Let's talk about Einfühlung

Some thoughts about empathy

Dr. Volker Göbbels

To all the technocrats

No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
Theodore Roosevelt


Macaque primates


  • Short (!) about me
  • What is empathy?
  • Empathy and culture
  • Can empathy be learned?
  • And what about software development?

About me

  • Team Lead / Engineering Manager @ Badger Systems GmbH
  • Former Software Engineering Manager @ Prym Consumer Europe GmbH
  • Former Head of Department Diagnostics, Analytics and Connected @ StreetScooter
  • Lots of experience as software engineering manager and project manager
What else?
  • Studies in Chemistry (MRI, Quantum Mechanics)
  • IT Freelancer
  • Collector of (unfashionable) programming languages
  • Multipotentialite
  • "Fashion Nerd"
  • Myers-Briggs: Mediator type (INFP-T)
  • Green-Yellow (T. Erikson)

What is Empathy?

Historical facts

  • The term 'empathy' came into existence in the early 20th century
  • Based on the German term 'Einfühlung', which was coined in the mid to late 19th century


  • Cognitive empathy
  • Affective/emotional empathy
  • Somatic empathy

Similar concepts

  • Compassion
  • Sympathy
  • Pitty
  • Emotional contagion

Cognitive empathy

The conscious or willful management of perceptions that go into your own feelings
  • Theory of mind
  • Perspective taking
  • Fantasy
  • Tactical empathy

Developmental timeline

  • Age 1-2: First ideas of perspective taking
  • Age 4-5: Theory of mind
  • Age 8: Real perspective taking
  • Age 10-12: Possibility to forecast degree of empathy in grown person
  • In general: genes account for 10-35% of where we land on the empathy spectrum

Differences in individuals

  • Not everyone responds uniformly in the same circumstances
  • Empathic Concern Scale vs. Personal Distress Scale
  • Women show stronger empathy-related neural response
  • Stronger link between emotional and cognitive empathy in women

Affective/emotional empathy

Ability to respond to another person's mental state with an appropriate emotion
  • Two scales:
    • Empathetic concern
    • Personal distress
  • Based on emotional contagion

Somatic empathy

Responding to pain and sorrow in others by physically experiencing the same pain through proximity to them
  • Physical reaction in the somatic nervous system
  • Probably based on mirror neurons
  • Starts before understanding other ones condition
  • Can occur in less than 200 ms within the autonomic nervous system
  • Cognitive & affective empathy require 300-500 ms for the brain to process

Mirror neurons

  • Neurons that fire, when a subjct acts as well as when it sees someone else act
  • Best investigated in a primate species, but also found in birds
  • Hints to mirror neurons found in the premotor cortex human brain

A bit of neuroscience

Empathy and culture

In general

A survey of 104,365 adults across 63 countries showed countries high in empathy scored highly in:
  • Collectivism
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Self-esteem
  • Emotionality
  • Subjective well-being
  • Prosocial behaviour

Affective Empathy - East vs. West

  • Individuals in western countries have a higher value in empathetic concern than in personal distress
  • In far eastern individuals it's the other way around
  • Bicultural people fall somewhere in between

Can empathy be learned?

This is a controversary discussion.
  • Empathy can be facilitated
  • Promoting attitudes (nonjudgemental attitude, listening ...) can be learned
  • Empathy is experienced, not self-caused

And what about software development?


  • Software is developed in teams
  • Teams can be inter-cultural
  • Communication doesn't work well without empathy

Soft skills vs. hard skills

Writing good readable code is empathy with your team and your future self
Coraline Ada Ehmke

Empathy in phases of development

  • Requirements engineering
  • Development process
  • Leadership
  • Support

Let's get practical

  • Listen a lot. I mean a hell of a lot
  • Actually also talk to people
  • Try to actively take the position of someone else
  • Be honest about your own position
  • Amplify other people's voice

Thank you!


  • Wikipedia, "Empathy"
  • H. Riess, "The Empathy Effect"
  • J. Decety (ed.), W. Ickes (ed.), "The Social Neuroscience of Empathy"
  • A. Price, H. Dambha-Miller (Oxford Empathy Programme), "Empathy as a state beyond feeling: A patient and clinician perspective"
  • C.M. Davis, "What Is Empathy, and Can Empathy Be Taught?", Physical Therapy, Volume 70, 1990, 707–711
  • G. Hickok, "The Myth of the Mirror Neurons"
  • R.E. Passingham, S.P. Wise, "The Neurobiology of the Prefrontal Cortex"
  • C. Keysers, "The Empathic Brain"
  • T.G. Cassels, S.F. Chan, W. Chung, "The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences", Journal of Cognition and Culture 10(3-4), 309-326