About 250 years ago, Adam Smith famously described the way observers might feel watching a tightrope walker. Even while standing on solid ground, our palms sweat and our hearts race as someone wobbles hundreds of feet in the air (you can test this out here). In essence, we experience this person’s state as our own.
Centuries later, this definition does a surprisingly good job at capturing scientific models of empathy. Evidence from across the social and natural sciences suggests that we take on others’ facial expressions, postures, moods, and even patterns of brain activity. This type of empathy is largely automatic. For instance, people imitate others’ facial expressions after just a fraction of a second, often without realizing they’re doing so. Mood contagion likewise operates under the surface. Therapists often report that, despite their best efforts, they take on patients’ moods, consistent with evidence from a number of studies.
By Jamil Zaki