In nature, individuals are linked, and need to be aware of each other’s behaviour,
in all kinds of ways: for example, predators and prey; competitors; social group
members; collaborators; and parents and offspring.
Empathy seems to have evolved for the purpose of understanding the inner state of
others, where this benefits the individual or the individual’s genes. Nearly all
mammals and birds care for their young, and the neural apparatus for parental care
seems to provide the basic capacity for empathy which can then be used in any social
situation where it is needed.
The capacity for empathy is generally greater and more sophisticated in the more
social and more intelligent animals. Humans are by far the most cooperative species
(apart from the social insects) and, accordingly, are the most empathetic, both in
ability and in the extent of who is included in their circle of empathy.
For a human to recognise pain or need in someone they approve of leads directly to
a desire to help. In someone they are indifferent to, or whom they do not approve
of, it may lead to indifference, or even a desire to cause further harm.
Body mimicry, emotional contagion, collective emotion
Instead of being Robinson Crusoes sitting on separate islands, we’re all interconnected,
both bodily and emotionally.
Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”
Emotional contagion means that if one individual is feeling a certain emotion, others
can pick it up and feel it too. “I feel what you feel.” It is an automatic and
involuntary transfer of emotion between individuals. It is the method by which we
make an emotional connection with our pets (mammals and birds).
If a group of birds and animals are feeding in one spot, and just one of them registers
alarm because they have seen a predator, this alarm spreads to all the other individuals
and they scatter without even having seen the predator themselves. This makes sense:
if one individual thinks they have seen danger then it is safer to err on the side
of caution and flee oneself.
Schools of fish will coordinate themselves into an integrated group in order to evade
If you see someone else pick something up with their hand, then “mirror neurons”
in the area of your brain that controls picking things up with your hand will be
activated too. Other brain functions are similarly mirrored. These mirror neurons
have been found so far in monkeys, apes, whales and dolphins.
How does it make you feel to watch this? (people who hang off tall buildings):
Sympathetic concern, or at least, the associated helping behaviour, has been observed
in social birds and mammals. In human hunter-gatherer societies, whose members live
in small groups, a culture of “generalized altruism” towards all members of the group
Reading emotions and helping in response to need is a feature of creatures who care
for their young, and it is thought that this is the origin of the link between empathy
and helping. The young of most birds, and all mammals, need to be looked after for
a long time after they are born, until they can look after themselves. When the
infant gives its distinctive, plaintive, urgent cries for help, the parent will drop
what it is doing and rush to supply that help by any means necessary. Parents who
do this are more likely to have offspring which survive and are therefore more likely
to pass on their genes.
As is often the case in nature, over the course of evolutionary time, this behaviour
(empathic concern and helping) has become detached from its original cause (the distress
of infants) and is now used in social situations between adults in order to facilitate
the coordination of activities, cooperation towards common goals, caring for group
members, and other social interactions within the group. This detaching is called
The ancestor of the domestic cat, the African Wild Cat, lives either alone or in
a group of mother and kittens. The ancestor of the domestic dog, the wolf, is a
social carnivore that lives, breeds and hunts communally. Perhaps this explains
why the helping behaviour of domestic cats is [anecdotally] mainly confined to helping
baby animals, while dogs are also widely relied upon to help humans.
Nested layers: the evolution of empathy
Definitions: what is empathy?
Empathy is a complex subject. There are many definitions of the word empathy, all
of which are in common use. In practice, at any one time, we may use any combination
of the following types of empathy. Each of these definitions has been given a range
of names, so the names used here are not hard and fixed.
Empathy or cognitive empathy. Knowing another person’s internal state, including
his or her thoughts and feelings.
Body mimicry, neural [brain] mimicry. Unconsciously adopting the bodily posture
or facial expression of a person whom we are observing. If we see someone yawn,
we are likely to yawn in response, and seeing someone laugh will often set us off
Emotional contagion, mental mirroring. Unconsciously adopting the emotions or attitude
of another. For example, if someone is being needlessly negative and complaining,
we may feel annoyed that we are forced to pick up their negative attitude. By contrast,
a cheerful positive person will tend to infect their fellows with their upbeat attitude,
which will tend to make that person well-liked.
Perspective taking, (1): “imagine other”. Mind reading. Imagining how another is
thinking or feeling. A sensitivity to the way the other is affected by his or her
situation. Your imagining can be based both on what they say and do, and on your
knowledge of their character, values, desires etc.
Perspective taking (2): “imagine self”. Mind reading. Imagining how one would think
and feel in another’s place. “Changing places in fancy” with the other person (Adam
Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, 1759).
Personal distress, empathic distress. Feeling distressed by witnessing the suffering
of another. A self-oriented or self-focused feeling. This may overwhelm us to the
point where we are unable to help the person.
Sympathy. Feeling good along with another who is feeling good; feeling bad along
with another who is feeling bad. Sympathetic joy, sympathetic suffering. Feeling
“with”. Emotional resonance. An other-oriented or other-focused feeling.
Empathic concern, compassion. Feelings of wanting to help, or at least to be lenient,
in response to distress or need in another. An other-oriented or other-focused feeling.
The way to discover (1) (how another is thinking and feeling) is through some combination
of (2), (3), (4) and (5), although this information gathering process is prone to
error through inexperience, projecting one’s own prejudices and internal state, lack
of information etc. and must be carried out with care and attention.
(1), (2), (3), (4) and (5) (empathy) can lead to (6), (7) and (8).
(6), (7) and (8) can lead to sensitive targeted helping. (7) and (8) are the most
likely to do this.
Sympathy; emotional resonance
Oh the laughter, the laughter so good and free
Oh the laughter, the laughter so nice to see.
Incredible String Band -– “My Father was a Lighthouse Keeper”
Sympathy means “feeling with”: it is the sympathetic reaction to witnessing the emotional
state of another; emotional resonance. For example, we may feel joy at someone else’s
joy or distress at their distress (see consolation). We may say “I feel happy for
you” or “I feel sorry for you”. Imagine how you would feel to see someone you really
love feeling happy, or sad.
The more basic or primitive form of sympathy, where the distinction between self
and other is blurred, is straightforward emotional contagion.
When we witness someone else’s feelings, we do not necessarily react with those same
If we witness someone we care about in pain, then we ourselves tend to become more
sensitive to our own pain.
We may define two kinds of perspective taking, called “imagine self” and “imagine
other”. “Imagine self” refers to imagining how we ourselves would feel in the shoes
of another. “Imagine other” means to focus on the other and how we think it feels
to be them. In laboratory tests, scanning the brains of humans, it is found that
when we project ourselves into a difficult situation, it leads to higher personal
distress, while if we focus on the emotions and behaviour of another person in distress
then this results in higher empathic concern, lower personal distress and higher
activity in the executive decision-making areas of the brain. This is consistent
with the findings that being focused on another reduces personal distress and increases
Humans are strongly group-oriented in that we “prefer” in-group over out-group members.
This means that, consciously and unconsciously, we feel much more empathy towards
people from our own group than from rival groups. But taking the perspective of
people from another group is an effective way to increase empathy for them, especially
if we are familiar with actual individual people from the other group.
Perspective taking makes targeted helping much more effective. Species vary in how
good they are at perspective taking. So far, a distinction has been found between
those which pass the “mirror test” and those which do not. The mirror test is an
experiment where an animal or human is marked above each eye with a paint mark –
one visible, one invisible. The test is to see whether the individual can recognise
that they have a visible paint mark above one eye and not the other. It is thought
to indicate a highly developed sense of self, and species which pass this test frequently
have been found to be much better at perspective taking, and therefore targeted helping,
than those which do not. The species found so far to pass the test are elephants,
dolphins, great apes, humans and magpies. It is thought that the thieving habit
of magpies accounts for this talent for perspective taking.
Baboons may even express vocal relief when an awkward situation comes to an end,
indicating appreciation of the situation others find themselves in. In his usual
entertaining style, Robert Sapolsky tells the story of an infant born to a particularly
maladroit mother, whose offspring was forced to cling to her tail:
One day, as she leapt from one branch to another in a tree with the kid in that precarious
position, he lost his grip and dropped ten feet to the ground. We various primates
observing proved our close kinship, proved how we probably utilized the exact same
number of synapses in our brains in watching and responding to this event, by doing
exactly the same thing in unison. Five female baboons in the tree and this one human
all gasped as one. And then fell silent, eyes trained on the kid. A moment passed,
he righted himself, looked up in the tree at his mother, and then scampered off after
some nearby friends. And as a chorus, we all started clucking to each other in relief.
Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”
How do we read people?
We can never truly get inside the skin of another person and know exactly what it
is like to be them.
We read people based on the totality of what we see and know of the other person
and their situation.
We recognise others, based on learning from experience, and:
their similarity to ourselves and our experience;
their similarity to others we are familiar with;
first- or second-hand knowledge of their situation.
We can ask someone questions to find out more about their inner and outer situations.
We can interpret the emotional cues they are showing through their facial expressions,
body language, what they say and how they say it.
We can imagine ourselves into another’s position, and this is called “imagine self”
The role of experience
In order to empathise with – read and understand – the internal state of another,
we need to recognise it. In order to recognise it, we need to have experience of
it, whether personally or in someone we have known.
Without experience, we can only use our imagination to construct an idea of what
it is like for the other person.
Empathy is especially useful to humans in cooperative situations
[The components of empathy] reflect evolved functions that allow mammalian species
to thrive by detecting and responding to significant social events necessary for
surviving, reproducing, and maintaining well-being.
Jean Decety and Jason M Cowell – “Friends or Foes: is empathy necessary for moral
In our distant evolutionary past, between Homo erectus 2 million years ago and Homo
sapiens 15 thousand years ago, humans lived and survived together in difficult environments
in small groups whose members cooperated closely in order to collectively obtain
food and raise children. Mind-reading would have been an essential skill to building
and reinforcing this cooperation.
... we have grounds to believe that hunter-gatherers are mentalists, attributing
to each other such states as seeing, desiring and believing.
This means that the minds in a hunter-gatherer band interpenetrate each other in
all these respects, facilitating ... closely integrated cooperation and egalitarian
sharing and decision-making ..., which allow the band to act as a unified, sophisticated
predatory ‘organism’. The mutually interpenetrating mindreading provides a central
information processing system unattained by other species.
Andrew Whiten and David Erdal – “The human socio-cognitive niche and its evolutionary
origins” – Phiilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2012
There are several reasons why empathy was then and still is useful to human beings,
in ways that it is not to other great apes, because they do not cooperate closely
like we do. Empathy facilitates trust, communication and teaching. Empathy makes
honesty the norm and deception more cognitively demanding, since if people can read
us, it takes effort to cover up a lie.
Cooperative breeding is thought to enhance the capacity for empathy and the willingness
to share in the mental states of others.
Cooperative foraging: if people are cooperating together, then they need to coordinate
and communicate with each other. Within the party, each person needs to know the
point of views of the others, what they know, whether they need help etc.
Reputation: if I depend on others to survive then I need to know who is and who
is not a good cooperator. It is in the interests of each person to be thought of
as a good cooperator because it means they will be chosen for and benefit from participating
in cooperative activities. The way to achieve this is to be seen to be a good cooperator.
Each person needs to know what the others think of them, and to manage this impression
by being seen to behave well.
Fairness: empathy, or at least, mind-reading, in a small group promotes a group-wide
sense of fairness as everyone is aware of how much everyone else has put in and gained.
In turn, fairness promotes cooperation and together these provide good reasons for
making one’s states of mind known to others.
Communication and teaching: if I am communicating with you then I need to know whether
you have understood me properly, and I need to know what you already know so that
what I tell you is new and relevant to you, otherwise there is no point in saying
it. Teaching becomes possible with communication and is very advantageous for reproductive
success (through teaching the young) and for group success (through sharing knowledge).
Teaching also requires empathy, in a similar way to communication in general.
Apes and monkeys, competitive where humans are cooperative, are known to point to
food, to alarming situations or to their adversaries in a conflict, and they will
check back with the individual they are communicating with to see if they have understood.
But humans share information widely and freely with each other, seemingly for enjoyment.
A series of recent experiments showed that walking, singing or moving in synchrony
all increased people’s cooperativeness.
Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry MD, PhD – “Born for Love”
Formation of empathy in the individual
As we might expect, given that empathy probably evolved in the context of bird and
mammal parents caring for their young, and the young seeking the care of their parents,
it is thought that the capacity for empathy is put in place during the mother-child
bonding process. [Or consistent caregiver-child bonding process.]
[“empathy”:] Other psychologists prefer the related term "intersubjectivity," which
emphasizes the capacity and eagerness to share in the emotional states and experiences
of other individuals - and which, in humans at least, emerges at a very early stage
of development, providing the foundation for more sophisticated mind reading later
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – “Mothers and Others – the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding”
... a sense of safety is rewarding, while threat is distressing, even painful.
At first, when Sophia is just a newborn, her pleasure comes simply from relief of
the distress of being hungry or cold. But soon, through the hundreds of times when
Mary [the mother] attends to Sophia's needs - feeding her when hungry, warming her
when cold, and comforting her when frightened - Sophia's brain begins to connect
all Mary's attributes with that comfort, satisfaction and pleasure. These cues become
associated with a decrease in the stress response: a positive interaction with Mary
makes Sophia feel safer. These crucial associations between positive human interactions,
reward systems, and the stress response networks are the neurobiological glue for
all future healthy relationships. They are at the core of why empathy matters.
Mary also gets pleasure and relief when she is able to ease her child's hunger by
feeding her. For both mother and child, this pleasure is dual: it is not just the
baby's relief that comes from the cessation of the pain of hunger (or, for the mom,
the end of the distress of hearing her baby cry) but also, for Sophia, the pleasure
of the taste of the milk itself, of being held close and smiled at. For Mary, feeling
her baby mold into her body, touching Sophia's soft skin, smelling the indescribably
lovely scent of her baby's head, hearing her coos and seeing her adorable face also
brings happiness. So both types of pleasure - the kind that comes from satiating
a desire and the kind that comes from physical experiences like good tastes or warm
touch - are combined.
Soon, Mary doesn't even need to start feeding Sophia to elicit joy. She lights up
and stops crying simply seeing Mom come into her bedroom. It's hard to explain just
how rewarding that feels to most mothers - many describe it as being comparable to,
or even better than, the happiness of reciprocated romantic love. Suffice it to
say, it feels pretty amazing to be able to make someone ecstatically happy just by
showing up. This, of course, helps both Mary and Sophia through the many difficult
moments of development - and the positive cycle of social reward spirals onward.
... Inside the baby's brain, dopamine, opioids, and oxytocin become active as he
settles down in his mom's arms. Their bond is forming.
... Oxytocin is necessary for mammals to make the connection between a particular
individual and pleasure. Without it, many animals can't even tell each other apart.
... And as we saw with Mary and Sophia, it is the attentive, attuned and nurturing
care of a baby's primary caregiver that begins to shape and regulate these developing
stress response systems.
Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry MD, PhD – “Born for Love”
The bonding process between mother and infant facilitates the development of neurophysiological
structures that underlie normal social behaviors such as empathy. We know that in
humans a disruption of this bonding process can result in reduced capacity for empathy
and an increased propensity towards violence. Early trauma has permanent effects
on the brain, and thus on behavior. Trauma such as separation of the infant from
its mother, or abuse or neglect by the mother, can lead to a permanent impairment
in empathic social interaction.
Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce – “Wild Justice – the moral lives of animals”
In normal development, the baby learns to associate “sharing in the mental state
of the caregiver” with “receiving help” and “giving and receiving pleasure”.
Psychopaths are people who tend to have a full complement of cognitive empathy –
they are able to imagine the mental state of another – but who seem to lack the the
ability to recognise, and to resonate in sympathy with, the emotions of others. Psychopaths
are “emotionally immune to another’s situation” (Frans de Waal, “The Age of Empathy”).
They also seem to lack the need to affiliate deeply with others, and to lack the
compassionate helping element of empathy. Perhaps because of a disrupted attachment
as babies, “sharing in the mental state of another” is associated with the pain of
“abandonment, grief and loss” instead of the pleasure of “helping”. There also seems
to be a genetic component to the condition – it may be partially inherited.
Psychopaths are known for their coldness and callousness or outright cruelty and
anti-social behaviour. According to one definition, they are immune to punishment.
What factors influence how empathic we feel towards others?
emotions are picked up more readily between parties with close ties than between
Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”
We feel more empathy towards those we approve of: our friends and loved ones, others
with whom we are closely involved, in-group members – and those who are good to others.
This probably reflects empathy’s evolutionary origins in “inclusive fitness benefits”
– using our understanding of our offspring and social group-mates in order to benefit
our own genetic fitness. But humans and other sophisticated social animals are capable
of feeling empathy towards strangers as well. Again, this is motivational autonomy
even if a trait evolved for reason X, it may very well be used in daily life for
reasons X, Y and Z.
Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”
If our own needs are met, we are more likely to feel empathy towards others.
From the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis: "Caring in the New Old Age" about care for
the elderly, broadcast 16 March 2015:
... there are probably some people who have such low levels of the raw ingredients
of caring, like compassion and kindness, that they shouldn't be carers. But given
the large and growing number of carers we're going to need as the population ages,
and the low pay and status of the sector, just how picky can we afford to be? This
is Jocelyn Cornwell from the Point of Care Foundation again:
“There is, in any population, a distribution of the ability to be empathetic. Some
of us are what's called ‘super-empathisers’, and some find it very difficult to empathise
with others. I think that we have to accept that there is a range and we can't always
fish in the most empathetic part of the pond if you like. I think introducing people
to the kinds of things that they would be expected to do, the kinds of things they
would be exposed to as caregivers, is very important so that people walk away from
the job if they think ‘This isn't for me’”.
If we accept we're not going to have a care force made up just of saints, or super-empathisers,
what can we do to make sure caring doesn't get boiled down to just a series of tasks?
Jocelyn Cornwell thinks we can design more empathy into the system by better supporting
people. Her organisation, the Point of Care Foundation, has been introducing Schwartz
Rounds, an innovation from American hospitals into hospitals in the UK.
“The Schwartz Rounds really came out of our interest in looking for interventions
that would help to support the staff. It's a one hour meeting, that takes place
usually at lunch times, it's open to anybody who wants to come, and that's a very
important feature of it. And the meetings begin with a story: two or three members
of staff tell the story, usually about a patient, chosen to illustrate a theme that
people would recognize in their work. The purpose is not to decide on action, to
review the care that was delivered and decide whether it should have been done differently.
It's simply an opportunity for people to sit together and reflect on the very valuable
and difficult work that they do in caring for patients.”
[Interviewer:] “Could you tell me a bit about how Schwartz Rounds and that process
of self-reflection impacts on the quality of care that patients receive?”
[JC:] “The sort of cliché is ‘happy staff make happy patients’ and the evidence
showed that the people who went to the rounds felt that they were less isolated in
the work of caring, they felt more supported by their colleagues, and they said that
they felt more able to be empathetic as a result of attending the rounds.”