Empathy Explained

Learn about the three dimensions of empathy, and how practicing empathy can help bring us together.

To become truly empathetic individuals, we need to practice all three dimensions of empathy. Ultimately, our goal is not just to understand and feel with others, but to leverage that understanding to meaningfully help those around us.

Let’s now take a deeper look into each of these dimensions.


The challenge in defining (and practicing!) empathy is that it is not composed of one single skill. Psychologists and neuroscientists have come to understand over time that empathy is a multi-faceted (Riess and Neporent) concept, composed of three main dimensions:

1) Emotional empathy: feeling what another person is feeling

2) Cognitive empathy: thinking about another person's situation

3) Behavioral empathy: being compassionate and taking actions to help based on your understanding of the situation

A line from Helen Riess’ book The Empathy Effect summarizes the interplay of these dimensions quite well: “Empathy is produced not only by how we perceive information, but also by how we understand that information [cognitive empathy], are moved by it [emotional empathy], and use it to motivate our behavior [behavioral empathy].”

The Three Dimensions of Empathy

1) Emotional Empathy

Emotional or affective empathy refers to our automatic response to mirror another person’s emotions (at least to some extent) -- in other words, feeling what the other person is feeling. This process is sometimes described as “emotional contagion” -- the phenomenon where we “catch” another person’s feelings as if they were contagious.

2) Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, or perspective taking, is the ability to understand how another person perceives a given situation and how they might feel as a result of that perception. It involves first recognizing that another person has thoughts and feelings of their own, and then gathering insights about what that other person might be thinking and feeling (Hodges and Myers, p.296-298).

In colloquial terms, perspective taking means “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” or “seeing the world through someone else’s eyes” -- you imagine yourself as the other person.

​This exercise of seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes can really help us to better understand others. We need to consider all the factors that influence a person’s perspective or actions, which we may or may not be able to see. And, in cases where we don’t have enough knowledge to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes or when we are unsure of our own interpretations, we can foster and practice curiosity. By having conversations and asking questions, we gain valuable insights into why a person might feel the way they do in a given situation. Moreover, cognitive empathy is a mental task that we can train our brains to perform better and more frequently.

3) Behavioral Empathy

Behavioral empathy means taking action to help others based on your understanding of their situation and feelings. This type of empathy is also known as compassion, compassionate empathy, or empathic concern. It refers to the desire to help another person while leveraging both emotional and cognitive empathy to inform the actions we take. This is key, as cognitive and emotional empathy are what allow us to understand the needs of the person(s) we’re helping and to adjust our actions and behaviors accordingly. This means that we don’t act based on how we would like to be helped or treated; instead, we act based on our understanding of how the other person would appreciate being helped or treated. Much like cognitive empathy, compassion is a skill that can be learned and improved on over time.

The Three Dimensions At Play

To conclude this section, let’s examine an example where we can see the three dimensions of empathy in practice. Imagine that you’re driving on a calm Saturday afternoon when you suddenly notice a car stopped on the side of the road.

1) Emotional Empathy: As you look closer, you notice a woman who is clearly in distress. She gets out of the car and starts pacing around her car. You’re stopped at a red light and observe the situation, you start mirroring some of her emotions. You start feeling some distress.

2) Cognitive Empathy: You start trying to put yourself in her shoes and imagine scenarios that might be causing her distress. Maybe someone is hurt in the car, maybe she got into a car accident.

3) Behavorial Empathy: Before you know it, you have turned your car around to help. When you arrive and ask her, she tells you that her mother, who is in the car, is very sick and has fainted. You call 911 and offer your support while the ambulance arrives to the scene.

As you can see, empathy is a powerful way to connect with people. Can you think of examples of how you’ve experienced the three dimensions of empathy?

If you want to explore further, check out this video explaining what empathy is not.

The Intergroup Empathy Gap

As we explore the different types of empathy, it is important to recognize that one of the factors that influences our ability to empathize with others is who the “other” is. As humans, we are more likely to be empathic toward people who we perceive to be similar to us, as opposed to people who we perceive to be different (Cikara, Bruneau, and Saxe). This leads to what is called an intergroup empathy gap. Here’s a video to learn more about the intergroup empathy gap.

In brief, we can foster our capacity to empathize with people outside our own groups by actively seeking to highlight and embrace the similarities we might unexpectedly share with others who seem different from us. At the end of the day, despite everything that makes us different, we all share a common humanity that can bring us together and allow us to understand each other’s perspectives and experiences.

Reflection Questions

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