Why Cognitive Empathy Matters and How it Works in Tandem with Reason

Cognitive Empathy

“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

[Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird]

The term empathy refers to sensitivity and understanding of the mental states of others. We can put ourselves in other people's shoes, see things from their point of view.

Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman calls out four attributes or four qualities to empathy — 1./ To be able to see the world as others see it; 2./To be nonjudgmental; 3./ To understand another person’s feelings; 4./ To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings.

But the term empathy has been used to refer to two distinct, yet related human abilities — mental perspective taking and the vicarious sharing of emotion. Scientists call the first cognitive empathy and the second emotional empathy.

The evolution of cognitive empathy may be due to its ability to enhance social functioning so we can respond to the demands of a complex social environment. It enables us to understand and predict the behavior of others, and helps facilitate conversation and social expertise.

Emotional empathy motivates us to behave altruistically towards others. Scientists have also found that this kind of empathy may be determinant in moral development, and that it appears to provide the fundamental basis for parent-child bonding and group cohesion.

Empathy is the better half to our self-interested nature. Over the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that 98% of us have empathy wired into our brains. We are wired for social connection, empathy is at the core of who we are. It is high among the skills we need to thrive in the 21st Century.

Making better habits through curiosity

As with many other areas in our lives where we wish to improve our lot, we can do better by making it a habit. There are three simple things we can do to exercise our emphatic nature.

We can involve our emphatic tendency through listening. When we hold back from talking and we let the other person tell us what is on their mind without interruptions, we practice “radical listening.” This form of listening is important to resolving conflict situations, for example.

Thinking about the person behind things is also a good prompt. For example, a few years ago, NPR took a look at the life cycle of a T-shirt —from the people who cultivate the cotton, to those who transport it, and the people who make it. And we can extend our awareness to include us potentially owning the item, and who we pass it on to, if we do.

Talking and connecting with strangers can help us challenge our assumptions. This is something that happens regularly in Italy and other parts of Europe, for example. We often take cues from our environment and situation to assess and catalogue people quickly—without a second thought.

We could be totally off base and never know about it. Famous violinist Josh Bell put that principle to the test a few years ago. He stood near a trash can in the Metro Station in Washington D.C. and played to the morning subway riders. One woman toward the end stopped and talked with him because she had seen Bell play at the Library of Congress and knew who he was#. Everyone else just rushed by.

  1. “radical listening”
  2. thinking about the human behind things
  3. talking with strangers

We can use curiosity to break bad habits and move to more productive ones. Children are naturally more inquisitive and engaged with reality because they are learning all the time. 

Without empathy we are conversationally tone deaf.

How cognitive empathy works in tandem with reason

Cognitive empathy, or our conscious ability to understand someone else’s perspective is a uniquely powerful —if often overlooked— tool for transforming and improving societies.

In Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It British writer Roman Krznaric provides historical examples of the role of empathy in making society better. In talking about the British evacuation during WWII he says:

From 1939 to 1944, between one and two million children were evacuated from major cities and towns to more rural areas to escape the German bombs. As every schoolchild learns, rather than being placed in camps, they were mostly accommodated in private homes, many staying with their foster families for several years.


for the first time, relatively well-off rural householders were exposed to the realities of urban poverty.

Suddenly hundreds of thousands of homes in small towns and villages were filled with scrawny children from the slums of London, Liverpool and other urban centers, who were often malnourished, suffering from rickets and lice, and lacking shoes or decent underwear.


Evacuation produced an unprecedented explosion of mass emphatic understanding, by enabling rural people to step into the lives of the urban poor.


The response was a remarkable wave of public action. Letters were written to the Times, organizations such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes lobbied for new child health policy, and members of parliament called for reform. Even more extraordinary was that the government responded almost immediately with a far-reaching expansion of child welfare provisions, which was all the more striking for taking place in a period of wartime austerity and resource constraint.

The standard of school meals was raised and cheap milk and vitamins were made available for children and expectant mothers. Throughout the early 1940s new legislation was introduced to ensure improved public health, nutrition and education for children, reversing decades of inadequate social care rooted in the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century. Most of these policy changes were made permanent after the end of the war.

Empathy is an extraordinary tool for social change as well as to improve our lives. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker says that an “expansion of empathy,” along with self-control, our moral sense, and reason, is responsible for the decline in violence we have experienced over long stretches of history.

The counter-empathy intellectual current says reason is a better tool. But we have ample daily examples of how attention-getting emotional tools like persuasion and its close companion on the spectrum, manipulation can be and are. But they leverage the emotional kind of empathy, and not the cognitive kind.

Plus, as Jamil Zaki, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University says, we are converging two narratives of empathy — that it is automatic, and that it “diminishes and expands with features of your situation.”

“How can we square these two accounts?” We can do it by abandoning some of the underlying assumptions. Zaki says:

Lately, I've begun thinking about empathy not as something that happens to us, but rather as a choice that we make, even if we're not aware we're making it. We often make an implicit or explicit decision as to whether we want to engage with someone's emotions or not, based on the motives we might have for doing so.

“Empathy is expensive,” says Zaki. It's not just the economic cost, but the moral implications of where our responsibilities are. But not difficult to learn, if we so choose.

Krznaric says we can boost our empathy and use it to improve our relationships, enhance our creativity, and rethink our priorities in life. We can also learn to employ it in tackling social problems from everyday prejudice to violent conflicts.

In Empathy he identifies numerous tools to deploy to increase empathy bringing babies to classrooms; joining a choir; considering the full potential life cycle of the clothes we wear; talking with strangers; and immersing ourselves in the role of somebody else for some time, as George Orwell did in Down and Out in Paris and London:

“It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary 'working' men. They are a race apartoutcasts, like criminals and prostitutes.

Working men 'work', beggars do not 'work'; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not 'earn' his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic 'earns' his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no ESSENTIAL difference between a beggar's livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of coursebut, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.

And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase toutin short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite.

He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living.

In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'?

Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately.

A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”

Roland Barthes says, “Literature is the question minus the answer,” and it can expand our horizons, help us ask better questions. For example, “what's on your mind?” is a better question because it's open-ended and invites choosing what and how much to say.

Reading books, looking at photographs and watching films can also help build empathy because it opens the door to other people's experiences. Seeing empathy and emotion as children see it is eye opening. We can relearn the value of empathy and its role in helping us understand ourselves and, through connection, others, who may become less “other” and more “us.”


There is such a thing as an Empathy Library, where we can check out recommended books and films, and add our own recommendations. On the top ten book list, in addition to George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, are Marshall B. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Wyon Stansfeld's novel Toggle.

On the film's side, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by director Julian Schnabel is a beautiful story. From the book by Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body; only his left eye isn't paralyzed.