Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Join the International Conference on: How Might We Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?

Empathic Design
Empathy Circles

  Restorative Empathy Circles
Empathy Tent

Expert Interviews
Obama on Empathy


    Empathy Tests


Culture of Empathy Builder:  Stephanie D. Preston


Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy


 Dr. Stephanie Preston is the head of the ENL and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. "Research in my Ecological Neuroscience Laboratory uses an interdisciplinary approach to study the interface between emotion and decision making. There are currently two main lines of research:

1) How do people process the emotions of others and how does this affect the type and amount of help they offer?

2) How do people make decisions about allocating resources like food, money, and material goods?"




 'In Your Right Mind' Explores How Empathy Can Impact Decision Making in a New Broadcast on 790 AM KABC
"How important is empathy? Experts explain the neural correlates of empathy, why it’s necessary in everyday life and how emotional intelligence differs from Intelligence Quotient (IQ)."



The Many Faces of Empathy: Parsing Empathic Phenomena Through a Proximate, Dynamic-Systems
View of Representing the Other in the Self
Stephanie D. Preston and Alicia J. Hofelich
"A surfeit of research confirms that people activate personal, affective, and conceptual representations when perceiving the states of others. However, researchers continue to debate the role of self–other overlap in empathy due to a failure to dissociate neural overlap, subjective resonance, and personal distress. A perception–action view posits that neural-level overlap is necessary during early processing for all social understanding, but need not be conscious or aversive. This neural overlap can subsequently produce a variety of states depending on the context and degree of common experience and emotionality. We outline a framework for understanding the interrelationship between neural and subjective overlap, andamong empathic states, through a dynamic-systems view of how information is processed in the brain and body."

"Figure 1. The perception–action model of empathy proposes that empathy and related phenomena are one category of processes that rely on perception–action mechanisms and exhibit self–other overlap at the neural level. Motor actions, including automatic imitation, also rely on  this system (see Preston & de Waal, 2002b)."


Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases
"Preston, Stephanie D. and de Waal, Frans B. M. (2000) Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases.

The empathy literature is characterized by debate regarding the nature of the phenomenon. We propose a unified theory of empathy, divided into ultimate and proximate levels, grounded in the emotional link between individuals. On an ultimate level, emotional linkage supports group alarm, vicariousness of emotions, mother-infant responsiveness, and the modeling of competitors and predators; these exist across species and greatly effect reproductive success. Proximately, emotional linkage arises from a direct mapping of another's behavioral state onto a subject's behavioral representations, which activate responses in the subject. This ultimate and proximate account parsimoniously explains different phylogenetic and ontogenetic levels of empathy."


Term Definition Self-other distinction? State matching? Implications for helping? Synonyms
Emotional contagion Similar emotion is aroused in the subject as a direct result of perceiving the emotion of the object. Lacking Yes None Personal distress,
 Vicarious emotion, emotional transfer
Sympathy Subject feels "sorry for" the object as a result of perceiving the distress of the object. Intact No Depends on the costs and benefits of the situation.  
Empathy Subject has a similar emotional state to an object as a result of the accurate perception of the object's situation or predicament. Intact Yes Increasing with familiarity/similarity of object and salience of display.  
Cognitive empathy Subject has represented the state of the object as a result of the accurate perception of the object's situation or predicament, without necessary state matching beyond the level of representation. Intact Partial, because it can be arrived at in a "top-down" fashion, involving emotional circuits to a lesser extent. Likely, because it is more likely to be invoked for familiar/similar objects. True empathy,
Prosocial behaviors Actions taken to reduce the distress of an object. Depends Not necessarily Inherent Helping, succorance

TABLE 1: Usage of terminology by most current researchers divided into main variables of classification.

Figure 1: In order to unify the various perspectives, empathy needs to be
 construed broadly to include all processes that rely on the emotional linkage between individuals.