by Brian Tomasik
First written: 31 Oct. 2016; last update: 23 Oct. 2017


This piece discusses a general distinction between empathizing by mentally simulating oneself in a similar situation ("first-person empathy") vs. empathizing by noticing abstract features of an organism's behavior and cognitive processes ("third-person empathy").

First-person empathy

My 9th-grade English class was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird as our first shared book. My English teacher drew special attention to the following quote by Atticus: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it".

I call what this quote describes "first-person empathy", because we evoke empathy by putting ourselves in the place of another person in the sense of simulating their experiences as if they were our own. Caring for others in this way is fairly intuitive once we do this imaginative process.

Often, first-person empathy works pretty well, because humans have similar enough brains that we can evoke the same kinds of responses in ourselves as other people experience in a given situation. For example, we can imagine how other people would feel bad if we belittled them, by imagining that someone was belittling us.

Sometimes first-person empathy goes awry. For example, we might commit the typical mind fallacy and thereby misunderstand how others will feel in a given situation. The pathetic fallacy is an even more extreme version of this, in which we misattribute complex cognition to computational systems much simpler than our own brains. Trying to imagine "what it's like to be a rock", say, is basically impossible from a first-person perspective, because our brains contain so much extra cognitive machinery that any thoughts we have inside our own heads will require large amounts of cognitive processing that aren't present in the rock.

Third-person empathy

Third-person empathy involves recognizing that others may be built differently from you but that they still matter because of shared general features. For example, even though my brain is too complex to legitimately imagine what it's like to be a beetle, due to smuggling in lots of extra cognitive machinery, I can see that a beetle shows simpler versions of behaviors (aversion, learning, reward-seeking, etc.) that I care about in myself. Hence, I can abstractly realize that a beetle's suffering matters, even if I can't non-anthropomorphically imagine being a beetle.

Third-person empathy can even help between humans. I suspect that some of the social-justice wars that are common on the Internet these days result from insufficient application of third-person empathy. For example, as a male, I don't have an intuitive understanding of why sexually suggestive comments feel bad (or at least feel worse than ordinary dumb comments). If I imagine someone (even a gay male) making non-threatening sexual comments to me, I would probably feel either flattered or indifferent. Probably many men feel this way, so their first-person empathy fails when evaluating the way in which many women (and some other men) would feel in this context. Instead, what's required is third-person empathy: "Even though I can't mentally simulate why this makes you feel bad, I know rationally that it does, based on behavioral data, like verbal reports." I feel as though many social-justice advocates focus too much on first-person arguments when discussing sexism, racism, etc., without realizing that these arguments sometimes require third-person reasoning in order to move skeptics.

Third-person empathy feels less visceral to me, which can make it weaker than first-person empathy.

Emotional vs. cognitive empathy

After writing this piece, I read the following from Bloom (2014):

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.

This seems pretty similar to the distinction I made between first-person and third-person empathy, so presumably I should use this more standard terminology going forward.