Empathy: Definition

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.


Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.


Importance of empathy

A world without empathy would be chaotic and uncivilized. We probably wouldn’t survive it. Empathy creates connections between people, bringing them together and helping to forge friendships and love. It makes us feel as if someone cares for us: without it we would likely feel vulnerable and lonely.

Empathy “allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our ‘people acumen’ and it informs our decisions.”Although other species have the capacity for empathy, the human ability to relate to another person’s feelings and to even act on it is what brings us together, spreads humanity and makes our world a much nicer place to live. Through empathy, we understand each other’s experiences and are more prone to help each other. Empathy helps us connect with each other. When we can relate to how other people feel, then we are more likely to connect and connections give you insight and you feel like you just bonded with someone.


Empathy also means that we care about each other. Having someone show you empathy feels good and tells you that someone noticed you and valued how you felt. Empathy means that we create a better world. As we connect and care about each other, the world becomes a nicer place to live. In fact, empathy is thought to be so important to the future of our society by some people that whole organizations have been built around the concept of generating more empathy in the world. These organizations believe that if we can support empathy in people, we can change the entire world into a better place.


Empathy in Civil Service:


Empathy and the civil service are two things not often mentioned in the same breath, far from being mutually exclusive; we should consider empathy to be a core skill for civil servants.

The civil service exists to help politicians get things done: their stated aim is to ‘help the government of the day develop and implement its policies’. In order to do their jobs well, the policies they develop must have certain attributes. They must be affordable; operationally viable; and politically & socially acceptable. To be effective, the policies and services must create specific and measurable behavioral change. To do this well, the civil servants must be able to understand and accurately predict how policy will affect people’s behaviour. They must be able to understand other humans’ motivation to change, to walk in their shoes, and that’s where empathy comes in. So empathy — or lack of it — can make or break how good a policy is. If they don’t predict the effects of their ideas accurately their policies and services will fail to do what it intended to do: it will waste time and money, and let people down. For this reason, the ability to understand people’s motivations and feelings when they interact with the state should be considered a core skill in bureaucracy. Civil servants should become experts in the practice of empathy.


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