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An illustration of two people intersecting, symbolizing empathy.

The different types of empathy

When people talk about empathy, they may be talking about different senses of the word. But as a whole, empathy is often not fully understood. Even I was surprised to have come across a type of empathy recently that was new to me.

What is meant by ‘empathy’ is multifaceted—and to a degree, layered—and thus also its classification. Let’s get through them.*

Or scroll down to the Examples of empathy types or Summary sections for a quick overview of the types of empathy and their definitions.


I – Empathy

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy0

As a whole, empathy is the ability to know what others are feeling and thinking, based on perceived emotional communication in the form of body language and facial expressions—both voluntary ones and involuntary expressions, called microexpressions.


II — Dual empathy

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathydual

People often mention two types of empathy which are in a sense taken to be opposites, whereas they are in fact complementary. These two types of empathy are:

  • Cognitive empathy — knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.
  • Emotional/affective empathy — when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.

A psychopath has virtually no emotional empathy, but is high in cognitive empathy.
People with autism tend to be the opposite, with high—albeit often selective—emotional empathy, and relatively low cognitive empathy (though intelligence and observation can compensate for some of the cognitive empathy deficits*).

Some autistics are in fact highly proficient in reading people, whether by learning through observation or intuitively gauging emotional information or through mirror–touch synesthesia.


III — Empathy triad

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy3 compassionate

Alongside cognitive and affective empathy there is also a third and less talked about type of empathy, which is compassionate empathy. Also referred to as empathetic concern, it entails the understanding of a person’s predicament and feel with them (informed by cognitive and affective empathy), as well as be spontaneously moved to help if needed.[1]Three kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate | Daniel Goleman

Note that the experience of emotional empathy does not require one to act on that experience per se. Conversely, compassionate empathy, while seemingly related to emotional empathy, does not necessitate for there to be any emotional empathy.

For example, if you were a social worker in a large city hospital, you can’t afford to let yourself get overwhelmed by emotional empathy and cry with your client. Instead, the client wants to be helped/advised/guided, and it’s compassionate empathy that drives this behavior.

It may very well be the case that emotional empathy forms the basis for compassionate empathy, however.


Without compassion, empathy can be too much, and one can get pulled in too deeply and get sucked dry too fast, lose one’s sense of oneself, and get into emotionally and sometimes physically unsafe situations.

Empathy is like being able to plug into a powerful source of electricity, and compassion is like a current regulator, a circuit or fuse, which keeps one from being electrocuted every time.[2]A New Understanding of Compassionate Empathy | Psychology Today


IV — Motor

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy4 motor

Then there is a fourth type of empathy, which is called motor empathy. Motor empathy is an automatic empathetic response in the form of unconsciously mirroring facial expressions of another, or copying body language or speech, or yawn contagion. Motor empathy seems to be at least in part based on cognitive and affective empathy, because deficits in either would prevent you from responding subconsciously to something you understand (cognitive) or care about (affective).

Interestingly, psychopaths show deficits in motor empathy when it comes to negative emotions.[3]Motor Empathy in Individuals With Psychopathic Traits: A Preliminary Study (Khvatskaya & Lenzenweger, 2016)


Examples of empathy types

Your friend has endured a heartbreak. The significant other was not a good influence on your friend, however, so although you feel with your friend and feel sad (affective empathy), a part of you is also happy, as your friend’s future is likely to become more positive.

But note that this happiness is your own perspective on her predicament. Your friend’s mindset doesn’t yet understand the breakup is something positive, as she is focused on the loss of her partner. She feels heartbroken, alone, and possibly even rejected.

You understand that your friend’s pain is temporary, that it will be gone soon, and that she will be happier in the end. But this is sympathy, not empathy.

But you understand your friend’s mental state, which entails the heartbreak, the loss, and the sense of rejection (cognitive empathy). If you were to show sympathy devoid of empathy, you would tell your friend the breakup is a good thing. As such, you would fail to validate her, and in fact your friend will feel misunderstood by you, on top of feeling rejected by her ex. This is an example of either your cognitive empathy or affective empathy failing. You understand the situation is hard for her and are moved to help (compassionate empathy), but you cannot help her properly if not all aforementioned types of empathy inform your actions.

Meanwhile, if you have affective empathy, you are likely to show expressions of concern, and will subconsciously imitate her body language (motor empathy), which contributes to your friend feeling like you are there for her, and are showing genuine empathy. If you are lacking in affective empathy, your cognitive empathy can compensate, and through compassionate empathy you would still be moved to do the right thing. This may involve the conscious (subtle) imitation of expressions and body language, so as to compensate for the lack of motor empathy.

To show empathy in all facets, you need to:

  • Understand the emotional states of the other (cognitive).
  • Feel what the other is feeling (affective).
  • Have an inclination to help (compassionate).
  • And subconsciously respond to what you understand and feel (motor).

The Russian doll of empathy

Below is the Russian doll model of empathy and imitation, developed by professor of psychology Stephanie D. Preston and primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal.[4]Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy (de Waal, 2008) As you can see, it shows the hierarchical structure of empathy:

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | diagram RussianDollEmpathy
de Waal et al. – Edit by Embrace ASD
  • Empathy (right) induces a similar emotional state in the subject and the object, with at its core the perception–action mechanism (PAM), which is the action of experiencing a similar emotion to the subject as a result of perceiving the emotions of the subject.[5]A perception–action model for empathy
  • The doll’s outer layers, such as sympathetic concern and perspective-taking, build upon this hard-wired socio-affective basis.
  • Sharing the same mechanism, the doll’s imitation side (left) correlates with the empathy side. Here, the PAM underlies motor mimicry, coordination, shared goals, and true imitation.
  • Even though the doll’s outer layers depend on prefrontal functioning and an increasing self–other distinction, these outer layers remain connected to its inner core.[6]Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy

Summary

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy1 cognitive

Cognitive empathy:

Knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy2 affective

Emotional/affective empathy:

When you feel physically along with the other person,
as though their emotions were contagious.

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy3 compassionate

Compassionate empathy:

The understanding of a person’s predicament and feel with them,
as well as be spontaneously moved to help if needed.

Embrace ASD | The different types of empathy | illustration empathy4 motor

Motor empathy:

An automatic empathetic response in the form of unconsciously
mirroring the facial expressions of another, or copying
body language, speech, or yawn contagion.


Bonus

There are a few more terms regarding empathy, though rather than distinct forms of empathy per se, the following seem to be different applications or extents of the types of empathy discussed above.

  • Cold empathy is what some reports indicate that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have. From what I understand, it’s reduced and/or circumstantial affective empathy.
  • Unbridled empathy is when affective empathy (and potentially mirror–touch synesthesia) is so high that all feelings are contagious, which can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions,[7]Can You Have Too Much Empathy? | Psychology Today which I suspect could lead to alexithymia.

Read more about alexithymia here:

Alexithymia & autism guide

Cognitive empathy, Cold empathy, Compassion, Compassionate empathy, Cortisol, Emotional intelligence, Emotional/affective empathy, Empathetic concern, Empathy, Frans de Waal, Microexpressions, Mirror–touch synesthesia, Motor empathy, Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), Paul Ekman, Psychological stress, Psychopathy, Social intelligence, Stephanie D. Preston


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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