The Complexity of Empathy

For the last two decades, research has shown empathy to be an essential capacity needed to build the strong relationships that are the backbone of safe and supportive school communities. With ample evidence of the positive impact of increased empathy on school culture and on the health and well-being of staff and students, educators are being asked to choose from numerous programs and initiatives focused on empathy building. This article explores the complexity of empathy and offers some considerations before selecting and implementing empathy-focused programs in schools.

Understanding Empathy

Miriam-Webster defines empathy as “the capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” De Vignemont and Singer (2006) suggest that empathy is needed for both cognitive and social functions. First, empathy provides the cognitive information needed to predict the future actions of others. Second, the social function of empathy provides the motivation for prosocial behavior. Both of these functions serve to increase social awareness, a prerequisite for relationship building.

By understanding it has both cognitive and social functions, empathy is then seen as a process with several layers. Goleman (2008) describes the three aspects of empathy as affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. He suggests that the confusion around empathy lies in the misunderstanding of these distinct aspects, each of which has a different neuro-location.

Affective empathy, also referred to as emotional empathy, is what Goleman describes as “emotional contagion” (2008). With the help of mirror neurons, people are able to feel what others feel, without trying to make sense of it. Affective empathy is developed before the other aspects of empathy, as logic and language are unnecessary for this process. Goleman also suggests that emotional empathy “attunes us to another’s interpersonal world,” a critical capacity in strong and healthy relationships. It is important to keep in mind that affective empathy alone can become a source of emotional distress, causing a person to begin block that emotional connection.

Prosocial behavior requires both affective empathy and cognitive empathy (Preckel, Kanske, & Singer, 2018). Cognitive empathy is being able to take others’ perspectives, to understand their point of view. Also called perspective-taking, cognitive empathy can be very effective at understanding what is needed to motivate others. Cognitive empathy provides a lens for understanding others’ intentions. However, if individuals have only cognitive empathy, they may remain emotionally detached and so may be limited in their capacity to motivate others.

Goleman (2017) warns that affective and cognitive empathy alone easily become tools of the self-interested. He instead advocates for the development of compassionate empathy, also called empathic concern, which motivates people to act. He writes, “It’s empathic concern—caring about the other person’s welfare —that puts these two kinds of empathy in the service of a greater good.” Compassionate empathy takes the understanding of someone’s point of view and the ability to feel what that person is feeling, and then mobilizes an individual to provide assistance for that person.

The Impact of Empathy

Empathy has been the subject of social science research for several decades. Paying particular attention to issues around strengthening school cultures and on the health and well-being of students and those who serve them, the remainder of this article touches briefly on a small selection of research findings worthy of consideration.

The impact of empathy on bullying behavior continues to be a focus for research. As one example, Kokkinos and Kipritsi (2018) studied the impact of moral disengagement (MD), affective and cognitive empathy, and their interaction on bullying behavior in early adolescents. These researchers found that a greater capacity for affective and cognitive empathy was related to lower self-reporting of bullying behavior. However, when moral disengagement was studied with empathy, high MD predicted higher frequencies of bullying behavior. Perhaps moral disengagement reflects a lack of compassionate empathy. Without the motivation to act on someone’s behalf, the affective and cognitive empathy are not deterrents to bullying behavior.

Decety and Yoder (2014) studied the impact of empathy on issues of social justice and moral behavior. They suggest that emotional empathy does not motivate people to stand against injustice. However, perspective-taking, cognitive empathy was a motivation for action. The researchers concluded that increasing cognitive empathy may be more effective to mobilize people to stand against social injustice, rather than focusing on the emotional impact of people’s stories about mistreatment.

Looking specifically at bystander behavior in cyberbullying situations, Barlinska, Szuster, and Winiewski (2014) also suggest cognitive empathy is a stronger motivator for action than affective empathy. These researchers find that cognitive empathy is a strong predictor in intervening in cyberbullying situations and in prosocial cyber behavior. Affective empathy did not show any impact on positive cyberbystander behavior. The researchers offer an explanation for the impact of cognitive empathy over affective empathy that is note-worthy. Perhaps affective empathy is more impactful for bystanders in face-to-face bullying situations where non-verbal cues and emotional states are present.

One final piece of research focuses on affective and cognitive empathy in children already identified as being at high risk for future criminal behavior. Zonneveld and colleagues (2017) found these children to have impaired affective empathy and non-impaired cognitive empathy. They suggest that high-risk children need deliberate attention toward building their affective empathy.

Final Considerations

This brief exploration into empathy highlights its complexity, an important consideration before choosing programs to increase empathy in schools. First, empathy is a capacity that is still in the process of being fully understood. The three layers of cognitive, affective, and compassionate empathy focus on different aspects of the overarching term “empathy.” Their different neuro-locations signal that these are distinct aspects; they work in tandem and function independently.

Second, the small number of studies presented here speak to the importance of identifying the purpose and vision for focusing on empathy in improving school culture. With this shared vision, it is possible to identify the time and attention given to the different aspects of empathy in order to realize that vision.

Finally, improving school cultures will require the mobilization of all human resources. For that schools will need more than affective and cognitive empathy. It will require compassionate empathy and its call to action.


Barlinska, J., Szuster, A., & Winiewski, M. (20 May, 2018). Cyberbullying among adolescent bystanders: Role of affective versus cognitive empathy in increasing prosocial cyberbystander behavior. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00799/full.

De Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when, and why. Trends in Cognitive Science 10(10): 435-444.

Decety, J., & Yoder, K. J. (2014). Empathy and motivation for justice: Cognitive empathy and concern, but not emotional empathy, predict sensitivity to injustice for others. Social Neuroscience 11(1): 1-14. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592359/.

Goleman, D. (2017). Empathic concern. Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27176.

Goleman, D. (March 1, 2008). Hot to help: When can empathy move us to action? Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hot_to_help.

Kokkinos, C. M., & Kipritsi, E. (2018). Bullying, moral disengagement and empathy: Exploring the links among early adolescents. Educational Psychology 38(4): 535-552. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2017.1363376.

Preckel, K., Kanske, P., & Singer, T. (2018). On the interaction of social affect and cognition: Empathy, compassion and theory of mind. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 19: 1-6. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154617300700.

Van Zonneveld, L., Platje, E., de Sonneville, L. M., & van Goozen, S. H. (2017). Affective empathy, cognitive empathy and social attention in children at high risk of criminal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 58(8): 913-921. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lisette_Van_Zonneveld/publication/316046860_Affective_empathy_cognitive_empathy_and_social_attention_in_children_at_high_risk_of_criminal_behaviour/links/59e06d16aca272386b7183b1/Affective-empathy-cognitive-empathy-and-social-attention-in-children-at-high-risk-of-criminal-behaviour.pdf

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

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