The 4 Types Of Empathy (and Their Characteristics)

The types of empathy

Empathy is, without a doubt, one of the most popular concepts in current science Most people use it as another word within their linguistic heritage, to define the way in which others (or themselves) tend to become emotionally involved in their relationships.

However, empathy is a very complex phenomenon, with deep roots that go deep into the phylogenetic history of human beings. It is very true that, without it, we would not have achieved the degree of social development (and cooperation) that has allowed us to get 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 expresses themselves.

What is empathy?

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

Science has shown that, already during the first months of life, newborns can show concern for the pain of others. Or that they even react empathically when they hear other children crying. However, it is a skill that tends to be 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 factor may also contribute.

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

Types of empathy

Although it may seem contradictory in some way, the latest research on the issue shows that empathy is also a relevant element for understanding antisocial behavior, and not only from the point of view of a supposed absence of it. And it is that some of the components of this skill may be devoid of the emotional nuance participating in processes such as the simple identification of affections or intentions in the other, but without any degree of self-recognition in them (which is why it is often used as a basis for manipulation or blackmail).

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Empathy involves at least three different processes: emotional recognition, emotional integration and implementation of consistent behaviors. They all follow one another in a linear way, in such a way that the first is necessary for the appearance of the second, and the second is necessary for the appearance of the third. In recent years, the inclusion of a fourth step has been considered: the control of one’s own emotional reactions, which seeks the end of prevent this phenomenon from overflowing internal resources and ending up resulting in harm

Each of these phases has received its own label, becoming related but independent realities to a certain degree. With this article we intend to explore them and detail what they consist of, thus tracing the characteristics of what has popularly come to be called “types of empathy” (although remembering that in reality they are all part of the 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. Based on the verbal content (testimonies, confessions, etc.) and non-verbal content (facial gestures, for example) that the other emits during the interaction, deep and very primitive structures are activated in our brain that have the objective of encoding social information, recognizing in the same act (through inferences) what is passing through the mind of the person in front of us.

At this point in the process, essential for the rest to unfold, a general vision of what the other thinks and feels is articulated; but without there yet being a personal involvement in all of this. That is why it has very often been a phenomenon equated to the theory of mind, a basic milestone through 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 begins the differentiation of oneself from others, which occurs in the first years of life as a key part of neurological maturation.

The informational analysis of cognitive empathy focuses on the logical/rational elements, extracting from the equation any affective correlates that could (logically) be predicted thereafter. Most people immediately go into weighing other nuances, including how all these intellectual “impressions” resonate in their own emotional life, but in other cases the process ends here. This last assumption is what can be found among psychopaths, to cite a well-known example.

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

2. Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy requires that, first, we are able to cognitively “grasp” the experience of others. Once this is achieved, we advance to a second level of elaboration, in which the emotional dimensions stand as a lighthouse in the vast ocean of inner lives. Generally speaking, this form of empathy gives us the ability to be sensitive to what others feel 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 the affect 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 the latter. At a brain level, the right supramarginal gyrus has been proven to play a key role in empathy and even compassion; a region that is located at the intersection between the temporal, frontal and parietal lobes.

This structure is necessary for contribute to the distinction between the affects that are one’s own 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 keep in mind that constructive empathy requires an adequate ability to regulate what we feel, something that directly connects with the activity of the prefrontal cortex. Without proper management of all of this, we may end up overwhelmed by the pain of those around us.

And emotional empathy is not equivalent to “emotional contagion”, but rather the ability to immerse ourselves in the world of another without ending up inexorably swallowed by it.

3. Sympathy or empathic concern

The word “sympathy” comes from Greek, and could be translated as the act of “feeling the same as another.” Is about a concern for the experience of others, which arises from being able to identify it and feel it on our own skin, and which would often end up leading to helping (prosocial) behaviors. It is, therefore, a step further within the empathic process, from which everything would manifest itself on the social stage through some deliberate act of altruism (and even dedication).

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People who reach this point within the empathic process feel motivated to action; since they contribute their effort to help unconditionally, spontaneously and selflessly. However, it should be noted that sometimes the reinforcement for these acts is social (respect for the environment or alleviation of a feeling of guilt, for example), so they would not be altruistic, but rather prosocial ( when carried out with the objective of obtaining a reward).

Despite this, this dimension of empathy represents the culmination of a long process of cognitive-emotional analysis, transforming the intention in actions aimed at alleviating the pain of others It is also the nuance that gives empathy an evident adaptive value, since it stimulates a sense of collaboration and compassion for those who belong to one’s own group (to a greater extent than for people outside it).

4. Ecpathy

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

With its use, confusion would be addressed, and these contents would be approached in a different way than if they were one’s own, so one’s own experience would not be lost in the internal convulsion of someone who is exposed to the pain of others.

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