Defining empathy, sympathy, and compassion
September 13, 2014 26 Comments
When discussing the evolution of cooperation, questions about empathy, sympathy, and compassion are often close to mind. In my computational work, I used to operationalize-away these emotive concepts and replace them with a simple number like the proportion of cooperative interactions. This is all well and good if I want to confine myself to a behaviorist perspective, but my colleagues and I have been trying to move to a richer cognitive science viewpoint on cooperation. This has confronted me with the need to think seriously about empathy, sympathy, and compassion. In particular, Paul Bloom‘s article against empathy, and a Reddit discussion on the usefulness of empathy as a word has reminded me that my understanding of the topic is not very clear or critical. As such, I was hoping to use this opportunity to write down definitions for these three concepts and at the end of the post sketch a brief idea of how to approach some of them with evolutionary modeling. My hope is that you, dear reader, would point out any confusion or disagreement that lingers.
Cognitive and emotional empathy
To start a definition, we need to distinguish between three things I can do with respect to an emotion: (1) I can feel an emotion, (2) I can identify an emotion, and (3) I can act on an emotion. The first and third points apply only to my own experience, while the second can apply to either introspection of my own emotions or to the use of theory-of-mind to understand the emotions of others. From the point of the self, I am not sure if (1) and (2) can be completely disentangled, since I don’t understand how one can feel an emotion without being able to identify it to at least some extent. However, I have definitely experienced cases where I only had a vague idea of the emotion I was feeling, and only after introspection and thought was I able to better identify it. I think that a classical literary example of this is the tension between love and lust.
However, it is in application of (2) to the other that we can find our first definition. Cognitive empathy, sometimes also called perspective taking, is the ability to identify the emotions of others. This can be either inference from the actions of others or from their circumstances. In the case of action, for example, if I see somebody sobbing then in most circumstances I have reason to infer that they are feeling sad. In the case of circumstance, for example, if I see somebody experience an injury then I will infer that they feel pain even if they don’t act on their pain by screaming or grabbing the injured body part. In a pure abstraction, cognitive empathy is an intellectual and not emotive activity.
However, in practice when I identify the emotions of others, I also tend to feel some (usually) attenuated version of those emotions. This is emotional empathy — feeling the same emotion as another person is experience. The intensity of this mirrored experience varies from person to person, and its complete absence is often considered a disorder. Of course, too strong of an emotional empathy can be debilitating, too.
To extract the essence of empathy, I would like to restate the definitions in a more analytic fashion that might appeal to cognitive scientists. Empathy is the ability to represent a model of another’s emotional state in your own mind. My empathy is emotional if the representation is an emotional one. In other words, if I feel what the other is feeling. The empathy is cognitive if my representation is a symbolic one. In other words, I understand what the other is feeling and I can use it for further cognitive processing.
Emotional and cognitive empathy are seldom independent from each other, and can relate to each other in any causal direction. For example, if you tell me that a person is in pain then you have already extracted his emotional state and packaged it for me. I have a cognitive understanding of the situation without an emotional experience. However, if that person is close to me (or if I am particularly emotionally empathic), I might then proceed to actually feel an attenuated pain from my imagination of their predicament. In this case, cognitive empathy caused emotional empathy. On the other hand, a very emotionally empathic person (like Hannah the psychotherapist from Bloom’s article) might first experience the emotion of the person they are interacting with and then proceed to identify that emotion in themselves. In this case, emotional empathy caused cognitive empathy.
So far, I don’t think that I have said anything controversial, because the definitions of emotional and cognitive empathy are relatively well characterized. Sympathy, however, seems to be a much more slippery concept: it seems like many people use ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’ interchangeably. I think the cause is the historical novelty of the word empathy; it comes as a translation of the German Einfühlung which was coined by Robert Vischer in the late 19th century in the context of psychoanalysis and aesthetics. In this case, the Greek etymology of ’empathy’ does not come from Plato or Aristotle; the historic roots are only apparent by the creative translation of ‘einfühlung’ by E.B. Titchener. As such, many historically significant authors used ‘sympathy’ where it might have been better to use ’empathy’. The most significant case might be Adam Smith’s use of sympathy and fellow-feeling.
However, sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. For example, if I sympathize with your pain, it doesn’t mean that I feel your pain as much as that I feel pity or sorry for you. Of course, empathy is a component: I have to identify that you are feeling pain in order to then feel pity, but I don’t think it is the essence of the word. I also find it more useful to have non-overlapping definitions when possible, even if the concepts are seldom apart in practice. My favorite definition of sympathy comes from user musitard on /r/philosophy:
Sympathy is the ability to select appropriate emotional responses for the apparent emotional states of others.
In other words, sympathy is not about feeling the same thing that somebody else is feeling, but an appropriate emotion to complement theirs. Sometimes the appropriate response might be to produce the same feeling, in that case the concept is indistinguishable from empathy, but in general the response could be different as with the sadness-pity example. As with empathy, we could also distinguish between cognitive and emotional sympathy. Unfortunately, unlike empathy, this definition sneaks in a very loader term: appropriate. This forces us to situate the word in a broader cultural context or moral philosophy, as was the case with Adam Smith’s usage. I don’t want to focus on pinning down what exactly appropriate means and will stick to Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” attitude. For now, my take-away is that empathy is the reflection of feeling, while sympathy is a more culture or ethics dependent creation of a potentially different feeling in the self in response to a perception of feeling in the other.
Recall that I distinguished three things one can do with respect to emotion, but never discussed the third: acting on an emotion. For that, we have to depart from the contemplative words of Greek etymology, and move to the can-do words of the Romans: compassion. Although the root of the word still refers to emotion, it’s usually associated with a distress that drives one to action. That is why we show compassion, instead of simply feeling compassion. As such, I would like to equate compassion to the active form on sympathy: selecting the appropriate action in response to the apparent emotional states of another. As with sympathy, ‘appropriate’ is a loaded word, but in the more active case of compassion the Golden rule seems like a good heuristic: treat others as you would like to be treated.
As in the previous case, empathy, sympathy, and compassion are usually intertwined. In a typical setting you first need to empathize with somebody and identify their emotion, feel sympathy toward them and then realize that emotion in an act of compassion. However, we can also think of some mild cases of compassion where empathy and sympathy are not requisites. The stereotypical Canadian ‘sorry’ is an act that comes to mind. If you bump into me on the street, I will usually apologize instinctively. This is not because I feel the mild inconvenience I caused you (empathy), and not even that I actually feel sorry for your mild inconvenience (sympathy), but simple because I was conditioned by my culture to apologize.
With this terminology, I can better understand Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy. Simply feeling somebody else’s misfortune is not enough to alleviate it, and in some case feeling somebody else’s pain can cloud your judgement and impair your ability to act in their best interest. Politically, a strong empathic drive can be exploited with charged individual anecdotes and overrule a compassion to act in the interest of many. Although, we can trace some of our pro-social drive to our ancient ancestors, today it might be worthwhile to be more mindful of the delicate relationship between empathy, sympathy, and compassion.
Game theory, rationality, and the eigeneinfühlung
With the careful terminology out of the way, where can we proceed with the pragmatic task of computational or evolutionary studies of pro-social behavior? I think the cultural baggage of ‘appropriate’ makes a thorough theory of sympathy and compassion out of reach for now, at least for me. However, I think we can start to operationalize empathy in our objective-subjective rationality framework. In fact, Paul Bloom has basically done it for me with his discussion of Hannah the psychotherapist:
Hannah’s concern for other people doesn’t derive from particular appreciation or respect for them; her concern is indiscriminate and applies to strangers as well as friends. She also does not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness. Rather, Hannah is compelled by hyperarousal — her drive is unstoppable. Her experience is the opposite of selfishness but just as extreme. A selfish person might go through life indifferent to the pleasure and pain of others — ninety-nine for him and one for everyone else — while in Hannah’s case, the feelings of others are always in her head — ninety-nine for everyone else and one for her.
Here Bloom is explaining how we can understand Hannah’s acts of compassion as stemming not from some altruistic drive, but from the need to alleviate her own overwhelming emotional empathy. The difference from the selfish rationalist is just that her feelings are mostly taking account the state of others, instead of herself. In a game-theoretic setting, suppose that if Alice does action A and Bob does action B then the objective payoff by the environment is F(A;B) for Alice and F(B;A) for Bob. If we want to incorporate empathy, then we can introduce a variable s in [0,1], and have Alice’s subjective payoff as G(A;B) = sF(A;B) + (1 – s)F(B;A). Alice can then act to maximize her subjective payoff G. This means that s is a measure of ‘selfishness’, with s = 0.99 corresponding to Bloom’s selfish person, and s = 0.01 to Hannah. We can then study the effect of the evolution of empathy on cooperation in the same way as Marcel, Tom, and I looked at the evolutionary effect of delusions.
You might argue that the above doesn’t really capture Bob’s feelings fully. Alice is optimizing a balance between her objective payoff and Bob’s objective payoff, but what if Bob is doing the same? Then his subjective payoff won’t actually match the objective one (as it doesn’t for Alice with s < 1), and if Alice is truly empathetic, she should take that into account. This leads to a feedback loop that is typical of game-theoretic reasoning and recursive theories of mind. Scott Aaronson toyed with this in the more general case of ethics, and playfully called his solution eigenmorality after the idea of eigenvalues and eigenvectors from linear algebra. To take a page from his book, I should call the recursive solution of Alice’s feelings taking into account Bob’s feelings taking into account Alice’s feelings taking into account… as eigeneinfühlung.
Of course, the barely-pronounceable neologism is to be said with tongue-in-cheek. But I do have some serious questions for you, dear reader: what did I miss in my discussion of empathy, sympathy, and compassion? Do you know of computational studies of these phenomena? How do they operationalize these difficult concepts? How would you distinguish between empathy, sympathy, and compassion in the context of a simulation?