Examining Empathy

Empathy is gaining some well-deserved attention these days. It’s an important part of everything from our species' survival to effective leadership to social media success. But what is it, exactly? Part of the enduring popularity of the Pieta is its ability to arouse our empathy.

It's often described as the ability to "walk in someone else's shoes" or "put yourself in their place." According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” These are all helpful in creating a shared understanding of the concept, but there's little here about how empathy works.

In looking for more information on that aspect, I recently discovered that Dr. Mark Davis developed an interesting way of testing for empathy back in the 1980s through his Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which looks at four facets of empathy:

  • "The perspective taking (PT) scale measures the reported tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others in everyday life ("I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective").
  • The empathic concern (EC) scale assesses the tendency to experience feelings of sympathy and compassion for unfortunate others ("I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me").
  • The personal distress (PD) scale taps the tendency to experience distress and discomfort in response to extreme distress in others ("Being in a tense emotional situation scares me").
  • The fantasy (FS) scale measures the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional situations ("When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me")." (Bullet points from here.)

I found these categorizations helpful because they identified specific ways that empathy evidences itself in our hearts and minds. And in doing so, the descriptions of these four kinds of empathy provide some excellent cues for people who are seeking to improve their own empathy. For instance, you could practice "perspective taking" in reading the newspaper or in everyday interactions as a way to increase your skill in seeing others' points of view.

In your opinion, which of these facets is the most important?