Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy

Learn the differences between these two types of empathy

We generally think of empathy as the capacity to place ourselves in another person's shoes. However, research has found that it is possible to have several types of empathy, and cognitive empathy and emotional empathy are two primary empathy types.

Cognitive empathy involves knowing how other people think and feel, while emotional empathy involves feeling another person's emotions.

Although they are quite different, both cognitive empathy and emotional empathy are equally important for helping us form and maintain connections with others. Learn what each type of empathy is and how to find a balance between the two.

Skills strengthened by empathy

Verywell / Kelly Miller  

What Is Cognitive Empathy?

Cognitive empathy means that you can understand another person's perspective. It is also referred to as perspective-taking or putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

In essence, you can imagine what it might be like to be that person in their situation, giving you a better understanding of their experience.

An example of cognitive empathy is if a friend doesn't get a job they interviewed for. We can see that they are hurting and disappointed, and we can also understand why they would feel this way after not being offered the job.

When practicing cognitive empathy, we imagine what it might be like to be that person at that moment. This is different than looking at the situation from our perspective, such as by recognizing that the person is talented and will likely find a great job soon.

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What Is Emotional Empathy?

Emotional empathy is when you can feel another person's emotions. If you're sitting close to a loved one and they start to cry, for example, you might begin to feel sad too. This is emotional empathy. What they are experiencing emotionally has an impact on your emotional state.

When we experience emotional empathy, we are moving from the cognitive perspective into a shared emotional experience.

Social psychology researchers describe emotional empathy in three parts:

  • Feeling the same emotion as the other person
  • Feeling our own distress in response to their pain
  • Feeling compassion toward the other person

Research indicates that there is a positive correlation between emotional empathy and a willingness to help others. In other words, it is more likely that someone with emotional empathy will be moved to help a person in need.

Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy

The two different kinds of empathy—cognitive empathy and emotional empathy—reveal the ways we are able to relate to a friend or family member in crisis. But there are distinct differences between these two types of empathy.

Cognitive Empathy
  • Taking another person's perspective

  • Imagining what it's like in another person's shoes

  • Understanding someone's feelings

Emotional Empathy
  • Sharing an emotional experience

  • Feeling distress in response to someone's pain

  • Experiencing a willingness to help someone

The ability to have a shared emotional experience with another person is missing when there is too much cognitive empathy and not enough emotional empathy. The following is a simple example of what this might look like.

Imagine if someone were to say, "My grandmother just died and we were really close," and then they start to cry. Here is how a person might respond using the two different types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy response: "I'm sorry. I know you are sad and that what you are going through is hard."
  • Emotional empathy response: "I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother. I know you miss her. I'm here for you." (This response may be accompanied by becoming tearful or expressing sadness.)

Within this very simplistic illustration, we can get a sense of what it might feel like for the other person if we stop at cognitive empathy and don't bring emotional empathy into the interaction.

The person receives the condolences for their grandmother passing away and knows you are trying to provide comfort, but there is no opportunity for a shared emotional experience. A shared emotional experience can feel quite comforting and healing to someone in need.

What Is Compassionate Empathy?

Compassionate empathy refers to having sympathy or compassion for another person and their circumstances. Some consider this one of the main types of empathy that a person can experience, along with cognitive and emotional empathy.

3 Types of Empathy

While some research lists cognitive empathy and emotional empathy as two main empathy types, others suggest that there are three types of empathy, of which compassionate empathy is one.

When you have compassionate empathy, you not only understand a person's situation but also seek to improve it so they have a better life. You have an interest in their well-being and will take action so they receive what is morally and ethically fair.

Of the three types of empathy, compassionate empathy is typically the most desirable. The reason is that you're able to understand what the other person is going through, but you're not so emotional that you can't step in to help.

Compassionate empathy includes having cognitive empathy—being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes—although it is a bit more detached than emotional empathy. It often contributes to prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering to help a charitable organization.

Other Types of Empathy

In addition to cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy, a person may also experience:

  • Affective empathy: This type of empathy involves having the ability to understand and share in another person's emotions without being emotionally stimulated yourself.
  • Somatic empathy: This type involves having a physical reaction in response to what someone else is experiencing. For example, if someone feels embarrassed, you may also blush or have an uneasy stomach.

Why Empathy Matters

Empathy helps connect people, moving them toward each other in a helping and/or healing capacity. As acclaimed author and leadership expert Stephen Covey stated, "When you show deep empathy toward others, their defense energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."

As we live our lives at work and at home, we are continually interacting and balancing relationship dynamics. When we lack empathy, we are unable to develop and nurture those interpersonal connections. This leads to strained relationships, broken trust, loss of relationships, and isolation.

It becomes more difficult to repair conflicts, work collaboratively, or solve problems when we don't practice empathy.

Our society relies on empathy to facilitate connections and forward movement. When the empathy piece is missing, we become more disconnected and less effective in our productivity and innovation of new ideas.

Practicing empathy is important in a variety of relationship dynamics, such as those among:

  • Business partners
  • Colleagues
  • Community groups
  • Coworkers
  • Dating Relationships
  • Families
  • Friends
  • Marriages
  • Siblings

There can also be consequences if our ability to practice empathy is deficient or dysfunctional. For instance, research has connected deficient emotional empathy and dysfunctional cognitive empathy with narcissistic personality disorder. People with psychopathic personalities also often lack empathy.

Research suggests that narcissists possess the cognitive ability to use cognitive empathy. However, they may use it as a tool to get what they want from others without experiencing emotional empathy.

Is Empathy Genetic?

Research has found that the ability to practice empathy is influenced by genetics. In fact, it is consistently shown that women are more likely to pick up on emotional cues and more accurately discern emotions than men.

In a research study conducted with the genetic testing and analysis company 23andMe, there was a specific genetic variant identified as related to our capacity to empathize, near the gene LRRN1 on chromosome 3, "which is a highly active part of the brain called the striatum."

It is suggested that activity in this part of the brain is connected with our ability to feel empathy. Although there is more research to be done, these findings are helping scientists learn more about genetic influences on the development and ability to feel empathy.

Nature vs. Nurture

You may have heard the phrase "nature versus nurture." This phrase references a long-standing debate among researchers, arguing what they believe to have a greater influence on our behaviors, traits, and conditions.

Even though genetics have been found to influence our capacity for feeling empathy, there is much to say about our social learning experiences as well. Some researchers suggest that genetics are the primary influence, while others believe that our environment and social interactions can help us develop things like empathy.

Social Learning

Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, social learning theory combines elements of cognitive learning theory and behavioral learning theory. It is suggested that people can increase their capacity for empathy through modeling and experiencing empathy from others.

When a child has not had anyone give their emotional experiences any attention, time, or value, the child might continue to experience the world and relationships without this important skill. Things the child would have missed out on include:

  • Being able to observe someone practicing empathy to know what it looks like
  • Having someone empathize with them when they are in need
  • Having someone teach them the value of emotions
  • Learning how to build meaningful connections with people

Empathy helps close an emotional gap between people, creating a connection and a shared experience. When we don't know what a shared emotional experience feels like with someone, it can be difficult to know how to do this with others.

The inability to empathize can lead to trouble at work, in relationships, within families, and within society.

Balancing Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive and emotional empathy are wonderful partners and can be a fantastic pair when practiced with balance. The ability to take someone's perspective and understand what it might be like to be them, or the ability to meet someone where they are emotionally and have a shared emotional experience can be a game-changer for almost any relationship dynamic.

When people feel seen, heard, and understood using cognitive empathy and emotional empathy together, we can do great things. This empathetic balance helps allow for:

If your empathy is out of balance, due to either having too much or not enough, it can affect you in several different ways.

Too Much Empathy

As beneficial and valuable as empathy is, it is suggested that we can have too much, which is often referred to as being an empath. Research indicates that tipping the scale this way may be detrimental to your emotional well-being, health, and relationships.

During emotional empathy, our bodies respond to the other person and their emotional experience. If our emotional arousal becomes too great, it can get in the way of us being compassionate and empathizing.

Our ability to practice emotional empathy also becomes a threat to our well-being if it results in feelings of isolation, being misunderstood, and feeling inauthentic. Conversely, when there is a balanced practice of emotional empathy, we can share an emotional experience with another person without letting our own emotional responses get in the way.

Feeling emotionally dysregulated can become overwhelming and result in feeling burned out. Ultimately, this leaves you not wanting to practice empathy because it's too painful to be there for someone else.

Not Enough Empathy

Some people are better at practicing cognitive empathy. If you have only cognitive empathy, you may have a difficult time tapping into emotional empathy since these two types of empathy work from completely different processing systems.

When we lean too heavily on cognitive empathy and not enough on emotional empathy, our connections with people could feel strained. Although the other person may sense that you have an understanding of their situation, they might also feel a bit misunderstood, unseen, or unheard.

Practicing Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

Practicing both cognitive empathy and emotional empathy can be challenging. But both can be learned with intentional and consistent practice. The unique challenge with emotional empathy is that, when we practice it, we need to be vulnerable and in touch with our emotional responses.

Potential Barriers to Empathy

  • How you were raised
  • How people treated you when you had emotional needs
  • What people taught you about emotion
  • Messages you received about the value of emotions
  • Fear of becoming overwhelmed
  • Fear of getting stuck in emotions with another person

The ability to regulate our emotional distress is key but also something that can be difficult for people to do. Still, practicing a balance of cognitive empathy and emotional empathy can certainly help. Here are a few tips to assist with this.

Put Aside Your Viewpoints

We often don't realize how much our experiences and beliefs influence how we perceive people and situations. Slowing ourselves down a bit to put these viewpoints aside can help us grow cognitive empathy by improving our focus on the person in front of us and tuning in better to what is happening for them.

Use Your Imagination

As people share with you, try to imagine what it is like to be them. Use the images they are sharing, their emotions, or their circumstances, and try to place yourself in their position to see what it might feel like to be them at this moment in time.

Listen Intently

Many times, when listening to people, we're developing our response to what they are saying. Not only are we unable to hear them when we do this, but we often miss key pieces of information that can help us better understand what they are trying to convey. To correct this, turn down the volume on your own voice and turn up the volume on theirs.

Be Curious

To find a balance between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, it can be helpful to come from a place of curiosity. Asking the person questions about their experiences lets them know that you are actively listening and that you want to understand. This helps them feel seen and heard.

Try Not to Fix

When we are around someone who is experiencing challenging emotions, it can be easy for us to want to jump in and fix the situation. We don't like to see people hurting, so we want to make them laugh, cheer them up, and help them look on the bright side. Even though we are trying to be helpful, this can leave people feeling unseen and unheard.

Offer space for people to share while remembering that you are not responsible for "fixing" them.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you never learned how to empathize with others, or never had anyone empathize with you, there are many things we can do to practice empathy in our homes, workplaces, and communities. Empathy skills can be learned with a little practice, enabling you to be there for others during their challenging times.

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Additional Reading

By Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP
Jodi Clarke, LPC/MHSP is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice. She specializes in relationships, anxiety, trauma and grief.