I am left more confused than I previously was after reading about empathy.

My understanding now is that empathy can be divided into three main categories:


This is the transfer of emotions from one person to another. It involves feeling what the other person does. The mechanism behind this is the empathetic person receives visual stimuli regarding another person's physical manifestations of emotions (facial expressions and body language) and this visual stimuli is then converted into mimicking movement in the empathetic person's brain. The mimicking movement then produces that same emotion in the empathetic person. This mimicry happens via mirror neurons; their input is the stimuli carrying the observation of the external behavior, their output is ordering the premotor cortex to make the empathetic person mimic the behavior.


This is the understanding of another person's mental/emotional state and the tendency to see their perspective. This part of empathy requires intelligence and knowledge, and the higher the general intelligence of the empathetic person, the more likely they are to have a higher cognitive empathy. The capacity of understanding another person's mental/emotional can be explained as such:

The person observed is Allie and the empathetic person is Barry. The capacity for Barry to infer the emotional/mental state of Allie based off of Barry's knowledge of Allie's situation, perspective and personality. If Barry has no capacity for this he will observe Allie go through something bad, and without other information, he wont understand that Allie's feeling bad. If Barry has a low capacity for this, he'll understand Allie's feeling bad, but the concrete content of her negative emotions is not apparent to him; he may apply knowledge of how humans generally react to that kind of experience, but fail to take into account her personality and perspective. If Barry has a high capacity for this, he will be good at inferring a detailed description of her mental/emotional state based on her situation, personality and perspective, taking everything into account. Given the nature of this process, this capacity is based both on Barry's intelligence and knowledge.

As for the tendency to see things from other people's perspective (perspective-taking); this is not measure of one's ability to see their perspective, as that is the aforementioned capacity for understanding. No, this is a measure of how naturally/automatically one places oneself in someone else's perspective. Some people might be very good at understand the mental/emotional states of other people, but they may not apply this very often due to not naturally being the kind of person that places themselves in other people's shoes. Whenever they do, they're proficient at understanding the other person, but they just don't do it too often.


This is even more autonomic than affective empathy. This is a physical reaction to someone's emotional state, the emotional consequence of the physical reaction matching the valence of the observed emotional/mental state. An example is Barry seeing that Allie is sad, and feeling a bad feeling in his stomach. This feeling then in turn produces negative emotions within Barry, that may not be similar to Allie's in any other way than their shared valence.

Everything mentioned in my explanation is what I think I understand. However, some parts of what I've read complicate this already (IMO) complex topic.

Affective empathy is apparently divided up into two sub-categories: empathetic concern and personal distress. I think I might understand the difference; personal distress is when the empathetic person mimics the other person's mental/emotional state, whereas empathetic concern is when they consciously distance themselves from the emotions they feel and view them from a third-person-perspective, knowing that although they experience the emotions, they are not theirs, nor is the predicament theirs; this allows them to gain insight into the person's situation without being equally incapacitated by the situation due to the reassuring distance from it they possess. If I'm not mistaken, personal distress is the only form of affective empathy for infants as they haven't developed the ability to understand different PoVs, and therefore assume their headspace is the same as everyone else, and similarly, that everybody else's headspace is their own, which is why when they experience other people's pain as their own and therefore assume the same predicament. However, personal distress may occur in non-infants if the stimuli is extreme enough?

Some people with empathy deficit disorder (EDD) are also very good at manipulation (like psychopaths and narcissists). The ability to manipulate requires cognitive empathy, no? Are highly manipulative people without EDD people with low affective empathy and high cognitive empathy? Do they perhaps have an active DMN, high intelligence, lots of knowledge about human nature and observant eyes, but few mirror neurons? When they see a sad face, mirror neurons in their head don't fire, causing them to experience that; but, they still register the face as sad due to their semantic knowledge of a frown? Or, do they automatically register the face as sad, but they just don't experience that emotional mimicry? Or does manipulation happen via other means than cognitive empathy?

This post is quite long and it may be hard to see what my questions are. My questions are this; the bold text at the end of the penultimate paragraph and the last paragraph is itself a question: how does empathy work within proficient manipulators with EDD?







User Chris Roger asked if I could elaborate on this sentence of mine: Some people with empathy deficit disorder (EDD) are also very good at manipulation.

I was really just thinking about the archetypal Machiavellian types, like psychopaths, narcissists and the like. This study found a positive correlation between narcissistic exploitativeness and emotional recognition. Narcissists tend to self-report as having a high emotional recognition. This study points to another study that found no relationship between emotional recognition and narcissism, and as such argues that emotional recognition is not positively correlated with narcissism, but rather a sub-dimension within narcissism; exploitativeness.

So, saying that "narcissists have a high emotional recognition" is wrong, but saying that some people with EDD have a high emotional recognition is correct. So, my question remains; how can some people with EDD recognize emotions so well? What mechanism allows them to recognize these emotions, yet not be affected by them?

  • $\begingroup$ You have an interesting question here. You said "Some people with empathy deficit disorder (EDD) are also very good at manipulation". Can you please give some example manipulation you have read about? What articles have you read this in? Can you also please elaborate what you mean by an active DMN? Is this a neurological term? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 11 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers Active DMN is not a neurological term as far as I know. What I meant by that is that they have a well-connected, active DMN, allowing for proficient mentalization, which I believe to be necessary for manipulation. How can one use people's emotions if one cannot predict and infer those emotions? As for your first question; every description of a psychopath usually states that they're manipulative. Narcissists are sometimes described as manipulative. For something more concrete: sci-hub.se/https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/… $\endgroup$ – A. Kvåle Jun 11 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry if I wasn't clear enough with my previous comment, but what I meant on elaborating is that acronyms can be confusing sometimes and mean different things. The reason why I asked if the DMN is a neurological term is because when I try to Google information on it, I get a neurological definition of DMN and information about it and I wanted to check I had the right thing. Now I am confused as you say it is not neurological (that you know). What does DMN stand for? Where have you read about it? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 14 at 11:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.