the information, and able to respond effectively. So it is important to broaden the definition as a capacity that encompasses the entire empathy loop from perception of, to response to someone else’s experience, and finally to check with that person for accuracy, if there is any doubt.”

Like I said, I thought I knew empathy. It wasn’t until I dug really deep that I realized that most of the skills I had been taught during my career as a copywriter were not complete. My hope is that by sharing some of these insights, we can start to think about empathy as a technical skill that we apply with intention.

As for the definition that I was seeking? I’ve decided to write my own. My current working version?

Empathy is accurately understanding people using both logic and emotion.

What’s yours?

UPDATE - September 10, 2021: I’ve been noodling on this definition for the past month. Some folks sent me some really thoughtful feedback (THANK YOU!) and I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate it. Here’s where I am now:

Empathy is a system of interconnected skills that allows you to accurately and compassionately understand people.