Empathy is the word of the moment. Everywhere, we hear talk about how to promote it, why we lack it, the ways it’s helpful in our personal and professional relationships. It’s considered crucial to a civilized and humane society. But there’s a problem: Even though people believe empathy is important and refer to it constantly, “empathy” is a word with many meanings—so many that some researchers wonder if we should continue using it.

Of course, the definition of any complicated concept—such as “justice,” “health,” or “intelligence”—is a matter of consensus because the concept is abstract. The task of defining a concept becomes even harder when researchers have divergent points of view about the thing being defined. This is the case with empathy, and because of the many ways of thinking about and measuring empathy, the research field faces a problem.

Although this issue has been discussed for decades, empathy has gotten more, not less, confusing over time. To help sort things out, we documented in detail how researchers have defined and measured the concept of empathy between 2001 and 2017 by analyzing over 400 research articles on empathy.

The variation in definitions was dizzying. For some authors, empathy had just one defining element, sometimes it had two, and sometimes it had five or six different elements. Some authors did not define empathy at all, perhaps assuming everyone knows what it is. Almost half the time, the way authors defined it didn’t correspond fully with the way they measured it in their research. Most of the self-report questionnaires given to people for measuring their empathy don’t even include the word “empathy” in the items; it is the researcher who added that label when the scores are tallied. And, different self-report questionnaires measure different aspects of so-called empathy. To add to the confusion, when authors refer to other researchers’ work, they often simply use the vague word “empathy” rather than explaining how it was defined and measured in a particular study.

What are the many ways researchers define empathy? Sometimes empathy is regarded as a trait of a person, meaning that some people have more or less of it as part of their personality. Sometimes, researchers are interested not in individual people’s characteristics but rather in their behaviors, particularly how they treat other people. A therapist might reflect back a client’s feelings with “I hear you saying you are feeling overwhelmed right now,” or someone might hug a distressed friend, and such behaviors might be considered demonstrations of empathy. Sometimes empathy is viewed as having certain emotional reactions, such as getting sad when someone else is sad. Sometimes it is the skill of being able to read other people’s emotions from their face, voice, or body language. Sometimes it’s taking another’s perspective by trying to imagine why they feel and act as they do. Sometimes empathy is a very broad notion that seems to be not too different from being a very nice, considerate person, while sometimes it is defined very narrowly, for example as the activation of certain brain areas when seeing someone being poked by a needle.

As you can see, empathy has been given many meanings. However, calling so many different ways of feeling and thinking and acting by the same term is a problem.  Not only do we not know how to measure “it,” but we also can’t be sure we are even referring to the same thing.

We are not trashing empathy research. Far from it! This huge body of studies of empathy—however it is defined—has unearthed countless important findings for interpersonal relationships, family life, psychotherapy, and medicine as well as for science itself. In an increasingly disconnected world where people are wondering how to care for themselves and their communities more effectively, empathy is often turned to as a means to reclaiming our values and our safety.

The lesson is simply that we should not take the word “empathy” at face value, either when reading about it or using it in conversation. Always stop and dig deeper, to find out what is actually meant. Maybe the word empathy isn’t always the most helpful one for describing what you have in mind. By being more precise—and recognizing that a wide range of feelings and behaviors and skills can be called empathy—we can do a better job of understanding how to engage and care for each other.

For Further Reading:

Hall, J. A., & Schwartz, R. (2019). Empathy present and future. Journal of Social Psychology, 159, 225-243.

Judith Hall is University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. She works at the social-personality boundary studying nonverbal communication, interpersonal accuracy, and the empathy concept.

Rachel Schwartz is a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research in Palo Alto, CA. Her work focuses on systems-level interventions for provider wellness and medical education initiatives that provide physicians with tools for navigating psychosocial aspects of the clinical encounter.