Empathy, Compassion, Responsibility in Altruism and Heroism

Empathy, and it close relative sympathy, have long been proposed, and have been found in research related to and motivating people to help others. Understanding how another feels, cognitive empathy, and experiencing (vicariously) the feelings of another person or emotional empathy, have been the primary focus of theory and research as the motivators of helping and altruism.  Feelings of empathy, and sympathy, which Nancy Eisenberg defined as “feeling sorrow or concern for a distressed or needy other,” mean that a person cares about another.


Personal distress, which looks similar to empathy, is in contrast self-focused. It is being impacted and distressed by others’ distress. It is associated with helping if that is the only way for a person can reduce his or her own distress, but not if this person can escape from the presence of a distressed other. A term relatively recently introduced into scientific discourse and research is compassion, which Emma Seppala defined as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.”