Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empaths are sensitive people who claim to have a heightened sense of empathy, to the point of not just being able to sense the emotions and energies of other people, animals, plants, or even places but also being able to experience those emotions in their own body. But do psychologists believe in empaths, and is there any scientific evidence to support their existence?
While psychologists are mixed with respect to the concept of empaths, they do acknowledge the emotional expression of empathy. The psychological scientific community has shown why human empathy is so important for our species and why emotion sharing, on a basic level, is a valuable human trait.
As someone who considers herself to be an intuitive empath, I know what I experience with respect to social emotions, but it’s helpful to have that experience validated by empirical evidence. Read on to get more information about what psychologists believe about levels of empathy and what role deficits in empathy can play in mental illness.
What is the Definition of Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and connect with the emotional experiences of others. It involves perceiving and responding to the emotions of others, as well as experiencing similar emotions yourself.
There are several different aspects of empathy that psychologists study. One aspect is cognitive empathy, which involves being able to accurately understand and interpret the emotions and thoughts of others.
This can be contrasted with emotional empathy, which involves sensitive people who experience similar emotions to those of another person. This is something known as emotional contagion.
Another aspect of empathy is affective empathy, which refers to the emotional responses that individuals with empath abilities have to the emotions of others. This can include personal distress in response to negative emotions or experiencing positive emotions in response to the joy of others.
It can also involve somatic responses to the emotions of other people. Check out this video to learn what empaths should do to stay happy despite this level of emotional contagion.
Recent studies in the UK have also investigated the concept of the “dark empath,” individuals who are highly empathic but also possess dark personality traits such as the dark triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). Dark empaths often experience high levels of cognitive empathy, which they use to manipulate others.
What are the Types of Empathy?
When we think of empathy, we often consider it as a singular concept. However, psychologists have identified different types of empathy, each with its unique characteristics. Here are some of the most commonly studied types of empathy.
This type of empathy refers to our ability to understand and interpret other people’s emotions and thoughts. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Cognitive empathy requires us to pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language.
Unlike cognitive empathy, which is based on intellectual understanding, emotional empathy involves feeling the same emotions as another person. It requires us to tune in to the emotions of those around us and experience similar emotional responses.
Emotional empathy can be both positive and negative, depending on how we relate to someone’s emotional experience. Intuitive empathy is a type of emotional empathy wherein the empath can sense emotions before they are told about them.
This type of empathy is similar to emotional empathy but refers to the emotional responses that result from another person’s emotions. This can include feeling personal distress in response to someone’s negative emotions or experiencing joy in response to someone’s happiness.
This type of empathy involves the activation of the somatosensory cortex in response to another person’s physical pain or discomfort. It means that we can experience physical sensations in response to someone else’s physical experiences.
As you can see, empathy involves more than just understanding others; it also involves sharing their emotions, feeling a strong desire to help, and even experiencing physical sensations in response to their experiences. Each type of empathy plays a unique role in our ability to connect with and support others, making it an essential component of prosocial behavior and human connection.
What is the Scientific Evidence for Empathy?
To understand the evidence for empathy, it’s best to break it down into two main types of empathy: Cognitive and affective empathy.
The Evidence for Cognitive Empathy
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and interpret the emotions of others through their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is an essential component of effective social interactions and is integral in building meaningful relationships. Recent studies have shown scientific evidence supporting the existence and importance of cognitive empathy.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom found that there were distinct differences in the brains of individuals with enhanced cognitive empathy compared to those with lower levels. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, they discovered that the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain associated with emotions, was more active in individuals with higher cognitive empathy levels when presented with emotional stimuli.
Another study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that individuals with higher cognitive empathy levels were more likely to engage in prosocial behavior, such as volunteering or donating to charity. This supports the theory that cognitive empathy is a critical aspect of building and maintaining positive social connections, leading to more positive social behaviors and human interactions.
However, deficits in cognitive empathy can also lead to negative behaviors and mental health disorders. A study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found a strong correlation between individuals with narcissistic personality disorder and dysfunctional levels of cognitive and emotional empathy, though, as this video explains, narcissists can learn to be more empathetic.
This supports the idea that a lack of understanding and interpretation of the emotions of others can manifest as negative behaviors and interfere with healthy social interactions.
What About Affective or Emotional Empathy?
Affective or emotional empathy goes beyond simply recognizing and responding to the emotions of others but rather involves personally experiencing the same emotions as those being expressed by another person. This type of empathy is closely linked with the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for our somatic or physical responses to emotional experiences.
Research has shown that the development of empathy can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as our genetics, our early childhood experiences, and our socialization. Individuals who have experienced positive early childhood experiences, such as secure attachment with their caregivers, are more likely to develop strong affective empathy skills. On the other hand, those who have experienced trauma or neglect may struggle with affective empathy due to a lack of emotional regulation skills.
However, affective empathy can also be associated with negative emotions and emotional distress. Those who experience strong affective empathy may struggle with feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of others or may experience burnout or emotional exhaustion due to their emotional involvement with others.
So Do Psychologists Believe in Empaths?
Well, psychologists certainly believe in the emotional component of empathy, but they have different ways of measuring and defining the term.
One of the most widely used models is the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), which assesses four aspects of empathy:
- Perspective-taking (the ability to adopt another’s point of view),
- Fantasy (the ability to imagine oneself in another’s situation),
- Empathic concern (the ability to feel compassion for others), and
- Personal distress (the tendency to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed by others’ emotions).
According to this model, empathy is not a single trait but a multidimensional construct that varies across individuals and situations. Someone who can be described as an empath may score high on some or all of these dimensions, but that does not necessarily mean they have a special or unique ability.
In fact, some psychologists argue that empaths are not different from other people in terms of their emotional level of empathy but rather in terms of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the process of managing one’s emotions in response to internal and external stimuli.
It involves both cognitive and behavioral strategies, such as reappraisal, distraction, suppression, expression, and coping. People with high levels of empathic ability may have difficulties regulating their emotions. They may experience emotional contagion, which is the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize one’s emotions with those of others.
They may also have low emotional boundaries with people, which means they have trouble distinguishing their own feelings from those of others. As a result, they may feel overwhelmed, drained, or stressed by their empathic experiences.
Psychologists do not have a clear-cut answer on whether empaths exist or not, but they do accept the concept of emotion sharing. The true architecture of empathy is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that can be measured and understood in different ways.
Empaths may be sensitive people who have a higher degree of empathy than others, but they may also have challenges in regulating their emotions. Empaths can improve their emotional well-being by developing self-awareness, setting boundaries, seeking support, and cultivating positive emotions.
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