Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Compassion and empathy

Compassion and empathy:
What are the differences and similarities between compassion and empathy?
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” - His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama



Has there ever been a time when you’ve seen a gruesome picture on the news, stumbled across a heart-wrenching article while scrolling through Facebook, or watched a movie so sad it brought you to tears? And if so, have any of these scenarios resulted in this churning feeling inside you wanting to take action? In these cases, you may have been feeling empathy and compassion. The terms compassion and empathy have often been used interchangeably, particularly in situations regarding another’s suffering (Peters & Calvo, 2014). New and advanced understandings of compassion suggest that it is a state distinguishable from empathy (Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010; Klimecki, Leigerg, Ricard & Singer, 2013). When dealing with situations of great suffering, compassion is suggested to foster more resilience than empathy (Klimecki et al., 2013). You might then ask, “What is compassion?”, “How is it similar and different to empathy?” and “How can this be helpful in work life or personal life?” These are the prevailing questions in which the present chapter aims to address. To answer these questions, the present chapter will first address the topics of compassion and empathy, and then explore comparisons between the two.



Compassion is a multidimensional construct. It has been debated whether compassion should be defined as a vicarious emotion, a variant of other emotions (resembling love or sadness), or a distinct emotion (Goetz et al., 2010). Over recent years an empirical understanding of compassion has concluded that compassion is in fact a distinct emotion. A multidisciplinary review by Goetz et al. (2010) identifies the distinct subjective, affective, expressive, and physiological features. These features will be presented in more detail in the later sections of this chapter.

Defining compassion


Compassion is defined as a feeling of state of concern or care for another that is attached to a motivation to help (Keltner & Goetz, 2007). More specifically, it involves a level of awareness of what the other may be going through (a cognitive component), followed by an emotional response (an affective component) that is associated with a motivation and readiness to help (a behavioural component). This type of definition generally follows a Western psychological theoretical perspective of compassion (Jazaieri et al., 2013). From a Buddhist perspective, compassion is a basic human quality needed to alleviate suffering and allow prosocial behaviours, love, and kindness (Seppala, Rossomando & Doty, 2013). Moreover, a transcending of the self is required to engage in compassion and the care of another. Thus, it is not surprising that compassion can be associated with themes of consciousness and mindfulness. Both these [which?] perspectives are commonly incorporated in contemporary literature and research for an overarching understanding of compassion (Seppala et al., 2013).

Pick which scenario that you feel is a good example of compassion and NOT and example of empathy:

A – Alicia sees another student in the library crying as they worked on their laptop. She felt concerned for the student’s emotional wellbeing and so she approached the student to see if she was ok.
B – Donald goes to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival where people pierce their tongues and cheeks with sharp objects as an act of strength and an association with the gods. He cannot bear seeing large sharp swords being pushed through people’s cheeks so he decides to leave the festival.

Purposeful features


One of the most noteworthy implications for compassion research points to its seemingly natural association with prosocial behaviour and greater social connectedness (Seppala et al., 2013). This also has elaborate implications for overall health and well-being. The benefits of social connection and compassion are (Lutz, 2008; Seppala et al., 2013):

  • Facilitates healthy attachment between infant and caregiver
  • Facilitates health adult relationships
  • Health benefits attributed quality relationships and social support
  • Increases social support
  • Fosters sense of connectedness
  • Gives rise to altruistic behaviour and generosity
  • Decreases loneliness, isolation and alienation
  • Improves emotion regulation
  • Improves cognition regulation
  • Buffers against stress biologically (Oxytocin) and cognitively

Cultivating compassion


A growing division of research and literature is dedicated to empirically cultivating positive emotional states (such as mindfulness and compassion) with psychosocial interventions (Jazaieri et al., 2013). Compassion Training (CCT) is a program developed by a team of scholars, psychologists and researchers at Stanford University. It involves meditative practice, skill based learning, and opportunity for practical application. A study by Jazaieri et al. (2013) found that after nine weeks of CCT participants showed significant improvements in three domains of compassion – compassion for others, receiving compassion, and self-compassion. However, more research is required to support the underlying mechanisms for such interventions.

A two-stage model of the effects of meditation


Keisteller and Johnson (2005) propose a two-stage model which looks at how meditation aimed to cultivate loving kindness might effect compassion, empathy, and altruism. The first step in the proposed model involves an increased awareness of habitual behaviour resulting from increased self-awareness. Consequently, participants are able to reduce regular preoccupations like self-reinforcing, self-defeating, or self-indulgent behaviours that are often paradoxical to the requirements of compassion, love, and kindness (Keisteller & Johnson, 2005). The second step involves an engagement or connectedness with others that can then give rise to altruistic behaviour and behaviours associated with compassion (Keisteller & Johnson, 2005). This suggests that when the connections with others are strengthened, the self transcends and the mind of the individual is more open to engaging others with compassion. This might also raise questions about how consciousness and spirituality may relate to the cultivation of compassion. The two-stage model proposes that the cultivation of positive mental states such as loving kindness can increase compassion as well as empathy and altruism (Keisteller & Johnson, 2005). Interestingly, Pavlovich, and Krahnke (2012) also explored similar processes of the transcending self that is further supported by the unconscious processing of shared neural pathways.



You might be wondering how compassion and empathy are related, seeing as they can both arise from similar circumstances and processes. It is no surprise that empathy and compassion often go together naturally yet are distinguishable from one another (Peters & Calvo, 2014). Compassion can arise from empathy; for instance, when you empathize with a friend and feel angry with them you feel empathy; after looking past the anger to the hurt you might want to care for her or act on her behalf and thus feel compassion. But empathy it is not necessarily a requirement for compassion. The present section provides a further understanding of empathy, why it is important and touches briefly on the nature of empathy.

Defining empathy

Empathy is to walk a mile in another's shoes

Empathy is commonly understood as the shared experience or mirroring of another’s emotion, which can involve both basic (e.g. fear, joy, pain) and complex emotions (e.g. guilt, embarrassment, love) (Singer, 2006). However, to distinguish this from other phenomena that are similar to feelings of personal distress, sympathy, or a general convergence of emotion, researchers can define empathy more specifically (Vignemont & Singer, 2006). Empathy is present in an individual if they share an affective state of another; the state must also be triggered by the imagination or observation of the other persons state, and the individual must be able to attribute the other person to the source of their own affective state (Vignemont & Singer, 2006). The description “to put yourself in the shoes of another person” is commonly associated with the perceptual component of empathy - to understand the world from the other person’s perspective (Singer, 2006).

It is important to note that there are two crucial components of empathy, that is cognitive empathy and affective empathy (Gonzalez-Liencres, Shamay-Tsoory & Brune, 2013). Cognitive empathy involves the ability to recognise and understand emotion, while affective empathy is the ability to experience the same emotion as another (affective empathy). Deficits in cognitive empathy are seen with autism spectrum disorders, where individuals have trouble making sense of what others may be feeling or thinking but may still respond affectively (Gonzalez-Liencres et al., 2013). In retrospect, deficits in affective empathy are evident with psychopathy, conduct disorder, and antisocial personality disorder; these individuals cannot share or feel another person’s emotions (Gonzalez-Liencres et al., 2013). In these cases where individuals experience deficits in empathy, they may lack the ability to experience another’s emotions but are able to recognise and understand other’s emotions. People with such deficits in empathy are often charming, manipulative and can show differing levels of cruelty.

Imagine the following scenario. Brent was struggling to handle his study workload, personal life and work life. The end of semester was fast approaching and Brent was failing to make his assignment deadlines, feeling no motivation to go to work, attend any classes or visit friends. Brent noticed that he had been feeling very down for the past two weeks and not coping so well, so he decided to disclose this with a close friend of his. Choose an appropriate empathic response from Brent’s close friend:

A – Cheer up butter cup
B – I feel your pain
C – Toughen up
D – Don’t worry, the assessments will be over soon

Purposeful features


Similar to compassion, empathy is particularly beneficial for social interaction (Vignemont & Singer, 2006). One of the biggest roles for empathy in today’s society may be the ability to strengthen social connection, understanding, and motivation for to cooperate. Pavlovich and Krahnke (2012) suggest that empathy is an organising mechanism for connectedness, meaning that it is a crucial element to our social understanding and regulation. Empathy is also crucial for social attachment and parental care (Decety & Scetlova, 2012); it can also provide useful knowledge of the world around us through unconscious processing (Vignemont & Singer, 2006). Vignemont and Singer (2006) suggest that empathy may help predict other people’s needs, actions, and other major features of the environment.

The origins of empathy


So where does empathy come from? To review this question, evolutionary, biological and philosophical perspectives are briefly covered (Corradini & Antonietti, 2013; Sroufe, 2000; Stueber, 2006). An evolutionary perspective highlights the reproductive qualities of empathy, particularly with an association between empathy and secure infant attachments (Sroufe, 2000). The better the attachment between an infant and caregiver, the more likely the infant is to survive to a reproductive age. A system of mirror neurons have been proposed as the biological basis for social cognition and empathy (Corradini & Antonietti, 2013). Mirror neurons basically serve as psychological a basis to understand other people’s intentions and observed behaviour. These findings suggest that empathy is hard wired in the mammalian brain, and overall may support an interconnected and social disposition. This can lead to the discussion that highlights the role for human agency. The philosophical perspective on empathy has suffered a great deal of neglect in contemporary literature and its legitimacy is often debated (Corradini & Antonietti, 2013). Here, the nature of empathy may be viewed as an inborn human capacity that is based on a rational agent (Stueber, 2006). This may emphasise the influence of an expanded consciousness, beliefs, preferences, and choice that directs empathy in modern society.

In a TED talk video, I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace, Zak Ebrahim speaks of his early experiences from his childhood that was filled with prejudice, dogma and hate, in relation to his father's association with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. About mid way through the video, he discusses the turning points in his life driven by empathy and describes how he chose to turn away from the violent, intolerant ideology that he was previously subjected to. Zak’s story highlights an interesting interaction between biological, environmental and human agency.

Empathy versus compassion


Compassion and empathy are both distinct emotional states concerning the perception of, and response to the suffering of another (Goetz et al., 2010); they also involve similar processes in which the transcending of the self and other may foster for connections and each state (Keisteller & Johnson, 2005; Pavlovich & Krahnke 2012). Both are crucial for relationships, well-being, and for the motivation to build collaborative societies (Pavlovich and Krahnke, 2012).

However, the distinguishable differences between compassion and empathy are also important to consider, particularly when faced with the suffering or distress of another. More specifically, compassion is a type of resilience that is more beneficial for empowering action in the face of suffering than empathic distress, which decreases helpful behaviours and increases risk of burnout (Peters & Calvo, 2014). To understand the underlying basis of this dynamic, the current section of the book chapter is dedicated to examine the differentiating states, physiological responses and expressive behaviours that distinguish compassion from empathic distress.

Mirrored state experienced

Research using FRMI techniques are often useful when studying emotion

Highlighted by its defining feature, empathy involves an experience of the same emotion that the other is experiencing. With the use of neuroimaging techniques, a large body of neuroscientific evidence can support these claims, particularly related to empathy for pain (Lamm, Decety & Singer, 2010; Pavlovich & Krahnke, 2012). A meta-analysis by Lamm et al. (2010) reviewed 32 studies that examined empathy for pain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Supporting evidence was found that indicated common neural networks for the direct experience of pain and empathy for pain. These findings suggested that empathy triggered by viewing a picture of a person’s limb in a painful situation, or by witnessing another person receiving painful stimulation, activates the same patterns of neural networks as if that person were directly experiencing the pain (Lamm et al., 2010). Although this sharing of experience may be beneficial for understanding and successful social interaction, the intense sharing of pain is actually the main cause for empathic distress (Baston, 1987). Compassion does not necessarily include the same emotions as the other and offers an alternative solution for a similar understanding to build relationship, foster resilience, and helping behaviour (Peters & Calvo, 2014).

Affective pattern of emotion


At this point, you may be curious as to how compassion fosters resilience and helping behaviour. Recent studies show that compassion actually triggers positive affect in the brain while empathy triggers negative affect (Klimecki et al., 2013). Klimecki et al. (2013) ran a study that explored functional neural plasticity of affective patterns in response to compassion and empathy training. Participants were shown videos which displayed human suffering prior to any training, after empathy training, and again after compassion training. Results showed that empathy training increased negative affect in brain regions that have been associated with the same networks that are activated with empathy for pain. In contrast, compassion training revealed activation in alternative neural networks and yielded self-reported positive affect (Klimecki et al., 2013). Moreover, these findings provide empirical evidence for the differentiated features of compassion and empathy and promote compassion for its resilience in the face of suffering (Klimecki et al., 2013).

Response direction

A Nepalese mother sharing a bond and connection with her child

An empathic response is usually inwardly focused as empathy mainly refers to an internal state of experiencing another’s emotions (Peters & Calvo, 2014). Although empathy has its benefits for effective communication and understanding, it can also be considered a passive acknowledgement and observation of another’s suffering (Pavlovich and Krahnke, 2012). Consider the following case: a woman's baby is crying and the woman also feels its distress. An empathic response would focus on the woman's internal feelings of distress. In contrast, the experience of compassion is outwardly focused, meaning that it directs attention outwards to facilitate active approach behaviours. A compassionate response to the case of the woman's baby crying would focus outward to what action she could take to alleviate or remove the source of the baby's distress. These approach behaviours involve emotional support, the giving of material goods and action to alleviate suffering (regardless of whether or not it actually relieves the suffering) (Pavlovich and Krahnke, 2012). Although compassion is focused outwardly, this doesn’t mean that there is less of an emotional response; a compassionate response activates an alternative response in emotion-related brain circuits (Peters & Calvo, 2014). A study by Lutz (2008) shows that alternative responses in the limbic system (also linked to empathy) are activated when compassion is increased through meditation techniques. Specifically, activation in the amygdala is reduced when a threat is perceived and mobilisation to respond to suffering is increased. Consequently, compassion, like empathy, is sensitive to the suffering of another; however, compassion is more oriented toward approach and care behaviour than distress or avoidance (Peters & Calvo, 2014). The directed attention of an inward empathic response and an outward compassionate response may also reflect a differentiating physiological response.

Physiological response


From an evolutionary perspective, the experience of emotion is generally thought of as a function that guides an individuals thinking and action appropriately (Goetz et al., 2010). In a review by Goetz et al. (2010), physiological responses specific to compassion are highlighted. These features also provide further support for previous claims where compassion is associated with outward attention and action tendencies. Heart rate deceleration and reduced skin conductance are evident in situations that evoke compassion, such as a compassion evoking film (Goetz et al., 2010). This heart-related response suggests that compassion is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Additionally, part of the PNS is regulated by the vagus nerve, which has evolved uniquely in mammals to foster caregiving and social engagement skills that are fundamental for compassion (Goetz et al., 2010). The vagus nerve, its source nuclei, and several cranial nerves form a circuit that regulates facial and vocal displays, posture, listening activities, tactile contact, breath, and heart rate (Goetz et al., 2010; Porges, 2010). These underlying relationships involved may also provide support for the effects of meditation techniques on compassion, which focus on listening, posture and breath. While compassion may be associated with the PNS, a contrasting response of the sympathetic nervous system is suggested to be involved in distress-related emotions (Goetz et al., 2010). Consequently, distress-related emotions such as empathic distress may trigger defence systems that may hinder a compassionate response. Overall, compassion fosters a physiological state where an individual can be more attuned to outward attention, approach, and social engagement (Goetz et al., 2010).

Expressive behaviour

Facial expressions can help us communicate and understand specific emotions

Distinguishable facial features and behaviours can be identified as different emotional states are expressed (Goetz et al., 2010). These are considered to be the non-verbal components of the social expression of emotion. These expressions of emotion can be coded through simple observation of behaviour or computed by an automated facial recognition system known as a facial action coding system. In a review by Goetz et al. (2010) a summary of non-verbal compassion cues gathered from a collaboration of different studies is presented. It was further discussed that non-verbal displays of compassion signify commitment and cooperation through an outwards orientation and approach behaviour. In comparison, non-verbal displays of empathy often include facial expressions and behaviours that can be related to distress and mild apprehension (Goetz et al., 2010). These are summarised in the table below (Goetz et al., 2010):

Table 1.
Non-verbal displays for compassion and personal distress

Compassion Personal distress
Eye gaze towards partner Gaze aversion
Head and body oriented to partner Raised and drawn together eyebrows
Forward lean Tensing of lower eyelid
Oblique eyebrows Nervous mouth movements
Furrowed eyebrows
Lower eyelid raised
Slight mouth press



Research has provided empirical evidence to support the claims that compassion and empathy are two distinct emotions (Goetz et al., 2010; Keisteller & Johnson, 2005; Klimecki et al., 2013; Lamm et al., 2010; Lutz, 2008; Pavlovich & Krahnke 2012). Compassion, more than empathy, can offer a resilient approach when working with or being faced with injustice and the suffering of another in our everyday lives (Klimecki et al., 2013). This claim is supported by comparisons of five different domains of emotion. With these newfound understandings of the differences between compassion and empathy we can think about how to effectively incorporate compassion and empathy in our own lives.

Here we conclude with some final tips on how to effectively incorporate compassion and empathy in every day work or personal life. These suggestions may be useful for individuals working in health care or social support settings; for not-for-profit organisations, associations, or individuals looking to empower action against issues of violence, poverty, disease, inequality, injustice, prejudice, and climate change; for designers of social technologies looking to increase compassion and empathy in a range of different settings and for conflict resolution; and finally, for improving interpersonal relationships with romantic partners, friends, family, the local and global community.


  • Be mindful of your own emotional responses to a client, partner, friend or stranger in distress. Look out for the non-verbal and physiological signs of empathic distress (i.e. increased heart rate, sweating, narrow focus on feelings of same distress and withdrawn body language and behaviour). These may signal more damaging responses that are more likely to lead to burnout and less likely to lead to heaping behaviour or action (Baston, 1987).
  • If you would like to increase compassion in your every day life it may be useful to partake in meditation practices, pay attention to the needs of others, take action, and or volunteer for a good cause helping others.
  • For professional development purposes, compassion training may be beneficial to improve quality of service and protect the welfare of workers.
  • When approaching empowered action and change for heavy social and global issues it may be handy to incorporate a focus directed towards the action that can be taken instead of just portraying the detrimental effects of the issue. This also applies to the design of social technologies.
  • Don't forget that empathy is not always bad as it is essential for understanding and building healthy relationships. However, to be active as well as engaged when some one is suffering may require a more compassionate response which may be different to empathy (i.e. involves eye gaze towards partner, orient head and body towards partner, lean forward, touch, approach behaviour etc.).

See also



Batson, C.D., Fultz, J., Schoenrade, P.A. (1987). Distress and empathy: two qualitatively distinct vicarious emotions with different motivational consequences. Journal of Personality, 55, 19–39.

Corradini, A., & Antonietti, A. (2013). Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness And Cognition: An International Journal, 22(3), 1152-1161. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2013.03.003

Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Pavesi, G., & Rizzolatti, G. (1995). Motor facilitation during action observation: A magnetic stimulation study. Journal of Neurophysiology, 73, 2608–2611.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 351-374. doi:10.1037/a0018807

Gonzalez-Liencres, C., Shamay-Tsoory, S., & Brune, M. (2013). Towards a neuroscience of empathy: Ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanism, context and psychopathology. Neuroscience and biobehavioural reviews, 37, 1537-1548. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.05.001

Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, G. T., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E. L., Finkelstein, J., Simon-Thomas, E., ... & Goldin, P. R. (2013). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1113-1126.

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, doi: 10.1093/scan/nst060

Kristeller, J. L., & Johnson, T. (2005). Cultivating loving kindness: A two-stage model of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and altruism. Zygon: Journal Of Religion & Science, 40, 391-407. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2005.00671.x

Lamm, C., Decety, J., & Singer, T. (2010). Meta-analytic evidence for common and distinct neural networks associated with directly experienced pain and empathy for pain. NeuroImage, 54, 2492-2502.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. Public Library of Science, 3,1–5.

Pavlovich, K., & Krahnke, K. (2012). Empathy, Connectedness and Organisation. Journal Of Business Ethics, 105, 131-137.

Peters, D., & Calvo, R. (2014). Compassion vs. empathy: designing for resilience. interactions, 21, 48-53.

Seppala, E., Rossomando, T., & Doty, J. R. (2013). Social connection and compassion: Important predictions of health and well-being. Social Research, 80, 411-430. Retrieved from

Sroufe, L.A., 2000. Early relationship and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal 21, 67–74.

Stueber, K. R. (2006). Rediscovering empathy: Agency, folk psychology, and the human sciences. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press.

Singer, (2006). The neural basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: review of literature and implications for future research. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 30, 855-863. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2006.06.011

Keltner, D., Goetz, J.L. (2007). Compassion. In: Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., editors. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 159–61.