It’s all very confusing – or is it?

I was excited to see that my favourite Saturday columnist, Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, was this week writing about empathy. Then I was disappointed because he seems to be saying that compassion is more important than empathy. In the Empathy Manual I argue that the most important thing we need is empathic understanding of other people, an outcome of multiple instances of doing empathy that can inform how we respond to the Other, including with compassion.

Then I followed up the sources that Burkeman includes in his article, chief of which is a Forum in the Boston Review called ‘Against Empathy‘. This comprises an article by Paul Bloom and a set of responses. It began to make more sense. There is confusion around definitions of empathy and compassion, and the problem I encountered that people use the word ’empathy’ to mean a whole collection of different phenomena. I have set these out here in a working paper.

If you’re deeply interested in the topic, I recommend the Boston Review article but it’s important to read the various responses to get a fuller picture. I especially valued the response from Simon Baron-Cohen.

Now that everyone is talking about empathy, we need to be more precise about terminology, or confusion follows. My attempt to cut through the confusion separates three layers of empathy: Automatic empathy – Controlled empathy – Empathic understanding.

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