Is empathy necessarily accurate?

If there is an overlap or blurriness of people’s subjectivities, empathy is what call the ability to tell what another is experiencing. We say, “He gets me,” “She understood,” “I know what that’s like”. We speak of stepping into another’s shoes, of seeing the world through their eyes.

When empathy fails we say, “You don’t understand what it’s like,” or “She doesn’t get me.”

Empathy implies that person A experiences something which person B then experiences too (be it through identification, mirror neurons, or intuition – perhaps these are the same thing). It is as if person A gives off something which person B detects.

Human communication, in other words, is more than the literal content of what one person says to another. Indeed, that level of interchange, some would say, is less about communication and more about hiding and manipulating. Here’s Harold Pinter:

The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.

Others don’t go as far. They simply concede that the way we talk to one another does not tell the whole story.

The more wary one is of the limits – or worse – of regular ‘communication,’ the more credence one is likely to give to the veracity of empathic knowing.

We nod when someone says, “He says he’s fine, but I’m worried about him.” Perhaps she has picked up on something, we think. This ‘picking up on something’ comes about through empathic attunement. in this respect people are like tuning forks: emit something at a particular frequency and I (may) vibrate accordingly.

Say a baby vibrates with the frequency of, say, desperate tiredness and I understand that as anger or hunger, we are out of attunement, right? I have not empathised with the baby’s experience. (To use psychological terms – instead of identifyingwith I have projected-onto.)

So, is empathy necessarily accurate?
Having just said that the adult/baby example is unempathic misalignment, it might seem that I’m contradicting myself when I say that one person’s internal response does not in fact have to be correct for it to properly be described as empathy.

Take this a little example from the above article on Pinter. John Lahr writes:

Once, just before a work session, my wife and our four-year-old son, Chris sat at Reisz’s kitchen with Pinter as he held forth in his commanding manner. When Pinter left the room, Chris turned to us and asked, “Is he a policeman?” “No,” his mother said. “He’s a very good writer.” [See below for the boy’s delightful follow-up question.]

Pinter was not, and never has been, a policeman. Indeed his anti-conformist bias makes him one of the least likely people to ever become a policeman! And yet, by my lights, Chris exhibited an exquisite empathic attunement with the great man.

Something about Pinter’s commanding way and the others’ deference captured the essence of policemanlikeness. It could be that with that one incorrect assumption Chris had seen deeper into Pinter than either he or his colleagues could. (This might not be right re Pinter, but you can see that this kind of thing could be so.)

So, in one sense a response to another does not have to be accurate to be empathy, in another it does. Empathic attunement involves getting at something psychologically right, even if factually wrong.

(I leave aside the vexed question of how one might judge ‘psychological rightness’ – that’s an empirical and/or epitemological question. For the purposes of building a shared definition this expression will have to do.)

Nor does empathy have to be the entire story. Even if Chris was right – there is something of the policeman about Pinter, or rather what Pinter and the quality of policemanlike share is an unchallengable authority – this is not all there is to Pinter. Other tuning forks will resonate to other of his notes.

To summarise: empathy is the psychologically accurate picking up of something of another’s experience.

(I would say that perfectly accurate empathy is impossible – which is not the same thing as saying either that empathy is impossible or that all responses can be called empathic.)

What say you, reader?

Next time: Are there different levels of empathy?


“Is he a policeman?” “No,” his mother said. “He’s a very good writer.” “Can he make a ‘W’?” Chris asked.

Photo: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, originally uploaded by Ross_Angus

24 thoughts on “Is empathy necessarily accurate?

  1. I’m not sure what the import of it being accurate is.
    I think when people talk about empathy in regards to sociopaths & social interactions – they’re not worried about it’s accuracy. Mostly, in social terms, we’re thinking about a person’s capacity to CARE about how another person feels, regardless of what we imagine those feelings to be.
    I think empathy is the simple capacity to at least begin to guess at how someone else feels, and take it to our own heart, so to speak.

  2. You’re right, it seems you are contradicting yourself.

    In the case of the mother/baby, why wouldn’t it be empathetic misalignment instead of unempathetic misalignment? And how does projection nullify empathy? Seems projection is a better basis for empathy, seems empathy, even if correct or incorrect, even if at different levels is the attempt moreso than the accuracy. If you’ve “been there” your projection is probably closer to psychological accuracy than even from a basis of neutrality.

    An example, one of my girlfriends and her husband recently lost their 23-year-old son in a car accident. I’ve never lost a child. I did, however, lose my brother at 18 to a car accident. I can empathasize only to a point of losing a loved one before his time. I can also accept God’s larger plan. Right now, she can’t, instead she blames God. Does this make me not empathetic because we aren’t psychologically attuned? Couldn’t she say I don’t understand, that I can’t put myself in her shoes? And if so, does it make me lacking empathy?

    Is empathy the attempt to put yourself in another’s shoes, or the act of correctly putting yourself in another’s shoes?

    You are saying that if you are not in psychological attunement with the other, then empathy has failed. Wouldn’t empathetic failure mean more getting nothing right rather than getting everything right?

  3. chloe – In this post I don’t mention psychopaths. I’m trying to get as full a picture of empathy as I can so that I can then know what it is that a psychopath is supposed not to have.

    If I understand you right, empathy may be accurate or inaccurate – that’s not what matters – it’s caring that matters. You aren’t alone in having this view.

    Let me ask, in the situation you describe would it matter much if one used the word ‘sympathy’ instead?

  4. benzthere – Thanks, you’re making my brain work!

    Here goes. I’d say that when you feel something like your friend’s terrible loss you are empathising – you know something of their lived reality. When you don’t feel anything of what she feels about God you’re being unempathic – you know nothing of this aspect of her lived reality.

    As I said, perfect empathy is impossible.

    “Empathic misalignment” is a contradiction in terms in my view.

    Projection probably is part of empathy – this is how I’d feel in that situation – but projection on it’s own can only be the narcissistic assumption that the other is like me. Identification s at the heart of empathy. Thanks for this too – perhaps I need to spell it out more.

  5. DrSteve wrote: “Let me ask, in the situation you describe would it matter much if one used the word ’sympathy’ instead?”

    Depends on what meaning you’re going for. The words mean different things, similar, but difference, as discussed in another thread.

    But yes, the same “care” is required for BOTH sympathy and empathy.

    And THAT is what I think a psychopath/sociopath doesn’t have. They don’t have the capacity for that particular emotional capacity that lends to caring, and thus makes empathy & sympathy possible.

    It’s at the root.

    I don’t think they’re able to put themselves emotionally in “someone else’s shoes” and then simply fail at the endeavour, and get it wrong. As I understand it, they are unable to put themselves there emotionally at all, regardless of the situation or their knowledge of it.

    I don’t think they really “care” or have sympathy for even themselves. It would figure if they’re not able to have those particular emotions, that they wouldn’t even have a feeling of self-pity. (Though they may fake it to get pity from others.)

    I think the only reason they’re “self-centered” is because of the basic instincts of survival.

    Right now I’m looking at a big oscar fish in a fish tank. He has no capacity for higher emotions. He greedily eats food, even if it deprives the other fish in the tank. If I go in there with the long-handle glass sponge, he’ll avoid it, swim to another part of the tank, and if he thinks the sponge is coming after him, he’ll attack it.
    None of this takes higher emotion.
    It doesn’t even take higher intelligence.
    It’s instinctual for surival.

    I think with a sociopath, you’ve got someone who’s more or less just as intellectually intelligent as any other human being, on average, but operating emotionally on a level perhaps higher than the fish, but nowhere near that of the average human capacity.
    So you have someone who runs on instincts. Looking out for #1. And behaving, let’s be honest here – like an animal. But with higher intelligence, they’re able to cover it up, be more sneaky about it, etc., than a wild animal would bother, or need to bother.
    If you watch a nature documentary, you will see murder within species is not uncommon. That’s not surprising. What’s important to point out is how those animals don’t police their societies the way we do.

    Chimpanzee males will kill the baby chimpanzees that aren’t his. This is the reproductive instinct, to ensure that his offspring are the ones to survive (if there’s too many mouths to feed, they may not.). The chimpanzees don’t try to prevent this by punishment or banishment. Instead, they handle it in a very simple way. The female chimpanzees have sex with EVERY male they know, so that the males can’t be sure if the baby is theirs or not, so they won’t kill it. That sort of situation, and good heavens, that kind of solution, would be unthinkable to most humans. It’s a simple & logical strategy, sure. But at a deep level, infanticide and manipulative promiscuity is emotionally bothersome to most humans, to say the least, whatever the reasons behind them.
    I don’t think a sociopath would have that same emotional response, or even any kind of real problem with that kind of scenario.

    In fact, I think if you talk to sociopaths, I think you’ll find that they wouldn’t disagree with this. I’ve come across people who think humans are just like any other animals, and the trappings of civilization are little more than a farce. Can’t begin to fathom how those pesky concerns people call ‘feelings’ are profoundly important to our human civilization and its development over the years. Only one explanation. They don’t feel those pesky concerns, that ‘care’.

    And basically, the way you’re dissecting empathy in this rational break-down of accuracy and usefulness, seems to leave out that important factor.

    Accuracy is only an issue if you’ve got a goal, an objective, a target.
    Empathy, as I understand the word, has nothing to do with objectives, goals, or targets.

    What you’re describing in this post is PREDICTION in the practical sense, and UNDERSTANDING in the intellectual sense.
    That’s not the same thing as empathy.

    I think the flaw comes in at your initial definition of empathy as prediction & intellectual knowledge.

    I think this is a more comprehensive description of the abstract concept of empathy:

    “A sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself.”

    A sense of shared experience.

    Not “I understand you.” but, “I feel for you.”
    Not “I know what that’s like,” but “I’m feeling that right now with you.”
    We’re not just seeing it through their eyes, we’re experiencing it with them.

    Like if I try to think about killing another human being. I find it upsetting, abhorrent, horrifying. Because the moment I think about killing someone, I can’t think about killing them, without at the same time feeling the things they would feel about it, because of what I’d feel if I were on the receiving end. Obviously with many more minor things, the feeling isn’t quite as intense. And I believe that we also have the capacity to desensitize ourselves to things, to detach or disassociate.
    But bottom line, that phenomenon of empathy is exactly why I am wholeheartedly convinced that even if there were no laws against murder, no punishment, and no consequences, I still couldn’t just go out & kill someone, particularly not for the hell of it.

    And I really wonder if sociopaths are, historically, the reason civilization has such strong criminal justice systems. Would we really need to devote that much time, energy, money, resources to law, order, & punishment, if everyone was more or less just your average sinner?

  6. Benzthere: I think if your friend said “You don’t understand” that would be very ungenerous of her, if you’re being a supportive friend… even if it’s intellectually true.

    But I think empathy is about your friendship, and how you’re emotionally traveling with your friend through her loss.

    There’s no such thing as “empathy failure”, because there’s no goal or target involved in empathy. Only empathy, or lack of empathy.

  7. Oh, and I say that also leaves out any kind of measuring on a scale of empathy too.
    There’s no such thing as perfect empathy, because there’s no such thing as measuring it in that way.

  8. Ok, how about this Dr. S,

    First scenario, baby cries, mom feels baby’s pain, goes in and tries feeding. Wrong reason, doesn’t work baby continues to cry because baby is tired not hungry and mom should have rocked baby instead. Empathetic misalignment. Cognitive (need to investigate crying), intuitive (bottle because it’s my lunch time). Baby still cries.

    Second scenario, very same except mom rocks baby. Empathetic Alignment. Cognitive, intuitive, and combination of cognitive and intuitive (though it’s my lunch time it isn’t baby’s lunch time but baby has been awake for a long time). Baby quietly drifts off to sleep.

    Third scenario, baby cries, mom doesn’t feel baby’s pain, goes outside so she can’t hear it. Unempathetic misalignment.

    Does this explain my confusion?

  9. Of course the fourth scenerio. Very same except mom doesn’t feel baby’s pain and she wants to make baby shut up, and she’s too busy watching tv. Mom puts pacifier in baby’s mouth and says I love you. Baby is quiet thinking mom loves baby more than tv. Empathetical misalignment?

  10. Dr. Steve wrote: “Human communication, in other words, is more than the literal content of what one person says to another.”

    Since you’re getting static on this one, let me give you some more:

    When does communication ever have “literal content?” Aren’t you chasing with the hounds of objectivism while running with the hare of intersubjectivity?

  11. . . . or time to go find dm-smith and her two fingers and I sure won’t be thinking about what’s empathy?

    Chloe I really like what you say, but I wonder about that sense of shared experience. If I read a particularly good author, I seem to think I can share his/her experience though I haven’t “really” experienced it. And thank you for the comment about my friend, she didn’t say that. She’s a Christian, I just think that’s what’s she’s thinking right now.

  12. chloe – “I think the flaw comes in at your initial definition of empathy as prediction & intellectual knowledge.” No, that’s your interpretation of my definition. You seem to have a rather more intellectual conception of what ‘understanding’ can mean. When I say that someone understands me I mean something where the intellectual has a very small part to play.

    What you;re telling me when you imagine killing someone is that when it comes to the killer you have no empathy – all you can imagine is how you’d feel. It fails your definition: “A sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself.” Nothing wrong with that – but let’s call it what it is – projection, not empathy.

    As for this, I can’t see it: “Accuracy is only an issue if you’ve got a goal, an objective, a target.” I’m not talking about goals or usefulness; what one does with ones empathy is another story entirely.

  13. chloe – If I may comment on your supportive comment to Benzthere, it’s supportiveness that has a goal (say, to be a good friend), not empathy. Empathy is fellow feeling (“a sense of shared…”), not doing.

  14. benzthere – Nicely done! In version version four I think we’d need to include scare-quotes: ’empathic’ misalignment to indicate that it’s faux-empathy – it only looks like empathy. Mom knows it’s not empathy, baby knows it’s not empathy – only an observer might be fooled into thinking it is.

  15. dm-smith – Maybe. I don’t think it’s necessary to get side-tracked by this though. In Pinter’s play ‘Homecoming’ one character says “Where are the scissors?” The other person says “Why don’t you shut up you stupid twat!” That response suggests to me that there’s something more going on that one person inquiring into the where-abouts of a pair of scissors. For my purposes The initial words have a literal meaning which is not the whole meaning. Does one have to be a radical objectivist to think this way? Oh well.

  16. Thanks DrSteve for a very thought provoking post.

    I think empathy is a uniting of thought and feeling (the thought usually being what is expressed in words).

    When we know that someone feels compassion for us I don’t think we necessarily think it’s 100%. More that there in touch with the guts of it for us.

    My idea is that empathy includes intention. That is: if we told someone that they hadn’t quite got what an experience meant for us then we would expect them to agree or enquire further. If they said something like, ‘no, this is what it was about for you’ then we would know that any empathy that was there had gone.

  17. Dr. Steve. Sorry, it is a tanget for this post. I was still back in the prior post thinking about your three philosophical stances.

  18. That baby scenario is not really about empathy. I mean the feelings of empathy may be involved in motivating the mother. But the mechanics involved have to do with a thought process that can very well be seperated from emotions. A robot can be programmed to rock a baby when it cries, and with a sophisticated programme, it can shuffle through different things to try when a baby cries.
    I don’t see how this scenario really discusses empathy at all.
    Unless you get into the motivations within the mother, and discuss her emotional state, her feelings, her social investments, etc.


    “Empathy is often used to describe the response of a reader to a literary character. ”

    Yes, you’re emotionally sharing with the character. For emotional sharing (empathy) to occur within you, it doesn’t require another being to be an active participant for you to have the experience.

    And that’s not projection.

    DrSteve is the one making empathy into projection. Projection is about YOUR BELIEF about what another person is thinking/feeling based on YOUR feeling.
    Empathy has nothing to do with belief. It’s about what you’re feeling.

    And I don’t know Benzthere from Adam. I have no goal other than communicating my thoughts. To presume that I would only say something supportive to Benzthere seems to be projecting a “What’s in it for me?” attitude upon me that doesn’t exist. (Don’t judge other people by yourself DrSteve!)
    I don’t care if Benzthere likes me or not. This is an on-line blog, and I’m gaining absolutely nothing but conversation from this exchange here, and I don’t expect to gain anything.
    Not even a friend.
    Because from MY perspective, friendship happens. I don’t see it as a goal or target.

    And for the final time… Empathy doesn’t require any MATCHING with another person. It’s an internal emotional process people have about other people. Much like affection. Just because “TV’s Craig Ferguson” doesn’t know I exist does not change the fact that I like him, enjoy his show, find him funny, and feel some level of affection when I think about him.

    Same thing with empathy. To use Craig Ferguson again, I recall when his father died, and he talked about it on the show, and I felt empathy. My own father had died a few years before, and I had just cleared out his house to sell it a few months before that show. I have NO idea if Craig Ferguson’s relationship with his father was anything like my own. I have no idea if Craig Ferguson’s grieving was anything similar to my own grieving process. Craig Ferguson certainly didn’t know my father died, and didn’t know I was watching the show. (Although sometimes I used to wonder about that because the first time he said “Rub cocoa butter on yourself” I actually was doing that! haha, but that’s probably just a weird conicidence.)
    But I felt it. And those feeilngs were no less real.
    And just because TV’s Craig Ferguson isn’t feeling empathy toward me doesn’t mean I can’t feel empathy about him.

    To suggest that any matching or intertwining, or active interaction must occur, quite frankly, to me, smacks of psychological enmeshment, co-dependency, and boundary problems.

  19. Chloe, you are a truly a delight to read, full of insight, passion, and fearlessness. And it’s my guess no one who blogs here would have thought you are selfishly motivated from reading your posts. The internet is truly the information highway, and we are all individual bricks along that road. Each brick is a valuable contribution, though each is shaped and colored a bit differently. Ahh, but what wonders we find along the way. . .

  20. It seems to me that identification is not at the heart of empathy. A sociopath can feel anger and some other feelings. It’s not that they lack feelings at all. A sociopath can identify with someone else’s situation, they just don’t care. I believe that’s why they say they lack empathy.

    1. I agree with all that – except the first bit. I suppose its a matter of definition, but I think empathy has to involve identification. What psychopaths teach us is that that identification does not mena pity, etc. – it simply means ‘getting’ the other person. True, people SAY they lack empathy, but this seems to me to waste a perfectly good word. Why not say they have empathy but lack sympathy – that’s closer, no?

      1. Hey Stephen,

        That’s a very good point. From the dictionary, empathy seems to have a two part definition:

        The ability to understand and share the feelings of another

        It seems that Sociopaths/Psychopaths either don’t share the feelings of another or it’s just unimportant to them. Maybe both?

        Sympathy: 1. Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

        Maybe they understand the feeling, but don’t feel it themselves because they are only concerned with “getting one over” on that person.

        I think explaining this in regards to how a sociopath thinks or does not think is like having dimentia and trying to solve a spatial problem on an IQ test. You remember the one that you have to come up with which number comes next in the sequence. With dimentia, you get half way through the problem and you think you have a handle on it. In fact, you are sure that you are onto a pattern. You get half way there and your brain stops you in your tracks.

        Suddenly, you hit a wall and can’t remember what the pattern was and your brain is forced to go back to the beginning leaving you in frustration.

        That’s what it’s like trying to figure out a sociopath. It’s so difficult because a person with a conscience can’t comprehend it fully.

        I know I’m trailing off. Just some thoughts I’ve been having. Thanks for your response to them.

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