Parent and child touching palmsEmpathy is the ability to recognize and relate to other people’s emotions and thoughts. Empathic thinking is often characterized as the willingness and ability to place oneself in another person’s situation, to feel another person’s feelings, or to recognize that another person might experience feelings in the same way as oneself. Empathy on the part of the therapist for those in therapy is also an important characteristic of therapeutic relationships.

Understanding Empathy

Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which is the ability to care about and acknowledge another person’s feelings. It is also distinct from compassion, a trait that combines elements of both empathy and sympathy. Empathy enables compassion as well as acts of charity but is not a necessary prerequisite for either; people may behave kindly for a number of reasons, many of which are not related to empathy.

Altruism, or unselfish behavior that benefits others, is closely related to empathy. Altruistic acts generally indicate that a person experiences a high level of compassion for others. Studies show that many animals other than humans, such as primates and bears, are capable of altruistic behavior.

Empathy and Psychology

People who score high on measures of empathy generally report larger social circles and more satisfying relationships, as empathy plays a pivotal role in personal relationships: Couples in counseling are frequently advised to work on developing empathy for one another. Empathy is not only essential  in relating to loved ones but also in anticipating motives, persuading others, and working successfully with colleagues and employers.

Lack of empathy plays an important role in several mental health conditions, particularly antisocial personality, which causes a long-term pattern of exploitation, sociopathic behavior, and violation of the rights of others. A diagnosis of certain mental health conditions, such as narcissistic personality, may also indicate a lack of empathy or difficulty feeling or expressing it.

Role of Empathy in Therapy

Empathy is considered essential to therapy because for any therapeutic tactic to work, the therapist has to make the person in treatment feel understood. To do this, the therapist must not only understand what a person says in a therapy session but also understand what the person is not saying and communicate this understanding. Therapists who are highly empathic can help people in treatment face past experiences and obtain a greater understanding of both the experience and feelings surrounding it.

Empathy is different from sympathy, which can imply pity, and conveying empathy is also not a passive process. A good therapist will generally be able to sense another person’s emotion through concentration and active listening, but the process requires continued engagement. Because empathy can be expressed in many ways, especially in therapy, there is no “right” way for a therapist to demonstrate understanding and acceptance to those in treatment.

Five-Point Scale to Measure Empathy

Several scales have been developed to measure empathy. The Empathy Quotient test, for example, can measure how easily one picks up on the feelings of others and how much one is affected by those feelings. This test shows that women typically have greater empathy than men, and that those with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism typically demonstrate a lower capacity for empathy.

Another test, Carkhuff’s five-point scale, can be applied to all human relations, but it is effective at measuring the use of empathy by therapists in session. It is based on observable behavior and attempts to eliminate the ambiguity of previous scales.

  • Level 1 (nonempathic behavior): The therapist responds in a way that ignores the message of the person in treatment.
  • Level 2 (nonempathic behavior): The therapist attempts to understand and respond to the message but does so in a way that lessens the impact.
  • Level 3: The therapist responds to a stated message and surface expressions but ignores or is unable to hear the implicit message and feelings of the person in treatment. This may be an appropriate response at times, but if a therapist always responds at this level, he or she is generally not expressing deep empathy.
  • Level 4: The therapist’s response adds to what the person has said, demonstrating that the therapist has understood both what was said and what may have been only implied.
  • Level 5: The therapist understands what the person in treatment meant, and the therapist’s response adds to what the person has said in such a way that he or she is able to accurately expand upon the person’s thoughts without beginning to interpret or suggest new explanations.

Origins of Empathy

Empathy is probably, to some extent, an evolved trait. It allows humans to be able to be able to reach out to others emotionally from a young age but also to understand the situations of others. Empathy likely evolved, according to researchers, out of the necessity to be aware of the needs of the young, but also out of the knowledge that when the group does well, the individual does well.

Researchers believe that empathy develops early in childhood, as even young infants react to the distress of others. Studies show that when parents discipline children by pointing out how their behavior has affected another, the children may then become more empathic. Empathy can also be affected by being around strangers, studies have found. Being around strangers leads to increased levels of stress, which appears to affect a person’s ability to feel the pain of another. However, doing an activity with strangers, such as playing a game, can lead to a reduction in stress and an increase in empathy.

Empathy in Animals

Several studies have indicated that animals are capable of empathetic reactions. The ability to feel empathy can be a survival strategy, as it enables an animal to anticipate reactions and to form social bonds, which may have a protective effect in an unstable environment.

Many kinds of apes show empathy. Chimpanzees are very attuned to the emotions of others, so much that humans studying them can use displays of emotion, such as feigned sadness, to cause a disobedient chimp to behave. Orangutans and gorillas care for each other, especially for family members, and react to the emotions of others. Some apes will avoid taking a treat if doing so causes another ape to receive a painful shock. This altruistic behavior demonstrates the empathy primates have for other members of their species.

Other animals that show empathy include rodents: Rats refused to pull a lever to shock littermates, even if they were only fed after doing so, and mice grimace when mice they have shared a cage with are in pain. Elephants and some birds, such as crows, ravens, and jays, have all been known to show empathy to other members of their species, as well. Dogs and cats also demonstrate empathy, both toward humans and other animals.

The “Cost of Caring”

Recent research shows that some people may be affected more than others by negative life events experienced by other people. This “cost of caring” suggests that too much empathy can occasionally lead to emotional distress. According to a 2013 study, highly empathetic women who saw on social media that a close friend or family member was injured, hospitalized, demoted, or mourning a loss experienced a stress level that was 5-14% higher than that of other women. Men with high levels of empathy who saw that a friend or family member was demoted or accused of a crime experienced a stress level 9-15% higher than that of other men.

Because highly empathetic people may be more affected by the distress of family, friends, and others in their care and become overwhelmed as a result, maintaining a self-care routine and establishing emotional boundaries can be helpful in preventing any negative effects that taking on the stress of others may have on mental health.


  1. Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004, April 1). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15162935.
  2. Dallas, K. (2015, February 21). ‘Too much of a good thing’: When empathy is overwhelming. Retrieved from http://national.deseretnews.com/article/3609/too-much-of-a-good-thing-when-empathy-is-overwhelming.html.
  3. Ghose, T. (2015, January 15). ‘Stranger Danger’ Makes People Less Empathetic. Retrieved from http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/stranger-danger-makes-people-less-empathetic-150115.htm.
  4. Goleman, D. (1989, March 27). Researchers Trace Empathy’s Roots to Infancy. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/28/science/researchers-trace-empathy-s-roots-to-infancy.html.
  5. Martin, D. (2010). Counseling & Therapy Skills (3rd ed., p. 4, 8, 12-13, 127). Long Grove, Illinois: Manitoba Press.
  6. Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. The Empathy Quotient. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/life/table/0,,937442,00.html.
  8. Viegas, J. (2014, February 18). Elephants Added to List of Animals that Show Empathy. Retrieved from http://news.discovery.com/animals/elephants-added-to-list-of-animals-that-show-empathy-140218.htm.

Last Updated: 08-6-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • anthony

    September 28th, 2016 at 2:40 AM

    hi i would just like to know the author of the blog “Empathy” for my reference list. thank you

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    September 28th, 2016 at 8:13 AM

    Hi Anthony,
    This article does not have a single author, but you can attribute it to GoodTherapy.org staff members.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Paul

    October 17th, 2016 at 12:10 AM

    Thats what I wanted to learn. Thanks alot.

  • Michael

    January 15th, 2017 at 12:16 PM

    Please keep me updated. I am also interested in the lack of connecting to clients as human beings by a therapist, as mine often refers to me as an “object.”

  • Teresa

    April 13th, 2017 at 8:55 AM

    Fantastic Blog! I agree completely with you here. It is a very valuable and helpful collection of blogs. I am trying to gain information from all these. Really helpful post. Thank you..!!

  • Michelle M.

    March 16th, 2018 at 1:13 AM

    I am trying to teach childRen empathy in the classroom.

  • Denny

    January 25th, 2020 at 2:54 AM

    Great advice

  • Pmitc22

    April 23rd, 2020 at 11:11 PM

    I’m interested in the realm of possibility with being that sociopaths are lacking in their empathetic abilities, is there a labeled mentality for someone who projects the opposite with being overly & consumed with their empathetic nature.

  • william

    September 22nd, 2021 at 10:09 AM

    Is it appropriate for a psychiatrist on first visit to keep asking you if you have a criminal record. You tell them that my lawyer says I’m not to discuss it, and she steadily asks over and over

  • sen

    January 28th, 2022 at 6:45 PM

    Yes, they are obligated to ask that question to determine if you are not planning to harm anyone. Obtaining such information is part of their duty to get an understanding of a client.

  • Lisa

    August 22nd, 2022 at 11:53 PM

    Great blog!! I know for sure I’m the very large Empathy, the distressed empathy, literally emotional can’t read or for someone tell me they are hurt and tell me the story. I’m a wreck.

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