What is empathy?

We have all heard the word empathy before, and have some idea of what we think it means. When a good friend has a rough day and tells us how they feel, or when we read news articles about peoples’ lives in war-torn nations, we often feel bad. But these negative feelings can arise in a number of different ways, many of which do not necessarily involve empathy. So what is empathy, how is it different from other social-emotional processes, and how do we do it?

There continues to be debate in the psychological literature about what exactly constitutes empathy compared to other similar or related social-emotional processes. But researchers generally define empathy as the process by which we come to understand and share in the experiences of others. Researchers often describe this process as involving a) the observation and imagination of another person’s emotional state, b) experiencing an emotional state that matches that person’s emotional state, and c) knowing that the other person’s emotional state caused your own emotional state (Singer & Lamm, 2009). For example, when you see Jane experience sadness after losing someone close to her, you may come to understand and share in her experience by thinking about how sad she must feel.

Notably, empathizing with Jane’s sadness is different from sympathizing with her sadness. Whereas empathy involves sharing in her emotional experience, sympathy involves feeling compassion or pity towards her because of her negative experience. Thus, while both empathy and sympathy involve having an emotional response to Jane’s experience, empathy involves a matching emotional state whereas sympathy involves a complementary emotional state.

But what does it mean for our own emotional experience to “match” the emotional experience of someone else? We often become sad, angry, or even happy for others’ when they experience sad, angry, or happy events, but these events are not actually happening to us. So to what extent does empathy allow us to share in someone else’s emotional experience?

To answer such questions and explain how we empathize with others, researchers often examine the biological bases of empathic processing. For example, researchers have asked how sharing in someone’s pain may be different from experiencing pain yourself by comparing the neural regions activated by vicarious and first-hand pain. Interestingly, certain brain areas, such as the bilateral anterior insula, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the brain stem, and the cerebellum, are activated both when participants experience pain themselves, and when they see a loved one experience pain. Detailed analyses of activation clusters, however, demonstrate that while brain activation patterns are similar for firsthand and vicarious experience of pain, more posterior-midinsular activation is found for firsthand experience, and more anterior insular regions are active for vicarious experience (Singer & Lamm, 2009). Thus, when we empathize with others, our emotional state does not exactly match theirs. Rather, we seem to come to understand and share in their experience by using our own mind as a model to simulate their feelings using our own past experiences (Rameson & Lieberman, 2008).

Given that we use our own experiences and feelings as a model for understanding and sharing in the experiences of others, some researchers postulate that when we empathize with others we engage not only emotional processes, but also cognitive processes that allow us to think about the contents of other people’s minds. For example, when we think about the thoughts and feelings of other people, the medial prefrontal cortex tends to show robust activation. However, ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex show preferential activation for emotion perspective taking tasks as compared to cognitive perspective taking tasks, suggesting that ventral regions may be involved in affective processing whereas dorsal regions may be more important for cognitive processing (Rameson & Lieberman, 2008).

So when we empathize with someone, we use cognitive processes to try to understand their emotional state and imagine ourselves in that state by drawing on our own emotional memories, ultimately embodying the emotions that we are imagining. But how do we develop this seemingly complex ability, and why are we so emotionally affected by other people’s emotional experiences? 

One way to answer this question is by understanding two potential precursors of empathy: emotional contagion and imitation. Emotional contagion refers to the tendency to “catch” other people’s emotions. For example, babies start crying when they hear other babies crying, and people can become angry simply by being exposed to a group of angry people. Unlike empathy, this process can occur outside of our awareness and relatively unconsciously. Given the automatic nature of this process, researchers tend to study it by observing participants’ physiological changes in response to other people’s emotional states. For example, when participants viewed photos of sad faces with various pupil sizes, participants own pupil size was significantly smaller when viewing sad faces with small pupils as compared to sad faces with larger pupils. While non-human animals and pre-verbal infants seemingly lack the self-awareness and metacognitive abilities for empathy, they can experience emotional contagion (Singer & Lamm, 2009).

Meanwhile, imitation involves establishing a correspondence between your own behavior and that of another person. For example, newborns tend to imitate their parents in a consistent and effortful way beginning with simple stimuli like tongue protrusion (sticking your tongue out). While imitation does not require changing your emotional state, it provides infants with a way to learn how and when to indulge in and express different emotional states. For example, a child may see his mother demonstrate bravery in a dangerous situation, modeling how to regulate fear in cases where self-defense may be required in order to survive. By imitating such behaviors over time, children can learn to regulate their own emotions in adaptive ways (Slater and Butterworth, 1997).  

Though imitation and emotional contagion are distinct from empathy, they both support the processing of emotional content in ways that facilitate empathy. Research investigating the neural correlates of imitation and observation of emotional facial expressions, for example, find that such processes commonly activate mirror neuron and limbic regions that are thought to support the vicarious experience of emotional states. Imitation also commonly activates the anterior insula, which has been shown to be active during vicarious experience (Singer & Lamm, 2009) and may act as a “relay station” between premotor mirror areas to limbic areas, which process emotional content (Rameson & Lieberman, 2008). Furthermore, children with autism, who are argued to demonstrate a deficit in cognitive empathy (Saxe, 2013), fail to display normal mirror neuron activity in the inferior frontal cortex during imitation of emotional expressions.

To summarize, the biological and behavioral mechanisms underlying emotional contagion and imitation demonstrate some overlap with empathy, and all three constructs contribute to pro-social behavior. While emotional contagion and empathy involve a change in emotional state, imitation need not result in such a change. Imitation and emotional contagion are present in non-human animals and infants as potential precursors of empathy. However, empathy requires a higher degree of cognitive and emotional processing than both emotional contagion and imitation and seems to emerge only in human development.


Rameson, L. T., & Lieberman, M. D. (2009). Empathy: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(1), 94-110.

Saxe, Rebecca (2013). The new puzzle of theory of mind development. Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us, 107-112.

Singer, T., & Lamm, C. (2009). The social neuroscience of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156(1), 81-96.

Slater, A., & Butterworth, G. (1997). Perception of social stimuli: Face perception and imitation. Infant development: Recent advances, 223-245.