Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include feelings of tenderness, sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, and the like.
Empathic concern is often and wrongly confused with empathy. To empathise is to respond to another’s perceived emotional state by experiencing feeling of a similar sort. Empathic concern or sympathy not only include empathising, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person.
C. Daniel Batson is one pioneer of the term. His mature definition of the term is “other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need”. Batson explains this definition in the following way:
First, “congruent” here refers not to the specific content of the emotion but to the valence—positive when the perceived welfare of the other is positive, negative when the perceived welfare is negative. … Third, as defined, empathic concern is not a single, discrete emotion but includes a whole constellation. It includes feelings of sympathy, compassion, softheartedness, tenderness, sorrow, sadness, upset, distress, concern, and grief. Fourth, empathic concern is other-oriented in the sense that it involves feeling for the other—feeling sympathy for, compassion for, sorry for, distressed for, concerned for, and so on.
Many writers other than Batson use different terms for this construct or very similar constructs. Especially popular – perhaps more popular than “empathic concern” – are sympathy, compassion or pity. Other terms include the tender emotion and sympathetic distress.
Human beings are strongly motivated to be connected to others. In humans and higher mammals, an impulse to care for offspring is almost certainly genetically hard-wired, although modifiable by circumstance.
At the behavioural level it is evident from the descriptions of comparative psychologists and ethologists that behaviours homologous to empathic concern can be observed in other mammalian species. Notably, a variety of reports on ape empathic reactions suggest that, apart from emotional connectedness, apes have an explicit appreciation of the other’s situation. A good example is consolation, defined as reassurance behaviour by an uninvolved bystander towards one of the combatants in a previous aggressive incident.
Empathic concern is thought to emerge later developmental and to require more self-control than either emotional contagion or personal distress. Developmental research indicates a broad range of social competencies children bring to their interpersonal relationships. As early as 2 years of age, they show:
- The cognitive capacity to interpret, in simple ways, the physical and psychological states of others;
- The emotional capacity to experience, affectively, the state of others; and
- The behavioural repertoire that permits the possibility of attempts to alleviate discomfort in others.
Both personal disposition such as temperament and social context contribute to individual differences in concern for others. Some developmental psychologists have hypothesized that empathic concern for others are essential factors inhibiting aggression toward others.
Contribution of Social Psychology
Empathic concern may produce an altruistic motivation to help people. The challenge of demonstrating the existence of altruistic motivation is to show how empathic concern leads to helping in ways that cannot be explained by prevailing theories of egoistic motivation. That is, a clear case needs to be made that it is concern about the other person’s welfare, not a desire to improve one’s own welfare, that primarily drives one’s helping behaviour in a particular situation.
Empirical studies conducted by social psychologist Daniel Batson have demonstrated that empathic concern is felt when one adopts the perspective of another person in need. His work emphasizes the different emotions evoked when imagining another situation from a self-perspective or imagining from another perspective. The former is often associated with personal distress (i.e. feelings of discomfort and anxiety), whereas the latter leads to empathic concern.
Social Neuroscience Evidence
Social neuroscience explores the biological underpinnings of empathic concern and more generally interpersonal sensitivity, using an integrative approach that bridges the biological and social levels. Neural systems, including autonomic functions, that rely on brain stem neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and vasopressin, are plausible correlates for empathic concern. Alternatively, vasopressin might be implicated in situations where a more active strategy is required for an effective response.
An association between executive functions, underpinned by the prefrontal cortex with reciprocal connections with the limbic system, the sense of agency, and empathic concern has been suggested based on lesion studies in neurological patients and functional neuroimaging experiments in healthy individuals.
The difference between imaging self versus imaging other is supported by a series of functional neuroimaging studies of affective processing. For instance, Lamm, Batson and Decety (2007) found that participants reported more empathic concern when imagining the pain of others when adopting another perspective, and more personal distress when imagining themselves to be in pain.
The fMRI scans revealed that imagining self in pain was associated with strong activation in brain areas involved in affective response to threat and pain, including the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex. Imagine-other instructions produced higher activity in the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ), which is associated with self-other distinctiveness and the sense of agency.