In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’ll look at cognitive vs. emotional (affective) empathy.
Emotional empathy, known formally as affective empathy, refers to our ability to share the emotions of others. Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to infer and understand someone’s emotional experiences from their perspective, while distinguishing others’ feelings from our own. So, if you feel anxious, and recognizing your anxiety makes me feel anxious, that’s emotional empathy. If I try to take your perspective and understand what that’s like for you, why you might be feeling anxious, and how that might affect your behaviour, that’s cognitive empathy.
Different parts of the brain appear to be the key regions involved in emotional and cognitive empathy, specifically the inferior frontal gyrus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, respectively. Mirror neurons, which fire the same way when observing someone perform a behaviour as they do when we do the behaviour ourselves, appear to play a role in emotional empathy. We may pick up on others’ emotional expressions and then have a similar inner experience as if we were to exhibit those emotional expressions.
Twin studies have shown that there’s a heritable component to cognitive empathy. Personality may also play a role, with high levels of openness (one of the factors in the five-factor model of personality) being associated with greater cognitive empathy.
Emotional empathy is present early in life, and infants often mirror their caregivers’ emotions. Cognitive empathy emerges at around age 3 or 4, which is when children start to develop a theory of mind.
Theory of mind
Cognitive empathy requires theory of mind, i.e. the ability to infer others’ mental states, including thoughts and emotions. It’s when this develops that children can begin to develop cognitive empathy. A similar concept is mentalization, which is the ability to imagine the feelings, beliefs, goals, and intentions that underlie the behaviours we observe in others.
Mental flexibility is required to be able to shift away from our usual egocentric perspective to try to adopt someone else’s point of view.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) identifies mind-reading as a cognitive distortion, and I think the difference between that and theory of mind/cognitive empathy has to do with the level of certainty and the rationality and emotional charge associated with the conclusions we’re arriving at. If someone doesn’t return a text message right away, I might use cognitive empathy to generate possible reasons from their perspective (like being busy at work), or I might use mind-reading to arrive at a conclusion that the person must be mad at me (an emotionally charged conclusion that I feel very certain about with no basis for that certainty).
The term emotional contagion refers to experiencing similar emotions when with a group of people feeling a certain way. This doesn’t necessarily involve affective empathy. If I’m around a group of people who are happy and I start feeling happy, and that happiness feels like my own emotion, that’s emotional contagion. If I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing other group members’ happiness, that’s where affective empathy comes in.
Sympathy, which is sometimes referred to as empathic concern, involves feeling sorrow or concern that someone else is in distress. If I’m sympathetic towards someone, I may have very little understanding of what that distress feels like for them, but I feel bad for them because I know they’re struggling.
Another type of reaction to the emotions of others is referred to as personal distress. This is an egocentric emotional response to someone else’s emotions. Let’s say you’re feeling sad, and I realize that your sadness indirectly relates to something I did. If I feel guilty as a result, that guilt would be a form of personal distress response.
Conditions that affect empathy
Some conditions, like autism and schizophrenia, can cause difficulties with theory of mind. People with these conditions tend to have a harder time with cognitive empathy, and in schizophrenia, this tends to worsen with greater chronicity of illness.
Research results are mixed as to whether or how schizophrenia affects emotional empathy. Affective empathy generally remains intact in people on the autism spectrum (and I’ve come across some autistic people describing very high levels of emotional empathy). Antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy involve deficits in emotional empathy.
Borderline personality disorder is associated with high levels of emotional empathy (particularly in response to negative emotions) but impairments in cognitive empathy. This is consistent with difficulties with mentalization, something that mentalization-based therapy aims to address.
People who have greater cognitive empathy tend to be better at regulating their own emotions. High affective empathy, on the other hand, may negatively affect emotion regulation. This certainly seems to be consistent with the patterns in borderline personality disorder.
I remember the book I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me talked about people with BPD lacking true empathy, and autism is sometimes associated with a lack of empathy, but I think both of those accusations greatly oversimplify. “True empathy” isn’t a clearly defined term, although based on Google, it seems like it’s mostly used to refer to emotional empathy. People who describe themselves as empaths seem to have high levels of emotional empathy, and it seems like the popular understanding of empathy is most consistent with the emotional type. So to say that people with BPD or autism lack empathy simply isn’t accurate if most people are conceiving of empathy in the affective sense.
I think my own cognitive empathy ability is quite a bit stronger than my affective empathy ability. That worked well for me when I worked as a mental health nurse, as I was able to pick up what was going on with my patients without absorbing their emotions, so I generally didn’t find my interactions with patients to be emotionally tiring.
Does the distinction between emotional and cognitive empathy make sense to you? Do you tend to find one easier than the other?
- Canty, A. L., Cao, Y., Neumann, D., & Shum, D. H. (2021). The functional significance of cognitive empathy and theory of mind in early and chronic schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research, 299, 113852.
- Flasbeck, V., Enzi, B., & Brüne, M. (2019). Enhanced processing of painful emotions in patients with borderline personality disorder: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 357.
- Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Aharon-Peretz, J., & Perry, D. (2009). Two systems for empathy: A double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions. Brain, 132(3), 617-627.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Empathy
- Thompson, N.M., van Reekum, C.M. & Chakrabarti, B. (2022). Cognitive and affective empathy relate differentially to emotion regulation. Affective Science, 3, 118-134.
- Warrier, V., Grasby, K. L., Uzefovsky, F., Toro, R., Smith, P., Chakrabarti, B., … & Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: Heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition. Molecular Psychiatry, 23(6), 1402-1409.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.