Cognitive empathy is about being able to take someone's perspective:
1. Believing that they are another person like you (rather than an animal)
2. Understanding that they can have different mental states from you
3. Knowing that as an individual they have choices as you do
4. Accepting that they can be right even if they disagree with you
5. Recognizing that they are complex whole people who have evolved due to thousands of variables and have all the myriad and sometimes incongruous facets that you do
Affective-emotional empathy is about being able to stand in someone else's shoes and feel for them:
1. Understanding what they are feeling in a situation
2. Anticipating how they might feel in a variety of situations
3. Responding to how they feel in a way that exhibits this understanding
4. Feeling what they are feeling in a mirroring fashion
5. Caring about how they feel to the point where your own feelings and interests are set aside
This extreme end of empathy is love. We have capacities for empathy but we don't always apply empathy in the same way across all the people we know. We have more empathy for people who are like us, according to our own definition, than people who are not like us. We have more empathy for people we know than people we don't know. We have more empathy for people we're related to than to strangers. We're even typically more empathetic to family members that are closer to us in bloodline than family members that we share less DNA with.
So, how you develop empathy?
A short and completely non-comprehensive list of how to get better at this:
1. Failure - sheltered children often never have the opportunity to fail, and therefore are less able to understand how much of the human experience has to do with luck
2. Low social status and diminished power - people who are powerful tend to be less empathetic to those who are weaker. In psychology, this is called the 'paradox of power', which is that often people achieve status through empathy but then they become corrupted from that power.
3. Poverty - this is similar but more about the need to lean on others, and share resources and risk. Whether it's babysitting or borrowing money or sharing rides, people who are poor need friends more and are more likely to be empathetic.
4. Diversity of social relationships - diversity of perspectives among the people you are close to naturally broaden the circles of people you are empathetic towards. If you have a close black friend, you are more likely to be empathetic about the social dynamics that black people in the United States have to confront daily.
5. Living extensively in other cultures - living in a place as a resident, rather than being a tourist, gives you an immersive ethnographic experience of what it is like to live a different sort of life.
6. Compelling stories of people - great books and great movies can call from us an emotional imagination that mirrors how it would be to live those lives ourselves. That's why we cry in movies, why we find the best stories so engaging that we lose ourselves in them.
7. Recognition of death - death is one thing we all have in common. Everyone dies and it's a frightening thing. Recognizing this shared bond brings us all together.
8. Receiving honest feedback - this is why people who have siblings are often more stable human beings. Not only do they have the confidence of a broader love-based support system, they often have also had the benefit of having the emotional shit kicked out of them when they're younger. No one will ever be as mean to me as my siblings were when we were younger - and no one will ever be as honest to me as my siblings are now - but I'm a more resilient and better person for it.
9. Being loved - the unselfishness of love and the safe environment it creates, though perhaps initially strange to people who a low level of empathy, can call forth a natural reciprocity and positive biochemicals that expands the capacity for empathy. People can learn to love. That's how parents teach their children what love looks like.
10. Falling in love - there's a biochemical reaction that happens when you fall in love, experience limerence, that with the right situation, can create a virtuous cycle that ends with the individual being a better, more empathetic human being. Also, being in love is often extremely painful, which can engender learning, growth and eventually empathy.
11. Taking ecstasy - while this is controversial, MDMA has been shown to have a positive therapeutic effect in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a drug with a dramatic emotional effect, increasing feelings of connectedness, trust and caring, and like the experience of falling in love, may jump-start a virtuous cycle that can expand a person's capacity for empathy.
12. Having children - I've heard men express anxiety about having daughters, because they're afraid men will do to their daughters what they did to other men's daughters. Having children changes your perspective, some of which is biological and some of which is the experience of loving another person so completely that their needs are more important than your own.
13. Getting older - aging seems to mellow people out. Probably because you get more experiences as you age, built relationships with more and different people, experienced pain and failure and low social status, worried about resources at times, been loved and fallen in love, perhaps have had children and taken drugs, experienced many great stories both real and fictional, and have come closer to your own mortality.