The evolution of empathy research: Models, muddles, and mechanisms

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The word empathy enters the English language in 1909, translated incompletely from German by a British-born psychologist interested in introspection. In the ensuing 100+ years, the term has been defined in a range of different ways by researchers and scholars. The biopsychosocial framework developed by George Engel comes closest to capturing empathy as a biological, psychological and social phenomenon. In this paper, I explore the psychological and social/communicative dimensions of empathy. Psychologists ask the question, How does the capacity for empathy vary across individuals? By contrast, interaction scholars ask, How is empathy communicated from one person (a healthcare provider) to another (a sufferer)? A communication focus involves the accuracy and impact of empathic communication as evidenced in a sufferer's response. The two views of empathy, as a quality or capacity or as co-created in interaction, are contradictory, and are a source of confusion and contentiousness in the research literature. As in theoretical physics, where an as yet unresolved 80 year controversy has marked the debate about whether light is a particle or wave, research on empathy will likely remain paradoxical, unresolved and a source of creativity and innovation in the science and art of human caring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2128-2130
Number of pages3
JournalPatient Education and Counseling
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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