The science of empathy.

(Hands: Shutterstock | Atticus Finch: Universal Pictures)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

― Atticus Finch,
To Kill a Mockingbird

The facts about those feelings:

What science tells us about empathy.


The Empathy Museum makes it possible.


Two Types of Empathy

1. Cognitive

The ability to know how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This kind of empathy is also known as “perspective-taking.”
Pros: Helpful when making negotiations or when trying to motivate people. Managers who are good at perspective-taking can move workers to give their best efforts.
Cons: Can be clinical and detached; people can use it to their advantage without really caring for the other person. Narcissists and sociopaths use it to actually hurt others.

2. Emotional (or Affective)

The ability to physically feel what others feel, as though their emotions were contagious. Uses brain cells called mirror neurons, which create an “echo” of another’s emotions inside our own minds.
Pros: Attunes us to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus for a wide range of professions, from sales to nursing—not to mention for any parent or lover.
Cons: An inability to manage one’s own distressing emotions can lead to paralysis and psychological exhaustion—a liability for first responders and medical professionals, who need the ability to “detach,” so they can work professionally and objectively.

A New View of Empathy

In a fractured world, can we hack our own sense of empathy and get others to become more empathic? Jamil Zaki, a psychology professor at Stanford, addresses that question, and more, in this fascinating TED talk.

Empathy: There’s an App for That

When her own research indicated that, in recent decades, young people were becoming less and less empathetic, Sara Konrath decided to do something about it.
So Konrath, assistant research professor at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan, knew that empathy was teachable, and her team created an interactive app for developing empathy in children.
The result is Random Act of Kindness, which includes a series of games and exercises to help nudge kids toward more empathy. See a preview here.
Download for IOS | Download for Android

How empathetic are you?


When you’re done, you’ll receive your empathy score.

Spreng, R. N., McKinnon, M. C., Mar, R. A., & Levine, B. (2009). “The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire.” Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(1), 62-71.
Davis, M. H. (1980). “A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy.” JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.

BUT . . . is empathy always good?

Empathy is

fundamentally, from a moral standpoint,

a bad thing.

It makes the world worse.

So says Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale. He explains here:

To learn more about Bloom’s thoughts on empathy, read this Boston Review essay, or check out his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Ecco, 2016).

6 Books to Teach Kids About Empathy

A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
PLUS: “Seven Ways to Foster Empathy in Kids” (Greater Good)

22 Great Movies About Empathy

Dig Deeper

More reading and viewing on the topic of empathy.