How strong is your capability to share another being’s emotions or feelings? My thesis is that people who are viewed as having a lot of empathy have two characteristics in common: (1) their emotional reaction to situations tends to be similar to that of the majority and (2) when they make errors it tends to be in the direction of overestimating the person’s emotion-level.
Conditional versus Marginal
I’ll start with point 1. It’s easy to have empathy for people who are like you. If you would get upset if X happened to you, then you’ll have empathy for someone else who is upset about X happening to them. But, if X wouldn’t upset you, then it would be hard for you to understand how someone else feels who is upset by X. You could do it, perhaps, but it’s more challenging.
Denote by Α the subgroup of people who have similar emotional reactions as you do.
Let Y=1 if you sufficiently understand another person’s feelings.
Your empathy score for people in group A is P(Y=1|A). That is, the probability that you’ll have empathy for a randomly selected person in group A. I’d argue that, for most people, they have a high conditional empathy score for people that are like them.
Your empathy score for people who are not like you, P(Y=1|~A), is probably much lower.
Now, integrate across groups to get the marginal (population level) empathy score P(Y=1). That is, P(Y=1)= P(Y=1|A)P(A)+P(Y=1|~A)P(~A). If P(A) is high, you probably have a high level of empathy, even if your conditional levels are normal (simply because a lot of people are like you).
If empathy is understanding how someone else feels, then you can make errors in two directions. You might think the person is more upset (or happy or excited) than they really are, or you might think they are less upset than they really are. I think that if your error distribution is on the side of overestimating how emotional someone is, you’ll be seen as having more empathy than someone who tends to underestimate emotion levels.
Suppose I am not upset at all about event X, but you think I am and therefore offer words of comfort, etc. You failed at understanding my emotional state. Yet, people would not say that you lacked empathy.
If, instead, I was upset about event X, but you didn’t realize that and therefore didn’t offer support, you’d be correctly viewed as not having empathy.
Another interesting aspect of this is how, even if we recognize how someone is feeling, our response depends on whether we deem their emotions as appropriate. For example, a big football fan might have empathy for another fan who is very angry about his/her favorite team losing, but someone who doesn’t like sports might think getting emotional about a football game is stupid.