What Is Empathy And Why Is It Important To Develop This Skill?

In this article, you will learn:

  1. What is Empathy?
  2. Empathy in Children
  3. Lacking Empathy

Every morning we come across a host of headlines demonstrating the criminal acts committed by psychopaths, rapists and child molesters. The stories unfolding the brutality commanded by the criminals is unbearable and outside the scope of our understanding.

It makes us wonder what instigates these criminals to deny the pain inflicted on the victim and commit intense violent acts? How can such offenders show no compassion and ignore the non – verbal messages that the victim conveys when in pain?

Advanced Psychology

Well, the answer is that such people lack one of the most important attributes of emotional intelligence, that is empathy. Because the aspect of empathy is relatively new in psychological research, this concept is constantly changing.

Emotional Intelligence describes empathy as the ability to understand feelings or the non-verbal cues demonstrated by other people who are in distress or pain. These non – verbal signals typically include tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions and the like.

Such non-verbal signals become the very mode of communication for emotions, just like the words convey messages for the rational brain.

As per a research study, it is the lack of empathy that instigates offenders to commit cruelest of crimes and has its roots in childhood. It was observed that children who turned out to be criminals in adulthood were emotionally neglected during childhood.

Their feelings were constantly denied, rejected and met with apathy. Typically, these children were raised in orphanages and foster homes where their feelings were implicitly or explicitly discouraged. This resulted in completely wiping out emotions responsible for bringing intimacy in relationships.

In this article we will talk about this attribute thereby defining what is empathy and its role in building human relationships. We will also look at how lack of empathy leads to obsessive behaviors and why this emotional attribute is important to develop during childhood.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to know how another person feels. It is the ability to share and understand another’s state of mind or emotion. Thus, Empathy is often characterized as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes or experience the emotions of another person being within one self.

People emote via non – verbal channels such as tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures etc. This means that emotions are communicated or expressed not through words but something that is way beyond words and is gestural. It is the ability to read such non – verbal messages is what is termed as empathy.

In other words, emotions are communicated through non – verbal channels. Thus, when a person makes use of words that are not in sync with his emotions, it is the emotions that determine the very message such a person wants to communicate.

Research Supporting Empathy

Various research studies have been conducted to authenticate the eminence of comprehending others’ feelings by understanding non – verbal cues. It has been contemplated that people with such a capacity are emotionally sorted, sensitive and have intimate relations with their partners.

Likewise, little or no relationship between empathy and IQ was demonstrated in studies conducted among children. Children who had high IQ scores did not necessarily perform well when tested on the skill of empathizing with others. Moreover, it was also observed that children who showed high aptitude for reading others’ feelings were emotionally more stable, fared well in studies and did not necessarily have IQs more than their fellow mates who were poor in reading other people’s feelings.

Thus, such studies indicated the independence of empathy and academic intelligence. Also, these studies illustrated that children who had mastered the ability to read non-verbal cues in other children were more effective in the classroom as they were emotionally more stable.

Empathy in Children

Motor Mimicry

A variety of experiments have been conducted to examine empathy in infants and young children. It has been observed that a baby as old as eight months starts crying the moment he spots another baby in pain. Likewise, a two year old kid is seen lending his own toys to a friend who has been crying as a result of being hurt.

Thus, all these experiments indicate that children developed the ability to understand another’s feelings at a stage in life as early as infancy. Infants feel compassion for those in distress as though it is their own pain. This is because during this phase of life, they are not able to recognize that their existence is independent of others.

However, as a baby turns a year or so older, he starts understanding that the distress caused to others is not his own. Rather it is someone else’s. Though a baby starts recognizing this difference at this stage in life, his cognitive skills are not so developed that he is able to accurately determine what he should do in such a situation. For instance, he might bring his own mother to soothe the crying friend instead of bringing his friend’s mother.

E. B. Titchener, an American psychologist termed such empathetic behavior in infants as ‘motor mimicry’. This context of empathy demonstrated by Titchener is a bit different from the fundamental meaning of the word empathy.

Concept of Motor Mimicry

The basic meaning of empathy is the ability to understand the feelings or emotions of another person. However, Titchener emphasized that empathy in a person originates when he observes another person in distress and imitates his physical distress. Such imitation or imagination of the distressed bodily movements of others subsequently leads to distressed feelings in oneself.

Research studies on infants and young children indicated that such motor mimicry disappears as soon as a baby turns around three years old. Additionally, the toddlers start understanding that they are independent of others and hence their own pain is different from someone else’s pain. For instance, the baby in the above example would now give his own toys to his crying friend to soothe him from pain.

Research demonstrates that such empathetic behavior in children develops as a result of the discipline commanded by parents during childhood. Furthermore, as the child grows and reaches his late childhood, he starts understanding distress at an advanced level and feels the pain of other people as if it was caused to him. In fact, he starts feeling for the pain inflicted on an entire group of people and yearns to help them by relieving their pain.

Thus, those children who misbehaved and their misbehavior was specifically called out by their parents turned out to be more empathetic as adults. Also, the way elders or parents dealt with distressed emotions of other people too had a great impact on the development of empathy in children. That is, if parents helped distressed people, children too responded empathetically when others were distressed.

Emotional Attunement

Children learn about their emotions when they are as young as 18 hours old. The most significant instances where children recognize emotions are those when they share intimate moments with their caregivers.

When children’s emotions are accepted, reciprocated and met with empathy by caregivers, they feel connected. Such a connection is termed as attachment or attunement in psychology. Thus, we can say that the emotions in children are shaped by the degree to which caregivers are emotionally attuned to children.

As per research, it was observed that the infants came to know that their emotions were accepted or not by the way in which their mothers responded to them. Such an attachment of mothers towards infants comforted the infants and made them feel that they were emotionally connected. Now, such an attachment is very different from imitation or mimicry mentioned above.

For instance, a mother responding to infants actions through mere imitation showcases the mother’s actions only and not her feelings towards the infant. So, if a mother wants to let the infant know that his feelings have been accepted, she would have to get emotionally attuned with the infant rather than just imitating his actions. That is, feel the same way as the infant is feeling at that point in time.

Adults also showcase emotional attunement as between a mother and an infant while making love with each other. The partners demonstrate mutual empathy, desire and intention while they copulate or make love with each other, thus reflecting the deep emotional bond between them.

Lacking Empathy

  • Complete Wipe Out of Emotions

As mentioned above, an infant believes that his caregivers will share his feelings only when the caregivers get emotionally attuned with the infants on a regular basis. An infant starts recognizing such emotions when he is around eight months old. It is during this stage of life that an infant starts understanding that his feelings are independent of other people.

It is this emotional attachment that develops empathy in infants and contributes to a great way in building intimacy in relationships when he turns older. This means that if caregivers or parents are not emotionally attuned to their children, it leads to a great amount of emotional distress within children.

Moreover, if there is a lack of attachment between parents and children for a long period of time, it makes the children emotionless and holds them back from expressing their feelings.

In other words, lack of attunement between parents and children leads to wiping out of emotions in children that are the very foundation of building intimate relationships in life. Besides this, it can also lead children to regard certain negative emotions like anger, sadness, being passive, etc.

However, this does not mean that such misattunement cannot be corrected. Lack of empathy can be corrected by seeking therapies in later stages of life. The way a mother shares an intimate relationship with an infant and gets emotionally attuned to the baby, the therapist tries to build a similar relationship with the distressed person in order to understand his inner feelings.

Thus, the person in distress gets a feeling that his emotions are being understood and acknowledged by the therapist.

  • Misconduct or Offensive Behavior

In extreme cases, lack of attunement in children can lead them to become criminals. As per research, criminals who committed the most violent of crimes were emotionally neglected during childhood and did not get the opportunity to develop attachment with the caregivers. This is because such children were raised in orphanages or foster homes.

Thus, criminals while committing cruelest of crimes denied the pain inflicted to the victim and self justified their acts based on their own imagination and perception of the intended acts. The offenders viewed the victim through their own lens and denied to sense how the victim felt when pain was inflicted on them.

Furthermore, the offenders started expecting that the victims should cooperate with the offenders as if the victims had no feelings of their own. Thus, lack of empathy and the burgeoning emotional hijack led the offenders to commit crime.


Empathy is one of the fundamental attributes of emotional intelligence. It is the very foundation of building intimate relationships and the roots of such a capability lie in childhood. Thus, it is important for caregivers to have an emotional attachment with children as it goes a long way in developing empathy in children. Lack of such an attachment would lead to devastating consequences like wiping out intimate emotions completely in children or embracing low grade emotions. In worst cases, lack of empathy makes criminals out of people, leading them to commit cruelest of crimes.

Advanced Psychology