Jeanne: Your Empathy Quotient

Emotions Revealed coverI’ve always figured the trait a writer needs the most in order to craft compelling, believable characters is empathy. defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

We’ve all known highly empathetic people in our lives, people who seem to have a knack for reading other people’s faces/body language/tone of voice and knowing what those people are feeling without having to be told.

I’ve never been one of them. 

I remember once telling a manager, when she was scolding, that is, counseling me for my failure to pick up on someone else’s emotions, that if God had meant us to know what other people were thinking, He’d have installed theater marquees on our foreheads–running signs that announced what was going on inside.

This may (and probably does) seem strange to you, but not all of us are equipped with the same natural ability to read others. How good are you at it?

Take this test to find out:

Empathy Quotient Test

After I started sharing my writing with critique partners, I got feedback that there wasn’t enough emotion in my work. It became imperative to get better at this business of understanding what emotion looks like from the outside, and I think I have.

One book that was really helpful was Emotions Revealed, by Paul Ekhman. The book is full of photographs of various emotions (It’s worth buying the book just to see the amazing photograph of surprise—two men’s shocked faces as a young woman falls past their fifth floor balcony. She lived, by the way.) The books also details the various components of expressions and talks about micro-expressions and also how people fake various emotions.

Armed with this information, I not only got better at depicting emotions, but I also got better at reading actual human beings.

Double win!

So, how did you do on the test? I’ll share my own score in the comments below.




14 thoughts on “Jeanne: Your Empathy Quotient

  1. I got a 27. So if I ever fail to react to your clear, non-verbal cues about how you’re feeling, don’t be surprised. It’s not that I”m not paying attention. I’m just not wired to read emotion easily.

    • I scored a 42. I had a difficult time giving anything a “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” answer. Most of mine were “slightly agree/disagree.” It would be interesting to have someone else score this for me, then perhaps take an average of the scores. Because people tell me all the time I’m empathetic. Perhaps I just don’t want to give myself that much credit?

      • I had the same thought–maybe I was scoring myself too harshly. Then I looked over the burning wreckage of various past interactions with people and decided, “Nope. That’s about right.” LOL

        Maybe you should get someone else to score you and report your findings here!

    • I got a 30, which is no surprise. Looks like we have something else in common (besides spreadsheets 🙂 ).

      I’ve found Paul Ekhman’s books very helpful when trying to figure out how to identify and depict emotions for my characters. I was also a fan of Lie to Me – a solve-the-crime show that was based on his micro-expression reading work.

      • Maybe this is why we can room together so comfortably. Neither of us get all caught up in fleeting expressions on our roommate’s face.

        My daughter, who will be room-sharing with us in Denver, scored in the 70’s on this test. That’s probably a big part of why she’s such a successful restaurateur.

  2. I got a 55. Am I deluding myself? I don’t see myself as having any particular insight. I also didn’t think carefully before I answered, as the questionnaire advises. I just flew through it. One more thing: I’m with you, Justine—some of the questions were phrased in ways that made them impossible to answer in any way at all. I don’t go on rollercoasters because they make me “nervous,” as the questionnaire asks (absolutely disagree—I don’t get nervous about rollercoasters). I don’t go on rollercoasters, true, but it’s because they make me puke—a physical reaction, not an emotional one. How to answer that one?

    Still, it was a fun exercise, and now I can preen myself that I’m empathetic. 🙂

  3. Boy, too much self-reflection for me! “I live for today rather than for the future.” I don’t even want to know where I stand on that one! I would very much like to be a planner and a constructor of my own future . . . but I spend an awful lot of time in the dreadful, eternal now.

    I think I have a lot of empathy when I pay attention, but generally, I would prefer to sit in my own head with my own thoughts because it can be way too painful to imagine what other (real) people are thinking. Not so rotten to imagine what imaginary people are thinking; they aren’t real.

    I had to quit the quiz at #18. I definitely didn’t like cutting up worms, even the dead ones. Sure, there was a cool, see-how-it-works aspect in science class, but even then, I felt it was kind of disrespectful. Irrational, I know.

    There. I’m neither empathetic nor non-empathetic. I’m irrational. Not a great trait for a writer, maybe (-:.

    • I’ve sometimes wondered (“Let’s open her up and see how she works!”) to what extent your natural tendencies (e.g. discomfort with conflict) have been affected by transferring to a completely different culture when you were still very young and malleable.The Japanese culture has always seemed to me to be much more self-reflective and more attuned to respect for others than the hurly-burly do-it-my-way American culture. And it’s definitely a culture that emphasizes living in the now (at least, based on my studies of Zen Buddhism.)

      And now I’m hoping I haven’t said anything completely inappropriate.

      • LOL, I was laughing that I was 20 when I moved here the first time, then realized . . . yeah. That’s young, and the 20s are formative years. Gulp! I’ve become an Old!

        I think there’s a lot to what you say about Japanese culture. They do tease me sometimes for being “dynamic” when, for example, I teach a cooking class and do things a bit fast and untidily. “dai-na-mikku!”

        But I think from childhood, I was basically an avoidant personality, and my experiences tended to reinforce those qualities. I’d rather be in a book with manage-able personalities than out in the real world, being empathetic. Maybe that’s the way it is with a lot of “nonempathetic” people. They might be hyper-empathetic, find it too painful, and so repress the empathy. And come off looking like space cadets or callous folks. I’m not excusing myself, of course. But if there is a way to turn that blanket of non-empathy into a cloak one could peek out of . . . .

        • You could be right. I have a sister who registers very high in empathy, but my sense is that dealing with other people’s emotions is very painful for her.

      • BTW, I think this “Let’s open things up and see how they work!” is very important for making engaging fiction. Empathy is fine, but to get it into words requires understanding, I think.

        Mary Roach also applies it to very engaging non-fiction. The woman is fearless! And asks all the questions I’d be too embarrassed to ask, unless I put away my inner censor and let my Curiosity Monkey rule the interview.

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Atlas of Emotions – Eight Ladies Writing

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