As a designer, I was often told why empathy is a key ingredient during a design process. It is the first stage in Design Thinking, where you empathize with people to know their needs and wants. Of course, it is also applicable to developers, managers, content creators, and so on.
To actually put empathy into practice in order to help people solve problems, we need to better understand what empathy means, and what the different types of empathy are. That way we can cultivate the right form of empathy because believe it or not: empathy can also lead to selfish behaviour caused by empathic suffering.
For this second blog post, I will summarize and translate a part of my thesis on altruism in English, where I dedicated a chapter on empathy. Very simply put, altruism is basically the intention to do good and help others.
Empathy: the third ingredient for altruism.
In order to sense the needs of the other, one needs empathy. This is a third essential component for altruism, alongside selfless love and compassion. Matthieu Ricard defines empathy as follows:
“The ability to resonate affectively with the feelings of others and to become aware of their situation.”
He goes on to say that empathy bridges the gap between altruistic love and compassion, it causes the former to transform into the latter. It makes us feel, and the feelings that arise in us motivate the altruistic act. Empathy enables one to better appreciate the nature and intensity of the suffering of other beings.
Yet empathy, according to Ricard, means more than this first definition that he gives. Empathy can be a motivator for altruism, but it can also make us turn away from the suffering we perceive. Empathy can arise from a cognitive and affective dimension: one feels what the other feels or one puts oneself cognitively in the other person’s place.
The affective dimension is spontaneous: we recognise the feeling and begin to resonate with it. The cognitive dimension is created by consciously evoking the feeling. Ricard asks the following question: “Is altruism possible only if we feel what the other person feels?”. One can use affective empathy to be more aware of what the other person needs, but it is not necessary for altruism. Sometimes it can even limit us in caring for others. Ricard gives the example of a frightened woman on a plane: if we let ourselves be taken over by that fear, we will be less able to reassure the woman. Instead, when we use cognitive empathy to understand her situation, without feeling the fear ourselves, we can help her more effectively.
8 forms of empathy
The social psychologist Daniel Batson discovered that we can distinguish eight forms of empathy, which are crucial to understanding altruism.
The first six forms are:
- Knowledge of the other’s inner state
- Motor and neuronal imitation
- Emotional resonance
- Intuitive empathy with the other’s situation
- Imagining the other’s feelings as clearly as possible
- Imagining what we would feel if we were in the other’s situation
Empathic care as a driver of altruistic motivation
None of these six forms is necessary or sufficient to induce altruistic motivation. The seventh form is empathic suffering. This form causes us to suffer when we see other people suffering and then causes us to flee from that suffering. Thus, this form is not only insufficient for altruistic motivation but may even inhibit or limit it. It motivates selfishness and empathic discharge instead of offering help. The eighth form, empathic care, consists of becoming aware of the other person’s needs and then feeling a genuine desire to come to their aid.
The eighth form, empathic care, is not only necessary but also sufficient to achieve altruistic motivation. The empathy we need for altruism, therefore, has a care aspect. Although empathic care is already sufficient as an altruistic motivation, it is not enough to arrive at an altruistic attitude purely on the basis of affection. For this, as indicated, loving-kindness and compassion are also needed.
It makes perfect sense then to make the effort of cultivating empathic care. Of feeling the genuine desire to come to someone’s aid, no matter what we do. To achieve this altruistic motivation, training of the mind is necessary. In a future blog post, I will write about the cultivation of virtues through meditation and other practices.
I hope you enjoyed this read! Stay tuned for the third post next Wednesday.