The empathy bell curve

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Author: Simon Baron-Cohen
Date: Spring 2011
From: Phi Kappa Phi Forum(Vol. 91, Issue 1)
Publisher: Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,104 words

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We all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum (from high to low). That is, we can all be lined up along this spectrum based on how much empathy we have.


To explore this, we first need a definition of empathy. Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention. Sometimes attention is compared to a spotlight, so this definition of empathy suggests our attention can be a single spotlight (shining through the darkness on our own interests) or can be accompanied by a second spotlight (shining on someone else's interests). Single-minded attention means we are only thinking about our own mind, and double-minded attention means we are paying attention to someone else's mind at the same time. So far my definition ignores the process and the content of what happens during empathy. So we can extend the definition as follows: Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to that person s thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.

This suggests there are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter, you haven't empathized at all. When that second spotlight works, and you are able to recognize and respond, you can sensitively avoid hurting another's feelings and consider how everything you say or do impacts that person or others. But if your attention has a single focus--your current interest, goal, wish, or plan--with no reference to another person's thoughts and feelings, then your empathy is effectively switched off. It might be switched off because your attention is elsewhere, a transient fluctuation in your state. A temporary fluctuation in one's empathy is potentially rescuable. An enduring lack of empathy, as a trait, potentially is not. My contention is that however you get to this low point on the empathy scale, the result can be the same.

This definition of empathy so far presumes it is either present or absent (off or on), like a light bulb in the head. In reality, empathy is more like a dimmer control. On this quantitative view, empathy varies in the population along the familiar bell shaped curve or normal distribution, shown below:

Measuring empathy

As part of our research into the nature of empathy, my colleagues and I developed a scale with which to measure empathy across the age range, called the Empathy Quotient (EQ). It works well in that it distinguishes people who have an empathy difficulty from those who do not. (1) It reveals, for example, that humanities students score slightly higher on EQ than science students, (2) and females in the general population score slightly higher on the EQ than males. (3) Most importantly, EQ produces the empathy bell curve we expected to find in the population.


The adult version of EQ relies on self-report, which is of course problematic, since people might believe they are much...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Baron-Cohen, Simon. "The empathy bell curve." Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 91, no. 1, spring 2011, pp. 10+. Accessed 17 May 2022.

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