Understanding another person’s subjective state is mediated by two different mechanisms – empathy and theory of mind. Whereas the latter allows one to take another person’s perspective without being emotionally involved, empathy is primarily an emotional mechanism. It generates an understanding of another person’s emotional or intentional state by vicariously sharing it. As opposed to emotional contagion, which does not provide the observer with the insight that it is another person’s state which he or she shares, empathy draws a clearcut distinction between the emotional domains of self and other. Empathy develops in the second year of life as soon as children form a concept of the Self. In experiments with 126 children, we investigated the subjects’ ability to recognize themselves in a mirror and their readiness to empathize with a playmate in (faked) distress. Almost all children who identified with their mirror image showed compassion and tried to help, whereas children who did not yet recognize themselves were perplexed or remained indifferent.
Quite often, empathy is understood as being synonymous with sympathy, concern, or compassion with another person’s welfare. However, although empathy is an important precondition for prosocial behavior, it does not yield prosocial consequences in every case. It can also be the basis for sensation-seeking, malicious gloating, malevolence and intentional cruelty. In these cases, the miserable state of the other is empathically shared and at the same time enjoyed.
Whether empathy yields a socially positive or negative response depends on several factors. Sympathy, compassion, sharing and helping are more probable if a person in need is familiar, belongs to the same in-group and shares the same values and opinions. Negative responses are more probable if the person is perceived to be a stranger or morally inferior. These two perceptions quite often coincide – as exemplified during times of war.
Doris Bischof-Köhler, Dr. rer soc. Dr phil habil. teaches Developmental Psychology at the University of Munich. She lectures on Development of Social Cognition, Development of Sex Differences, Emotional and Motivational Development and Evolutionary Psychology. Her research fields include Development of Empathy and Mirror Recognition and Connection of Theory of Mind, Time Comprehension and Behavioral Organization. Deutscher Psychologie Preis 2003 (German Psychology Award 2003). Selected Publications: Spiegelbild und Empathie, Bern 1989; Kinder auf Zeitreise, Bern 2000; Von Natur aus anders, Stuttgart 2004, 2nd ed.