The many faces of empathy and their relation to prosocial action and aggression inhibition



This article discusses the emotional reactions most commonly associated with empathy and their relation to prosocial or altruistic action, aggression inhibition, and understanding others. In What is Empathy?, I characterize the distinct emotional reactions most commonly associated with empathy: empathy, sympathy, personal distress, and emotional contagion. In Measures of Empathy, I discuss the most common measures of dispositional and situational empathy. In Empathy, Prosocial Action, and Altruism, I consider the evidence that empathy, sympathy, and personal distress induce prosocial motivation. I conclude that sympathy is most strongly associated with prosocial, even altruistic, motivation. In Empathy and Aggression Inhibition, I examine the evidence that empathy inhibits aggression. The evidence is inconclusive. In Empathy andMindreading, I briefly discuss empathy and mindreading, with an eye toward recent evidence concerning mirror neurons. I conclude by linking our current understanding of empathy to the philosophical tradition, and by offering some speculative remarks. WIREs Cogn Sci 2012, 3:253–263. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1165

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