Researchers Investigate the Meta-Definition of Empathy

September 21, 2021by Elise Sanchez

Summary of:

Guthridge, M., & Giummarra, M. J. (2021). The taxonomy of empathy: A meta-definition and the nine dimensions of the empathic system. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Background & Theory

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the word empathy. The diverse many meanings of the word results in descriptions of a highly heterogeneous collection of related phenomena which has caused confusion as to what the true definition of empathy is. 

Research Question(s)

Researchers Michaela Guthridge and Melita J. Giumarra in the article “The Taxonomy of Empathy: A Meta-Definition and the Nine Dimensions of the Empathic System” seek to answer the following question: 

    1. What is the meta-definition of the word empathy? 


For the research, inductive conceptual context analysis of existing definitions of empathy was used to distil the common high order and the lower order components of the word empathy that have been defined in literature. The word empathy was coined in the year 1908, but texts that were chosen for the research were from the years 1980 up until the year 2019 due to the researchers seeking to synthesize and analyse contemporary definitions. 506 publications were chosen for the research, 11 books and 495 peer-reviewed articles. For the analysis of the word, context analysis was chosen, concept was chosen, then words or phrases related to the concept were quantified to determine presence. After this was concluded, 146 definitions of the word were found. 


It was determined that within the term, there are nine overarching dimensions that were identified from the 146 definitions that were analyzed in the research. These nine dimensions are the following:

  • Empathy as a catalyst 
  • Function 
  • Process
  • Outcome
  • Affective state 
  • Cognitive state 
  • Involving others and self 
  • Leading to a behavior 
  • Occurring in a specific context 

From this, the meta-definition that was found is: Empathy is the ability to experience affective and cognitive states of another person, while maintaining a distinct self in order to understand the other. The following following process used for this definition is: Empathy is the ability [FUNCTION] to experience [PROCESS] affective [AFFECT] and cognitive states [COGNITIVE] of another person, while maintaining a distinct self [SELF-OTHER] in order to understand [OUTCOME] the other [SELF-OTHER]. 

This definition as very similar to one by Decety and Lamm (2006, p. 1146) which stated: Empathy is the ability to experience and understand what others feel without confusion between oneself and others. 

It is important to note that this research excluded publications of empathy based on temporal limitations and some of formative definitions and philosophical discussions about empathy “feeling into”. These could have provided important context that is relevant to the “contemporary” definition. Due to this, the researchers call for further research to determine whether or not the constructed definition transcends cultures. This meta-definition does not specifically account for benevolent or malevolent manifestations nor was it found that prosocial or antisocial intentions or outcomes were definitive terms that arose. 

What This Means

  • Empathy is a polysemantic term that has multiple meanings and that can be defined both broadly and with depth. 
  • Putting empathy in subcategories of cognitive and affective will always be necessary from the field of psychology. 
  • Empathy is multidimensional. 

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Due to the many different definitions that people use for empathy, it is not only important to understand the true meaning, but when in conflict consulting and mediating, it is important to make sure that everyone is on the same page about what true empathy is. This clears up inevitable confusion that could occur as well as sets up an expectation for proper communication for all parties. 

For everyone: Words will sometimes be misused and lose their meaning as time goes on. With complex cognitive and affective words, meaning within all the different translations and denominations can be interpreted differently. 

Elise Sanchez

Élise Sanchez is a double alumnus from Pepperdine University where she holds a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the Caruso School of Law and a Bachelors in both International Relations and French from Seaver College. During her time in her studies she found her passion for being an advocate for those who need help amplifying their voices. After finishing her International Relations degree, she decided to go on for her MDR to learn how to be a better advocate and peacekeeper.

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