Mind 3 min read

What Is Cognitive Empathy And How Does It Work?

by Mindvalley May 2, 2019

Most people believe there’s only one form of empathy.  But did you know that there are actually three different levels of empathy?

They are affective, compassionate, and cognitive empathy. And to truly develop your ability to empathize, you need a healthy dose of all three.

In this article, we’re going to specifically focus on what cognitive empathy is, how it works, and how it compares to affective empathy.

Is Empathy A Cognitive Skill?


Yes, empathy is a cognitive skill. By definition, cognition is a process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through observation.

So how does this relate to empathy?

Cognitive empathy is often called empathic accuracy. This means having an acute ability to determine what’s on someone’s mind and how they feel in any particular given moment.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans developed the ability to empathize as a tool to process the behavior and feelings of others. In essence, it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced to create more enriched and fulfilling personal interactions.

And this can be observed through the scientific study of the human body.

Human beings have mirror neurons which allow for physical and emotional mimicry. That is, people repeat the same expressions and feelings they observe on those around them.

So, this means that these neurons hold the key to explaining empathy on a physical level.

What is the difference between cognitive and affective empathy?

There is one crucial difference between cognitive empathy and affective empathy. As discussed, cognitive empathy means you are capable of grasping other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Affective empathy takes it a step further. In addition to understanding, an affective empath also feels other people’s emotions. To have affective empathy is to share their grief, suffering, and joy. This helps you build an emotional connection with others and truly relate to their feelings.

An affective empath also has cognitive empathy, but the reverse may not be true. A cognitive empath may not have affective empathy, which can be a double-edged sword.

Do Psychopaths Have Cognitive Empathy?


According to Berkeley research, psychopaths have lower neural activity in the parts of the brain which are responsible for ethics and empathy.

So the question is: do psychopaths have the ability to empathize?

Well, in a way, psychopaths are masters of emotional intelligence. What’s more, they are known to have the ability to sense other people’s feelings with great accuracy.

Cognitive empathy is the capacity to perceive and know what other people feel. And most psychopaths use that to their advantage and manipulate others. From a scientific perspective, they specialize in using cognitive empathy to gain the upper hand.

It means psychopaths recognize emotions and they know what others think, but they simply don’t care. In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to abuse other people’s feelings to manipulate them into certain actions.

The final word

You must take responsibility for the choices you make.

—Jon Butcher, Author of Mindvalley’s Lifebook Program

Having developed cognitive empathy means taking responsibility for your life. And this can bring you closer to having greater success in your personal relationships and a greater relationship with yourself.


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There’s a reason that so many brilliantly talented, naturally creative, intelligent and capable people never reach their potential, and it is, quite simply, a lack of direction.

Even if you have a vague goal in mind, you still need a plan, a process to get you there.

You can have the most expensive, fastest car in the world, but if you set off without a clear idea of where you’re going, then the rusty old Beatle with a map and compass will beat you there every time.

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So, what kind of empathy do you have? Do other people trigger your emotions? Share your experience in the comments below.

by Mindvalley
Mindvalley is creating a global school that delivers transformational education for all ages. Powered by community. Fueled by fun. We are dedicated to ensuring that humans live happier, healthier, and more fulfilled lives by plugging in the gaps that conventional education failed to teach us. We do this by organising real-world events around the world and producing world-class quality programmes in several areas of transformation, including mind, body, and performance.

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