The Development of Empathy: Hoffman’s Theory (Part 3 of 4)

This essay is the third in a series of four essays on moral psychology and development.

Martin Hoffman’s theory of moral psychology and development is primarily focused on empathy and empathic distress, but also includes classic conditioning, cognitive reasoning, and principles of caring and justice. Cognitive reasoning and justice are especially integrated into Hoffman’s theory in the more advanced stages of empathy development. Hoffman’s theory is comprehensive, and while much of it is supported by research, Hoffman makes use of many detailed anecdotes from interviews, open-ended research questions, and other sources to “fill in the research gaps” in the comprehensive theory.

Virtually all of the information on Hoffman’s theory in this essay has been extracted from Hoffman’s book published in 2000 entitled, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. My purpose is not to cover or summarize Hoffman’s book or entire theory, but only to provide some of the basic elements and bring forth what I consider to be the most relevant aspects of his theory to the development of empathy for nonhuman beings.

Empathic Distress Versus Egoistic Motives

Central to Hoffman’s theory is the occurrence of empathic distress in response to another’s distress where, 1) empathic distress is associated with helping, 2) empathic distress precedes helping, and 3) observers feel better after helping.

Empathic distress often competes with egoistic motives. Egoistic motives opposing animal rights would be the desire to maintain the status quo with regard to eating habits, the fear of learning more about the plight of animals (empathic over-arousal), over-estimations of difficulty in transitioning to or maintaining a vegan diet (even though it is very easy), fear of dealing with family and friends after committing to veganism, and, in the case of people whose occupations require animal abuse and killing, giving up their current occupations. Most of the egoistic fears regarding a transition to and maintenance of personal veganism are really nothing more than a fear of the unknown and, very likely in many cases, a lack of self-confidence in men and women.

Five Categories of Development

Hoffman has five categories in the development of empathic distress: 1) newborn reactive cry, 2) egocentric empathic distress, 3) quasi-egocentric empathic distress, 4) veridical empathic distress, and 5) empathic distress beyond the situation.

The first category, the newborn reactive cry, is likely caused by a “…combination of mimicry and conditioning, with each getting an assist from imitation.” (Hoffman, 2000, p 65) At this point, there is only distress, but no effort to relieve distress.

In egocentric empathic distress, which starts to occur at the end of the first year, the reaction to another infant’s distress is mostly the same, except that there is behavior which is meant to reduce their own distress (not the other infant’s distress). There seems to be genuine confusion at this point about who is in distress, therefore the oxymoron “egocentric empathic distress”.

By early in the second year, a sense of self occurs and along with it, quasi-egocentric empathic distress develops. In quasi-egocentric empathic distress, the child will attempt to help the other in distress, but from their own point of view. For example, a child may bring another crying child to her mother instead of the child’s own mother. There is clearly the desire to help the other, but from the only point of view that the helping child is aware of: their own point of view.

By late in the second year, children begin to show awareness that the inner states of others may be different from their own states. Corrective feedback, such as when one’s egocentric efforts to relieve another’s distress don’t work, leads to behavior which takes the other’s perspective into account. Eventually, corrective feedback is not needed as much (although, as Hoffman points out, even adults need corrective feedback at times). This is the development of veridical empathic distress, an important stage, since it “has all the basic elements of mature empathy and continues to grow and develop throughout life.” (Hoffman, 2000, p 72)

At some point in development, empathic distress moves beyond the situation to involve others’ life conditions. There is often contradiction in a victim’s behavior where, for example, a victim of a terminal illness is laughing or appears to be very happy. People who have not moved into this stage will identify directly and solely with the currently observed happy behavior of the victim. People who have moved into empathic distress beyond the situation, however, while they may or may not show it depending on the situation, will still have empathic distress, despite current outward appearances of the victim’s immediate happiness.

Empathic distress beyond the situation eventually matures to empathic distress regarding entire groups who are exploited, oppressed, or otherwise treated unfairly. This can happen both geographically, as when we empathize with groups in distant regions of the world; temporally, as when we empathize with groups in times long past; and beyond kin, as when we empathize with other ethnic groups, races, or species. It is this advanced stage of “empathic distress beyond the situation” which is required for normal adults to experience empathic distress for nonhuman beings. Unfortunately, many normal human adults have not reached this stage and may never reach it.

Moral Internalization and Socialization

According to Hoffman, a person’s prosocial moral structure is “a network of empathic effects, cognitive representations, and motives.” (Hoffman, 2000, p. 134) The moral structure includes principles, behavioral norms, a sense of right and wrong, and images of harmful or hurtful acts and the associated self-blame and guilt.

Moral internalization occurs when a person’s moral structure is accepted and the person feels obligated to abide by its principles and consider others regardless of external punishment or reward.

Socialization, according to Hoffman, is the process by which moral internalization occurs, mainly in the form of interventions. Among three types of intervention Hoffman discusses, only “induction” is relevant to changing moral behavior and causing moral internalization of new principles in law-abiding adults. Induction occurs when we take the victim’s (e.g. the nonhuman being’s) perspective and show a person (e.g. someone who consumes animal products) how his or her behavior is harming the victim. Showing pictures and videos of “food” animals in their daily lives and during and after slaughter and emphasizing the connection between the distressing footage and a non-vegan diet is an example of induction. Induction must usually be repeated anywhere from a few to several times before moral internalization has a chance to take place, and unfortunately, this repetition seems to be just as true for adults as children.

Empathy’s Limitations

The ability of empathy to generate moral behavior is limited by three common occurrences: over-arousal, habituation, and bias. Hoffman covers others, but my focus is on the limits common to empathy for animals.

Empathic Over-Arousal

Generally, the greater the victim’s distress, the greater the observer’s empathic distress. However, if the observer’s empathic distress is too great, it is likely to lead to personal distress. Empathic over-arousal is “an involuntary process that occurs when an observer’s empathic distress becomes so painful and intolerable that it is transformed into an intense feeling of personal distress, which may move the person out of the empathic mode entirely.” (Hoffman, 1978 and 2000) (Italics mine)

At the other extreme, empathic distress may not motivate moral behavior. So, empathic distress can be either too strong or too weak. To complicate matters for animal rights advocates, different people will over- and under-arouse to the same situation or film or leaflet, so finding a good balance in animal rights educational material is difficult.


If a person is exposed repeatedly to victim distress over time, the person’s empathic distress may diminish to the point where the person becomes indifferent to victims’ distress. This diminished empathic distress and corresponding indifference is very common in those who abuse and kill animals as part of their occupation or recreation: animal researchers, employees in the animal entertainment industry, hunters, trappers, fishers, employees in animal feeding operations, truck drivers in animal transportation, slaughterhouse employees, and butchers. In fact, the most morally repugnant, horrific and violent footage of animal abuse, acts which would garner felony cruelty charges if done to a dog or cat in the street, occurs in most of these occupations, particularly slaughterhouses and research labs.

Familiarity Bias

Humans evolved in small groups, and often the small groups competed for scarce resources, so it is not surprising that evolutionary psychologists have identified kin selection has a moral motivator with evolutionary roots. The forms of familiarity bias include in-group bias, friendship bias, and similarity bias. The implications for nonhuman beings are as obvious as they are unfortunate.

On the positive side, however, great progress has been made in overcoming might-makes-right and familiarity bias over the past 400 years in what are now our liberal democracies. A live burning of a heretic or “witch” is now considered morally unacceptable. Chattel slavery, and the abuse and murder accepted with it, has been abolished. Wage slavery of the 19th century and early 20th century has been reformed. Women are permitted to vote and are no long expected to shut up and stay in the kitchen. Could animals be the next group admitted to the moral community by acknowledgement of their important interests which they hold as much as we do by way of certain morally relevant characteristics, such as, consciousness, awareness, and sentience? If we make the same progress during the next 100 or 200 years that we did during the past 200 years, future generations will look on our ignorance in a very similar way to how we look at the ignorance of previous generations of heretic burners and slave breakers.

Here and Now Bias

We tend to have a bias for empathic distress when the victim is in front of us at the present moment. The abuse and horror (i.e. distress) that nonhuman animals experience is generally here-and-now only for those habituated to directly generating the distress. The primary economic forces of the abuse and horror are derived from the consumer of animal products, who is almost never exposed to the horror story behind the eggs, meat, or glass of milk they consume. This ignorance is an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” deal between the producers of animal products and the consumers, including mass media. It is a well-known saying among animal rights supports that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls (and we knew of the torture and slaughter in the milk and egg industries), we’d all be vegan.”

Animal advocates must continue to display the inconvenient truth about what goes on in the sheds, feedlots, labs, transportation vehicles, and slaughterhouses to combat the here-and-now bias. We also have to remind people that just because we don’t see it in our daily lives, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Also, it is extremely important to narrow down the focus to the heartbreaking stories of individual chickens, pigs, cows, and other nonhumans who have been severely abused in animal agriculture to use the here-and-now bias in the favor of the animals. Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary (see link on this blog) does a terrific job at leveraging the here-and-now bias in every form of advocacy they do: sanctuary tours, blog entries, billboards, and newspaper advertisements are almost always about individual nonhuman beings.

Empathy and Moral Principles

Moral principles, based on reasoning and cognitive function, have sometimes been criticized as being “cold”, and therefore, not morally motivating. Others have disagreed and claimed that moral principles are highly motivating. To me, it seems to depend on the person as to whether reason or emotions are more morally motivating. Regardless, when empathy is combined with moral principles, the moral principles tend to regulate or moderate empathic distress to a more appropriate level, thereby reducing the chances of empathic over- or under-arousal. Although I’m very much on the cognitive moral principles side of the principles/empathy dichotomy, this moderating effect (i.e. increasing empathic distress in under-arousal cases and decreasing it in over-arousal cases) seems to me to be a good reason for those advocates who lean more on the empathy side to include moral principles and reasoning in their education and advocacy.


Hoffman’s theory tells us much about the “emotional side” of morality and some of the strengths and limitations of empathy and its influence on moral behavior. Empathic distress generally has to overcome egoistic motives for moral behavior to occur. Hoffman believes that empathy is an evolutionary trait; and like other evolutionary traits, such as cognitive ability, it is likely on a bell-curve distribution, with some of us having more empathic capacity than others. Empathy also has other limitations, such as over- and under-arousal, habituation, and bias. Despite its limitations, empathy can be a powerful force for moral motivation. It is well worth the efforts of animal rights advocates to generate the empathic distress which comes naturally to most people when faced with the horrific realities of life for tens of billions of innocent nonhuman beings who are thrown into the hell of animal agriculture. There’s a reason industry (including the cage-free and free-range sectors) does not and will not open its doors to mass media or for general public inspection. There’s a reason why we don’t see mass media coverage of the animals’ lives: the empathic distress would be overwhelming, would cause significant moral conflict throughout society and eventually would lead to changes in what we choose to eat. A widespread vegan trend in society would alleviate much of this unimaginable hell. We can each, as individuals, internalize veganism as the moral imperative that it is.

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