Empathy is a broad concept that allows people to appreciate art, poetry and circumstances of friends, strangers and even animals (Oswald, 2001). A number of definitions define this word as a vicarious emotional reaction based on the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition.
Barker (2003) defines empathy as "the act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person. "
Reynolds (1982) identified three major categories of empathy definitions. The first is emotional empathy, where the person shares the emotion of another. The second is cognitive empathy, where the person uses higher mental processes to perspective take. The third category is a combination of the first two categories.
Within developmental literature Eisenberg (1986) identified a number of different processes frequently referred to as empathy:
1) Cognitive role taking: when the person identifies the thoughts of another person.
2) Affective role taking: when the person identifies the feelings of another person.
3) Sympathy: when the person responds to the other's emotion with an affect that is not identical to but is congruent with his or her state or welfare, for example concern.
4) Personal distress: when the person experiences self-orientated anxiety or worry over the other's feelings.
5) Empathy: when the person shares the emotional state of the other.
Omdahl (1995) identifies three issues which arise from definitions of empathy. The first issue looks at whether empathy includes shared valence. The second considers the target experiencing multiple emotions and whether the responder has to share all or one of the emotions to empathize. The third examines whether perspective taking is required for empathy.
Empathy and sympathy appear to increase with age in childhood but they may stabilize by mid-to late adolescence. Hoffman (1978, 1982a, 1982b) poses five different modes through which empathy is elicited and develops through infancy and early childhood. These include classical conditioning, direct association, mimicry, symbolic association and role-taking. From birth to the age of about seven, Hoffman suggests children rapidly acquire the cognitive and motor requirements for these different modes, directly triggered by cues in the environment. Adults have all of these modes, which enable us to respond empathically to different situations.
Studies show that empathy appears to have a biological basis. For example, identical twins tend to be more alike in empathy than that of fraternal twins. Familial and the larger social environment also affect individual differences in empathy. It appears that people who are securely attached to their mother, and if parents are sympathetic and warm, the person will be more empathic. Parental expression of positive emotion, discussion of emotion and use of reasoning that emphasizes the effects of children's behavior on others. This is seen to help the person take perspective of another person.
Research show that gender differences in levels of empathy leans towards an interactionist or social context model, where situations, social roles and particular behaviors influence the expression and extent of gender differences. Staats et al's (2006) study of situated empathy, show that women exhibit a greater empathy. The results also show that men have a larger mean of empathy with targets of the opposite sex. However, the largest empathy appears to be moderated more by types of situation rather than by respondent or target gender.
Ajzen (1991) and Batson (1991) cite that empathy is of practical importance to help humans understand the experience, emotions and situations of others, whereby it may lead to the desire of helping the other person. This reflects the pro-social nature of humans. Conversely, a lack of empathy results in displays of aggression and disconnect from the other, resulting in anti-social or criminal behavior.
One context where empathy is an important factor is in social work and counseling. Research in this field shows that empathy is an important tool for positive therapeutic intervention and treatment in social work. Studies reveal that patients experiencing empathy through treatment inhibits anti-social behavior and aggression as well as, promoting healthy, personal development. It is also believed that a lack of empathy is correlated with bullying, aggressive behavior, violent crime and sexual offending.
Forrester et al (2008) report that the level of empathy a practitioner has is correlated with positive patient outcomes. According to further research, empathy is an important aspect in leadership skills, sales and the school environment. The ability to understand another's thoughts, feelings, reactions, concerns and motives uses a higher cognitive ability to consider the other person's perspective.