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).  

Wild creatures are monitoring at all times what the other creatures nearby are doing.  

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 predators.  

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):




Parental and group care: empathic concern and targeted helping

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 is observed.  

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 “motivational autonomy”.  

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.  


  1. Empathy or cognitive empathy.  Knowing another person’s internal state, including his or her thoughts and feelings.  
  2. 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 laughing ourselves.
  3. 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.   
  4. Perspective taking, (1): “imagine other”.  Theory of Mind.  Knowing the goals and perceptions of another: what they want, need, and see.  
  5. 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).  
  6. 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.  Also: feeling distressed because we cannot help.
  7. 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.  
  8. 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.  “Feeling for.”  


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 feelings.  

If we witness someone we care about in pain, then we ourselves tend to become more sensitive to our own pain.  

See also:  Targeted helping: sympathy and compassion



Perspective taking


If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.  

Henry Ford


Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.  

Jonathan Haidt – “The Righteous Mind”


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 helping behaviour.  

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.  


Theory of Mind and the mirror self-recognition test (MSR)


the term theory of mind has been used to denote the ability of humans (and some other animals) to ascribe unique mental states to others and to utilize those mental state attributions during social interactions

Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner – “Sharing and Understanding Emotions” in  “Empathy – from Bench to Bedside” ed. Jean Decety


Theory of Mind may be defined as the ability to recognise the separate self of another and to know their particular goals (needs and wants) and perceptions.  

The mirror test is an experiment where an animal or human is marked above each eye, or in some other place invisible to the subject, 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 on them.  It is thought to indicate a highly developed sense of self, together with a recognition of the uniqueness of others.  

The co-emergence hypothesis of Frans de Waal “predicts that mirror self-recognition (MSR) and advanced expressions of empathy appear together in both ontogeny and phylogeny.”  (in both individual development and in species.)  

A number of species have so far passed this test.  If the co-emergence hypothesis is true, then each of these species possesses Theory of Mind.  We may imagine that each one uses this for its particular purposes, and speculate what these might be.  Asian elephants, dolphins and killer whales are all cooperative breeders, and highly social and cooperative in their habits.  Great apes are intelligent, social, and competitive, and perhaps ToM is used for Macchiavellian purposes of out-witting the competition to obtain food, mates or other resources.  Magpies are thieves and need to know what their victim knows in order to steal from them.  Ants are highly cooperative, and perhaps this brings the necessity to know what their fellows perceive and are going to do.  The latest addition to the list, the cleaner fish, presumably needs to know whether the big fish whose mouth it is cleaning is going to eat it.   


Does a cat have Theory of Mind?  

Cat discovers it has ears:  





  1. Definitions
  2. Evolutionary layers of empathy
  3. Emotional contagion
  4. Empathic concern, targeted helping, parental care and social living
  5. Sympathy
  6. Perspective taking and Theory of Mind
  7. How do we read people?  
  8. Empathy and cooperation
  9. Formation of empathy in the individual
  10. Psychopaths
  11. Factors influencing empathy towards others
  12. Empathy and meeting our own needs



Recognition of needs is presumably a result of caring for young in mammals and birds.  


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:

We can ask someone questions to find out more about their inner and outer situations.  

We can imagine ourselves into another’s position, and this is called “imagine self” perspective taking.  


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.  

The more you recognise and acknowledge your own emotions, the easier it is to recognise them in others.  

Without experience, we can only use our imagination to construct an idea of what it is like for the other person.  

If we have experience of being in need or in pain, or of those close to us being so, then we tend to be more sensitive to the needs of others.  

Body language  

We can interpret the emotional cues they are showing through their facial expressions, body language, what they say and how they say it, and what they do and how they do it.  



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 behavior?”  


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 on.  

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”.  



What factors influence how empathic we feel towards others?  


emotions are picked up more readily between parties with close ties than between strangers.  

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 in action.  


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”


Highly empathic people

We tend to feel more empathically concerned towards others in certain situations if we have experience of being in the same kind of need or pain, or of seeing people we love and care about in the same kind of need or pain.  

see also: the Golden Rule: extraordinary altruists


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.”



A sense of power tends to diminish empathy towards others