Empathy is surely one of the most popular concepts in science today. Most people use it as one more word within their linguistic heritage. To define how others (or themselves) tend to get emotionally involved in their relationships.
However, empathy is a very complex phenomenon, with deep roots that sink into the human phylogenetic history. It is very true that, without it. We would not have reached the degree of social development (and cooperation) that has allowed us to get here.
In the following pages, we will delve into this phenomenon. Unraveling what are the types of empathy that science has been able to classify. And the way in which each one of them expresses itself. Here are the 4 types of empathy and their characteristics.
What is empathy?
Empathy has a central role in human behavior. And particularly in terms of its social correlates. Every close bond between two people is subject to the influence of emotion. Which allows the foundation on which it is built to be kept intact. Despite all the inclemencies of the relational conflict. In a simple way, it could be said that through empathy we transcend the limits of the skin and enter the experience of the other.
Science has shown that already during the first months of life, newborns can show it to the pain of others. Or that they even react empathetically when listening to other children’s crying. However, it is a skill that is usually refined over the years. As we bond and share our relevant experiences. It is, therefore, a result of learning and relational exchange. Although some genetic factors may also contribute.
In general, empathy could be defined as the ability to reconstruct within ourselves the “mental states” of others. Both in their cognitive and purely emotional components. In this way, it would be possible for us to take an accurate photograph of what our interlocutor is feeling, mobilizing the will to help him or to predict his behavior and/or his motivation. And it is that the altruism between two human beings cannot be understood by eliminating empathy from the equation.
Types of empathy
Although it could be contradictory in some way, the latest research on the issue shows that empathy is also a relevant element in understanding antisocial behavior, and not only from the point of view of its supposed absence. And it is that some of the components of this ability may be devoid of emotional nuance, participating in processes such as the simple identification of affects or intentions in the other, but without any degree of self-recognition in them (which is why it is usually used as a basis for manipulation or blackmail).
And it is that empathy involves at least three different processes: emotional recognition, emotional integration, and implementation of consistent behaviors. All follow one another in a linear way, so that the first is necessary for the appearance of the second, and the second is necessary for the appearance of the third. In recent years, the inclusion of a fourth step is being considered: the control of one’s emotional reactions. Which aims to prevent this phenomenon from overflowing internal resources and ending up resulting in harm.
Each of these phases has received its own label, becoming related but independent realities to a certain degree. With this article we intend to explore them and detail what they consist of, thus tracing the characteristics of what has popularly come to be called “types of empathy” (although remembering that in reality, they are all part of the same cognitive-affective process). It is one of the best types of empathy.
1. Cognitive empathy
Cognitive empathy is the name that has been assigned by consensus to the first part of the process: the identification of the mental state of our interlocutor. From the verbal (testimonies, confessions, etc.) and non-verbal (facial gestures, for example) contents that the other emits during the interaction, deep and very primitive structures are activated in our brain that aim to encode information of a social nature, recognizing in the same act (through inferences) what is going through the mind of who is in front of us.
At this point in the process, essential for the rest to unfold, a general vision of what the other thinks and feels is articulated; but without there being a personal involvement in all this yet. That is why it has very often been a phenomenon equated with the theory of mind. A basic milestone by which the ability to recognize the other as a subject with their own internal experiences and motivations, independent of their own, is acquired. This begins the differentiation of oneself from others. Which occurs in the first years of life as a key part of neurological maturation.
The informative analysis of cognitive empathy focuses on the logical/rational elements, extracting from the equation any affective correlate that (by logic) could be predicted in the future. Most people delve into other nuances immediately, including how all of these intellectual “impressions” resonate in their own emotional lives. But in other cases, the process ends here. This last assumption is the one that can be found among psychopaths, to cite a known example.
Cognitive empathy has many uses, for example in the field of business negotiations. This is so because it would allow the identification of needs/expectations without the emotional components of the decision. Which can be useful in the context that arises. However, the latter is very important for everyday life; for there is much evidence that without the contribution of effect, problems tend to be more imprecise and inefficient.
2. Emotional empathy
Emotional empathy requires that we first be able to cognitively “grasp” the experience of others. Once this is achieved, one advances to the second level of elaboration. In which the emotional dimensions become a beacon in the vast ocean of inner lives. In general terms, this form of empathy endows us with the ability to be sensitive to what others feel. Essential to respond appropriately to what they demand in the private sphere.
It is a way of vicariously sharing the inner world. The observer of affect would synchronize with the intimate experience of the one being observed. And would experience a series of internal states very similar. (although never identical) to that of it. On a cerebral level, the right supramarginal gyrus has been proven to play a key role in empathy and even compassion; a region that is located at the intersection of the temporal, frontal, and parietal lobes.
This structure is necessary to contribute to the distinction between the effects that are their own and those of others so that if they suffer any damage. A dramatic decline in this capacity is manifested. On the other hand, it is essential to keep in mind that constructive empathy requires an adequate ability to regulate what we feel, something that connects directly with the activity of the prefrontal cortex. Without proper management of all this, we may end up overwhelmed by the pain of those around us.
And is that emotional empathy is not equivalent to “emotional contagion”. But would develop the ability to immerse ourselves in the world of the other without inexorably ending up swallowed by it.
3. Empathy sympathy or concern
The word “sympathy” comes from the Greek, and could be translated as the act of “feeling the same as the other”. It is a concern for the experience of others, which arises from being able to identify and feel it in one’s own skin, and which would often end up leading to helping behaviors (prosocial). It is, therefore, a further step within the empathic process, from which all of it would manifest itself on the social stage through some deliberate act of altruism (and even surrender).
People who reach this point within the empathic process feel motivated to action; since they contribute their effort to help unconditionally, spontaneously and selflessly. However, it should be noted that sometimes the reinforcement for these acts is of a social type (respect for the environment or relief of a feeling of guilt, for example). So they would not be altruistic, but rather prosocial ( when carried out with the aim of obtaining a reward).
Despite this, this dimension of empathy is the culmination of a long process of cognitive-emotional analysis, transforming intention into actions aimed at alleviating the pain of others. It is also the nuance that gives empathy an evident adaptive value since it stimulates the sense of collaboration. And compassion for those who belong to their own group (to a greater extent than for those outsides of it). It is one of the best types of empathy.
Ecpathy is perhaps the most recent scientific contribution to the realm of empathy and compassion. Although it has often been the victim of misinterpretations that are in no way true to reality. Through it, people learn to recognize which of the emotions they feel at a certain moment do not really belong to them. But come from an external source that has “transferred” them.
With its use, the confusion would be stopped. And these contents would be approached differently than if they were their own. So that the own experience in the internal convulsion of those who expose themselves to the pain of others would not be lost.
It is, therefore, a mechanism through which it is feasible to avoid the “excesses” of empathy, the main risk of which lies in emotional contagion and manipulation. Thus, it can be said that it prevents the inner life of the other from dragging us in such a way that it blocks the ability to act. But still preserving the possibility of recognizing and feeling everything that happens to him. It supposes the possibility of feeling, but without falling into a harmful identification. It is one of the best types of empathy.
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