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Some researchers suggest that altruism operates on empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s perspective, to feel what he or she feels. An empathetic person makes an emotional connection with others and feels compelled to help (Batson, 1991). Empathy can be expressed in several ways, including cognitive, affective, and motor. 

Empathy is often confused with pity and sympathy, which are different reactions to the situation of someone else or others. Pity is simply an acknowledgement of suffering, while sympathy goes another step forward—it is a feeling of care and concern for someone. However, sympathy does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions.   

Research evidence supports that we clearly need empathy to promote kindness and cooperation (De Vignemont & Singer, 2006). However, a keen ability to respond to the mental states of observed others does not necessarily lead to prosocial behaviors. Devious individuals, such as psychopaths, may use these emotional abilities to trick their victims.


Cognitive empathy, also known as theory-of-mind, begins to increase in adolescence and is an important component of social problem solving and conflict avoidance. According to one longitudinal study, levels of cognitive empathy begin rising in girls around 13 years old, and around 15 years old in boys (Van der Graaff et al., 2013). Teens who reported having supportive fathers with whom they could discuss their worries were found to be better able to take the perspective of others (Miklikowska, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011).

This text is adapted from OpenStax, Psychology. OpenStax CNX.

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