What is Empathy, and why is it important?

Empathy” is a word that props up quite frequently in IEET articles and comment threads, but it is also one of those words that people use quite a lot without necessarily having a very clear idea of what it means.


In summary: empathy is the ability to correctly perceive and to some extent mirror the feelings of others. Nature has selected a limited and selective capacity for empathy in individuals, and this limited and selective capacity is essential to allow us to steer ourselves effectively through life. At the societal level an overall increase in empathy seems likely to be beneficial, but still it is important to understand that too much or misplaced empathy can be a bad thing. Finally, given the extent (as shown in the Stanford prison experiment) to which our personality and behaviour are context-depend it is essential for mindfulness techniques to be taught at the earliest possible age as a means to promote consistent, values-based behaviour. Ultimately, this is probably more important than empathy per se.