Empathy as an SLO: Part 1 – Defining Empathy

I’ve been thinking about what a learning outcome of “empathy” would look like as a student learning objective (SLO) in curriculum development. Part of the reason for this reflection stems from creating a course on Epistemology and Critical Thinking for undergraduates at my Christian university. As I talk about this with colleagues, I am seeing a wide range of operating definitions for “empathy.”

From a semanitcs point of view, this is not a surprise. “Sense” words are often understood through a sort triangulation of synonyms, antonyms, and hyponyms (semantic fields or classes). Much like Socrates’ dialogue with Laches and Nicius where they try to define “courage” (Jowett, n.d.), we may try to understand a sense word through its synonyms (e.g. bravery), its antonyms (cowardice), its hyponyms (virtue). This is often unsatisfactory for those who would prefer a tidy definition. Even Socrates reaches this point in his conversation with Laches and Nicius; “then, Nicias, we have not discovered what courage is.”

Cuff, Brown, Taylor, and Howat (2016) reviewed literature where empathy was defined in 43 distinct ways. They reported several thematic dichotomies amongst these 43 articles, including trait or state, congruent or incongruent, distinction or merging of self to others; but one key dichotomy was the between cognitive or affective. In their analysis, 18.6% of the 43 articles relied exclusively on affective definitions of empathy, 13.9% relied on cognitive definitions, and 39.5% relied on some combination of the two (note, these do not add up to 100%, because not all definitions used this thematic dichotomy). Bloom (2016) asserted that the preponderance of philosophical definitions of empathy rely upon some idea of feeling someone else’s emotions.* Cuff et al., however, provided a summary definition based upon recent research that was much more nuanced:

Empathy is an emotional response (affective), dependent upon the interaction between trait capacities and state influences. Empathic processes are automatically elicited but are also shaped by top-down control processes. The resulting emotion is similar to one’s perception (directly experienced or imagined) and understanding (cognitive empathy) of the stimulus emotion, with recognition that the source of the emotion is not one’s own. (p. 150).

So perhaps what I am actually interested in is better defined as something that is the “understanding of the stimulus, with recognition that the source of the emotion is not one’s own.” I think this connects well with Ben Reis’ recommended framework of “epistemic humility.” Moreover, this facet could be measured. If one focuses primarily on the idea of teaching and measuring outcomes for “recognition,” that seems akin to other measurable learning outcomes.

*Bloom, in his prologue, affirmed that other definitions of empathy exist.


  • Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. New York, NY : Ecco (imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers).
  • Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073914558466
  • Jowett, B. (Trans.). (n.d.). Laches, or courage by Plato. Retrieved February 1, 2019, from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laches.html

4 thoughts on “Empathy as an SLO: Part 1 – Defining Empathy”

  1. I like the term “epistemic humility” very much; I do wonder if one can measure “recognition,” especially vs. “performance of recognition.” In past service-learning literature, scholars wrote of the difference between 1) a student’s actually enlarging his worldview via reflection, and 2) writing a well-wrought paper merely stating that he did. I think it might be harder to fake “recognition,” thought, because even if a student didn’t experience all the critical consequences you had hoped for her, at least she recognized important things.


  2. A learning outcome of measuring ones recognition of empathy seems to be in line with the Christian calling of seeing through the eyes of Jesus. If this is achieved, we might see students leaving with different life goals in mind. If an outcome in humility is measured as a goal toward which to strive, maybe we will see different definitions of what success is in the world. Where people strive to achieve seeing other human beings as such and seeking understanding of their lives. This type of formation has potential to change a society into a mutually respectful society that seeks service of others to self service. A sociological possibility, could it change a hyperindividialistic society such as the USA into more a socially, and communally aware society?


    1. Thanks, Jeremy. I am currently reading Bloom (2016), however, who claims the problem in our society is too much empathy. So far, I think he’s wrong: I get the Willie Nelsons whenever someone says we need more rationality in public discourse (I mean, the whole experiment of eugenics was based upon a kind of assent to rationality). But I’m tryna let him make his argument 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s