Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Ed Hooks

Empathy for Actors and Animators
Ed Hooks and Edwin Rutsch

Ed Hooks has been an entertainment industry professional for more than three decades. He has appeared in more than 100 television programs and films and is one of the most respected acting teachers in the United States. Since 1996, Professor Hooks created acting training specifically for animators, and his system is used by leading animation schools internationally.


Performance animation is all about empathy,
and we discuss it extensively in every class I teach...
To be very clear: you, as an animator, should try to
 create an empathetic response for your character.


A projecting praxinoscope, Wikipedia


"Performance animation is all about empathy, and we discuss it extensively in every class I teach. The word "empathy" is the English translation of the German "Einfuhlung", which means "to project yourself into what you observe", and it did not appear in the English language until the 1920's.  The word "sympathy" has been in use far longer, and that is why the two are at times erroneously considered interchangeable. 

Even Charlie Chaplin, the person who literally brought empathy to comedy, never used the correct word.  He said "sympathy" and meant "empathy". To be very clear:  you, as an animator, should try to create an empathetic response for your character"

Sub Conference: Arts


Empathy for Actors and Animators: Ed Hooks and Edwin Rutsch


Empathy Matters
"Suddenly, books and on-line discussions about empathy are popping up like spring flowers. Since performance animation is all about establishing a sense of empathy with the audience, Ed Hooks weighs in.

"Empathy is receiving a lot of academic attention lately. There are 131 books on that have the word "empathy" in the title. My friend Craig Brookes recently directed me to Culture of Empathy, a website that is dedicated exclusively to discussions about empathy and compassion: The subject is being approached from every possible perspective - psychological, social, political, artistic and neurological. New York Times columnist David Brooks often writes about empathy, most recently in his September 30th column."

Ed Hooks: Sympathy vs Empathy -  March 19, 2010
"The following is from Ed Hook’s monthly newsletter, you can subscribe to it Here.
"The innate attribute Mr. Brooks is describing is empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for somebody, and it may or may not be accompanied by empathy. Empathy is when you identify with another person’s feeling, recognizing that same feeling in yourself. The word "empathy", which was coined in the 1920’s, literally means "feeling into"; "sympathy", which has been in use much longer, literally means "feeling for". Confusing the two is not a benign mistake for someone as influential as David Brooks



Are We There Yet? Making Empathy Matter. Acting for Animators

  • Empathy means feeling into

  • we mirror that

  • We have empathy

  • need empathy to live in groups and tribes

  • isolated people die early

  • empathizing with cartoon characters -

  • we only empathize with other humans - if the characters are off, then it is hard to empathize with them

  • empathy is how we deal with one another.

  • emotion tends to lead to action -

  • we empathize all the time but don't  think of it

  • it is our way of living. - it's just room tone

  • 21:40 - one of the keys to empathy is that a story is about a person. We want to see how a person is responding to an event.  We are story telling creatures.

  • once you understand how emotions and empathy works - people are all the same

  • we only empathize with emotion - get the characters that can think and express emotions

  • Q and A

  • Q. Can you empathize more in 1st person or 3rd person?

    • .

  • Q.  Designers, animators, etc all talking with each other.

  • Q. MPC's that convey empathy. need reasons for why they do what they do.

Ed and Edwin Email Discussion
Hey Edwin
In brief (VERY brief!), I include discussions about empathy in each of the acting classes I teach. You may recall that, since 1996, I have mainly been teaching acting theory to animators. My book, "Acting for Animators", is in its third revised edition now, for Routledge in London, and has been translated into several languages. I teach internationally. Next Thursday, in fact, I am going to Bangalore, India to teach for Technicolor (yes, THAT Technicolor!). Later in the year, I will be teaching in West Java, Indonesia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and here in the U.S., for Sony.

Most of your interviewees equate empathy with action. An empathetic person is generally a caring, helpful and considerate person, which is why we need more empathetic people in the world. My perspective is that empathy is a neutral thing. As you know, neuroscience has learned a lot about mirror neurons. Some people are not capable of empathy because they have s dysfunction in their mirror neuron system. Most people, of course, do empathize, and empathy is essential for human survival.

I teach that we automatically empathize all the time. We empathize only with emotion, and emotion is defined as "an automatic value response". All humans are exactly the same in that we are born and die the same way, and we all act to survive. We all have the same basic set of core emotions. The difference is in our values. What makes you sad may not make me sad, and what makes you afraid may make me angry. It comes down to values, and the values are expressed as emotion, and we empathize with emotion.

In my view, what we need more than a more intense ability to empathize is the recognition that we are all the same, that one group of people is not superior to another group. I teach that politicians can tell us how we are different from one another, but it is up to the artist to tell us how we are the same.

I think you are doing good work. I just do not agree that empathy per se equates to benevolent behavior. The deficit, IMO, is in education and choice of action, not in sharpening the sensitivity of mirror neurons.

All best, my friend.

Ed Hooks

I don't know what happened with the interview either.. I've love to record an empathic dialogs about your views on empathy together. Let me know if your up for that and what times work. Here are some I've done on the arts.

Also I'm working now to create a reality tv show like 'supernanny' but on empathic family life and parenting. Would love to get your feedback on that.

I'd say empathy is a healing agent and is not neutral. It helps create synchronization and understanding which released oxytocin, which feels very good and counteracts stress and Cortisol. It's anti inflammatory as well.
Has huge positive benefits of its own. See this video and paper for some of that.

Looks like we would have some interesting things to talk about.


You are sort of the Mister Rogers of empathy, Edwin.   I watched your interview with Diane Castle, and you continually reminded me of the great man.  I always have thought that Fred Rogers and Jim Henson should have posthumously  been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize because the two of them wielded so much influence over three generations of humans - internationally!

The big challenge when talking about empathy is to remain specific.  The conversation you had with Ms. Castle was fine until she started going on about "holding the mirror neurons up to nature" and how empathizing with others causes her to empathize with herself.  That kind of talk is not helpful if a person actually wants to understand how empathy functions and what the evolutionary purpose of it is.  You do not, for example, empathize with yourself.  A basic requirement of empathy is distance.  This is why video game designers are always searching for new ways to create connection between the player and his avatar.  You can't empathize with your own avatar to the degree that you can control it.

I also do hear you when you say that empathy causes connections between people which in turn release endorphins and such.  That is true of course.  But the fact is that humans are NOT connected.  We are all individual members of a big group, and we have some things in common.  But we each have our own individual survival strategies in life, based upon our own individual values that are a factor of culture, biology, education, family, random experience, and on and on and on.  In order to get the next generation into being, we must live in groups, and that is not easy because we are each different from one another.  Empathy is how we navigate the social oceans.  It is how you know when your partner is ready to mate.

My point is that empathy does not dictate any particular action.  You can empathize with a woman you see weeping on a park bench and not do a damned thing about it.  The empathetic connection can release a lot of chemicals in your body, and you can still continue on over to Starbucks rather than reach out to the woman.  All the feel-good chemicals in the world will not make you walk over to her unless you see a reason to do it.  That is what I mean when I say the challenge is not in intensifying our ability to empathize -- it is is educating ourselves about our obligations to one another as members of an extended family.

The subject is so big and so open to bullshit, that is the problem as I see it.  In my class, I have developed my own personal ways of explaining empathy in something like shorthand form.  Acting students need to understand it, as Ms. Castle said, but you can't spend all day talking about it.  You will probably be amused at my description of an infant's developing emotions - and the empathy periscope that sticks up out of the middle of the kid's head. 

Do you want to try a Skype conversation this coming week?  I can do it.  I leave the country on Thursday, but I am available Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.


Yes, you are reading me correctly regarding the empathetic listening process. I think it is fine in principle, I just resist the notion of strict rules regarding communication. It is not natural to me to summarize aloud what the other person is saying and then double-checking with him or her to make sure I got it right before I proceed with whatever I have to say.

We really do have a lot we can talk about. You know, actors in training spend a lot of time practicing listening. It is a big deal in acting training, actually. Film acting technique depends on the skill because, in editing, they tend to cut to the actor that is listening, not the one that is talking. On stage, the audience watches the talker. In film, the listener.

An insight I had a few years ago, which has been useful to character animators, is that we humans do not actually take turns listening to one another. We take turns telling each other stories. There are many books and studies on the subject, about how we are storytelling animals. New actors often make the mistake of trying to "act" like they are listening, and that is of course not actable. The trick to understanding how listening looks is to realize that the listener is actively framing his or her own story to tell when the opportunity arises.

Normal humans don't think about theses things,
 Ed <g>

While you say that the empathic listening has strict rules, I'd say that all of social dialog has strict rules. It is just that we have internalized them and are not aware of them.

With the empathic listening approach, another way to look at it is that we want the speaker to feel they have been heard to their satisfaction before the next person speaks. From my experience, this can happen by directly reflecting everything the person said, it can be summarizing or paraphrasing what they have said. It could be from responding with such a deep response that the person senses that they have been fully heard. It could be a grunt for that matter and the speaker feels they have been heard to their satisfaction.

 In much of our conversations, people do not feel like they have been heard. They do not feel the full presence and connection of the other person listening to them.

(quote from covey)

We want the speaker to feel they have been fully heard. In our culture there is often a competition to be heard, we cut each other off, someone dominates the conversation, the louder more aggressive or extroverted person suppress the quieter people. The narcissist goes on and on about themselves. etc

What you are describing with the listening is a narcissistic culture. 


This fellow is a state senator in one of the southern states. I had not heard of him prior to this video, but I surely have seen his type many times. The relevance to empathy is that Sen. Bright is outraged. He is very angry, and I am certain of that because I empathize with him. I do not agree with any of the values he enunciates during this rant, but I do empathize with his emotion.

 My empathy does not automatically cause me to take any action. The action I took, after empathizing with him, is to send a link to YOU! There is nothing I can do about Sen. Bright, but I can show you -- a person I know for certain can also empathize -- something more about my personal values. By showing this to you, I am taking a tiny action to make the world a better place. And I would not have taken this action had it not been for empathy in the first place.

…anyway…this fellow is an entertainment.

I've thought we need to hold some empathy circles with evangelicals and LGBT community. see Maybe have like 12 evangelicals and 12 LGBT come together in an empathy café and have them talk with each other using empathic listening process.

I'd also like to mediate an empathy circle with god and Satan.. empathize with each of them and them bring them into an empathy circle so that they could finally work out their differences. I've seriously thought of doing that with some actors acting out the parts.

I grew up in a evangelical conservative family like that. so know the dynamics.. empathy does work..


We can have another conversation at some point, about cultural transitions.
 I was born and raised in the Jim Crow south, Georgia. Four bathrooms and two water fountains everywhere, and no empathy at all. I was not raised to hate black people, only to ignore them -- which is even worse. "Don't bother with them," the adults told me, "They're happy like they are." Kids do not know any better than what they are taught, and it took me some years into my adulthood to come to grips with the damage done to me. It is probably one of the many motivating factors that influence me in my work, trying to bring people together.


I've been thinking about how empathy releases endorphins, and I'm trying to connect that factoid with my feeling empathy for that racist politician who is ranting in the video I sent you. It doesn't feel good to empathize with him. I only identify with his anger, not his values. To the extent I might feel a warm glow of endorphin rush, that would suggest that he and I have more in common than the fact that we are both humans.

Also, in terms of an empathy circle and empathic conversation, what do you do with somebody like him? If invited to sit in a circle with gays or blacks, my hunch is that he would refuse. And he is the kind of person who most needs to expand his references.

This is what I mean when I say that, for me, empathy is "neutral". It is the mechanism with which I recognize the politician's anger, but that is as far as it goes. Empathy itself does not cause me to want to embrace the man or even to talk with him at all. Indeed, empathy causes me to feel on guard, to protect myself. I perceive -- via empathy -- danger when I watch and listen to that guy.

The only positive aspect of it I can see is that my empathizing with him motivated me to communicate further with you.

It's interesting stuff, as always, and it is relevant to the point I am making when I differentiate between "empathy" and "action".

Your TV show idea is a good one. Just about the only way I can see that you could combine the show with people like that politician in the video is through an "intervention" like people do with drug and alcohol addicts. The politician is not going to be the least bit interested in empathizing with gays that want to get married. His value system is set up so that he despises them. It would be lovely to get someone like him sitting across the table from a newlywed gay couple, and I imagine it would not be all that difficult to find a willing couple. But the bigot? Bigots are, by definition, isolated with their beliefs.

Interestingly, bigots -- just like the rest of us -- empathize. That politician, if watching the gay wedding from the sidelines, would recognize, via empathy, that everybody is happy. But that experience would not motivate him to go over and give the happy couple an empathetic hug.

This is what I mean when I contend that the issue is more one of education than it is of sensitizing our capacity for empathy. That politician can already empathize perfectly well. That isn't his issue. The problem is that he hates gays. If he could be convinced to call enough of a time-out to sit and learn more about the values of a gay couple, then we might get some where. But empathy is not going to lead to him calling that time-out. When he empathizes with the gay couple's happiness, it only causes him more revulsion.

Yeah, put that topic on the list. <g>

My family is similar to the politician.
If you listen to his talk he does not say he despises gays. I think he would be willing to talk.

With the tv show, we can model empathic behavior so people can viscerally see and feel it. It will activate the empathy circuits in their brain. And we need to do it over and over again so that we strengthen the empathy circuits of the brain.

If 'bigots' are isolated with their beliefs, we need to empathize with them and their beliefs (not support them) but listen and engage in an empathic dialog and that draws them out of their isolation. When we just judge and demean them, it creates a cycle of isolation and makes the situation worse.

I see the power of empathy as an integrative process. We can integrate a little. Or we can go deeper and deeper.


I agree with you, of course. As an actor, if I was cast to play that political bigot, I would not see myself as a bigot. I would see myself as a disciple for Christ's good word. The problem is that most people in the world do not approach bigotry in the same way as would an actor who would portray the person. There is this idealogical firewall separating "us" from "them".

Yes, the "us" versus "them" is a block to empathy. The only way to overcome it is to empathize. Many people get angry with the bigot for not empathizing with people, so they decide not to empathize with the bigot. So it creates a negative spiral. We need people who are well grounded in empathy to go and listen and empathize with the so called bigot. That has the greatest chance of changing the situation and creating more empathy.

I suppose I do not see as neat a recipe for empathetic healing as you do. I recognize the goal and 100 percent agree. The part where I come up short is in the application. You don't want to go around preaching to the choir, right? People who are generally open to the concept of "feeling into" even those with whom they disagree are already intent on healing.

They don't need convincing. The ones you need to get to are the ones like the politician in the video, and if you and I go knock on his office door offering an empathetic hug, he will shut the door in our faces. We can sit in the hallway and hug each other, hoping that he will get the idea as he goes into and out of his office each day, but that impresses me as a long shot.

True empathy advocates would reach out to all parties. Contrary to my initial thoughts, I do have my doubts if progressives really are empathy advocates. I’m seeing we need a new empathy party that is build for empathy from the ground up. That would empathize with conservatives and progressives and facilitate dialog between them.

I went to the tea party rallies and republican convention and talked with them about empathy. see
Introduction: Republicans talk about Importance of Empathy

Circle 1: Democrats and Republicans

Tea Party-Tax Day, April 15th, 2010 in Union Square, San Francisco,

We are on precisely the same page, you and me. We both want to live in a world of mutual understanding and tolerance. Fighting wars doesn't seem to be an answer to peace. Communication is where it must start. But how to communicate with those that are bent on fighting wars?

"By peace we mean the capacity to transform conflicts with empathy, without violence, and creatively — a never-ending process" Johan Galtung


I realize that I can sound dismissive and judgmental, but having an opinion does not diminish my capacity for empathy. Like I said earlier, I empathize plenty with the man in the video. I know what that kind of anger feels like. The difference between him and me is not that one of us empathizes and the other one doesn't. We both empathize.

But empathy alone will not lead that fellow to make an effort to "feel into" the love two gay men may feel for one another. If it is a goad to connect with individuals like him, what is the solution?

Empathy and Empathic dialog are the starting point.

A reality tv show can help model it. Supernanny show has 4 to 5 million viewers per episode.

"When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good. . . . When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. "
Carl Rogers - Experiences in Communication



Ep. 3: Acting for Animators 1/2
"Ed Hooks is THE acting teacher for us animators. His master class is an enlightment and a lot of fun. If you want to know how to make your characters act more believable and about tools like power centers, theatrical reality, empathy, reason for action - search no more... watch this interview, buy his book and/or attend his master class!"


Ed Hooks - WAM promo