Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Strategic Regulation of Empathy

Weisz, E., & Cikara, M. 
(2020, October 9).


Empathy is an integral part of socio-emotional well-being, yet recent research has highlighted some of its downsides. Here we examine literature that establishes when, how much, and what aspects of empathy promote specific outcomes. After reviewing a theoretical framework which characterizes empathy as a suite of separable components, we examine evidence showing how dissociations of these components affect important socio-emotional outcomes and describe emerging evidence suggesting that these components can be independently and deliberately modulated. Finally, we advocate for a new approach to a multi-component view of empathy which accounts for the interrelations among components. This perspective advances scientific conceptualization of empathy and offers suggestions for tailoring empathy to help people realize their social, emotional, and occupational goals.

From Concluding Remarks

Early research on empathy regarded it as a monolithic construct. This characterization ultimately gave rise to a second wave of empathy-related research, which explicitly examined dissociations among empathy-related components.Subsequently, researchers noticed that individual components held different predictive power over key outcomes such as helping and occupational burnout. As described above, however, there are many instances in which these components track together in the real world, suggesting that although they can dissociate, they often operate in tandem.

Because empathy-related components rely on separable neural systems, the field of social neuroscience has already made significant progress toward the goal of characterizing instances when components do (or do not) track together.  For example, although affective and cognitive channels can independently contribute to judgments of others emotional states, they also operate in synchrony during more naturalistic socio-emotional tasks.  However, far more behavioral research is needed to characterize the co-occurrence of components in people’s everyday social interactions.  Because people differ in their tendencies to engage distinct components of empathy, a better understanding of the separability and interrelations of these components in real-world social scenarios can help tailor empathy-training programs to promote desirable outcomes.  Empathy-training efforts are on average effective (Hedges’ g = 0.51) but generally intervene on empathy as a whole (rather than specific components).