I want to avoid some common implications of empathy: that it's mostly involuntary, and that it involves some re-experiencing of the other's feelings. I'm looking for a more general word (or, less ideally, short phrase) that could easily apply both to someone empathetic and to Hannibal Lecter.

On the other hand, I'm not looking for an overly general word like perspicacity or discernment; I'm hoping for something that's specifically about perceiving other people's emotions and motivations.

Ideally I'm hoping for a noun, but a verb ("to exercise this ability") or adjective ("possessed of the ability") would be helpful too.

  • I'm scratching my head about your description of empathy. Empathy is understanding someone else's emotional state because you have experienced the same thing. Sympathy is the ability to understand without having the experience. I can sympathize with an astronaut who complains about motion sickness but I cannot empathize with him or her. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 15:34
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    @michael_timofeev, you have now made me look up empathy in no fewer than 7 online dictionaries, and not one of them even hints at "having experienced the same thing" being a part of the meaning of empathy. I believe in practical use it's the opposite actually: the ability to understand and vicariously experience another's feelings when one hasn't experienced the same is the hallmark of a particularly empathetic person.
    – hemflit
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 15:51
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    Folks, when downvoting a question that isn't blatantly inappropriate or unclear or stupid, please comment about why you're downvoting. That's how we learn how to ask better questions.
    – hemflit
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 15:56
  • I remember these words clearly because two of my students wanted to do a presentation about empathy and sympathy in the workplace and wanted to present a video discussing empathy and sympathy. I had to look up the origin of empathy and its difference with sympathy so I could understand the words because the speakers in the video did not. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 16:06
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    @michael_timofeev: I think that empathy/sympathy distinction only applies to a specific subset of the meanings of both words. As OP indicates, most dictionaries wouldn't include by virtue of having experienced similar emotions in similar contexts as a relevant factor in the more general definition of empathy (or the lack of such prior experience in their definition of sympathy). Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 16:42

9 Answers 9


Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXMnc2Xjj-o is a show dealing with psychopaths, centered on the neurologist James Fallon, who famously studied the brain function of condemned serial killers who were diagnosed as being psychopath. Quite by accident he discovered that, if brain function is diagnostic, he was a psychopath himself.

During the discussion, the distinction is made between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to detect and recognize the emotional state of another person, while emotional empathy results in caring about them.

Finally, some analysts also include "compassionate empathy" http://www.danielgoleman.info/three-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotional-compassionate/ In this view, emotional empathy produces a sharing of feeling, while "compassionate empathy" produces a desire to help the other.


perceptive might fit.

perceptive adjective having or showing sensitive insight.


'Did you notice how quiet Bill was when Sue was talking about their holiday together? It makes me wonder if something happened that they're not telling us about.'

'Hmm! Now that you mention it, you're right. That's rather perceptive of you.'


"to read someone [like a book]"


I don't understand John.

Oh, I can. I can read him like a book.

Yes, you are very good at reading people.

That's right I can read him and I can read his motives.

read someone like a book ... 2 Understand someone’s thoughts and motives easily.



[It was as though] he could see inside my head.

(Pretty similar to "he could read me like a book," which is also very good.)


In psychology, this is called theory of mind:

[T]he ability to attribute mental states . . . to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.


You use the word "perception" in your question. I think that applies. "I shifted uncomfortably as Hannibal looked at me perceptively. Would he figure out my secret?"

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    He'd like to have you for a gourmet dinner but sense you do not have good taste
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 16:13
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    Lol...sometimes this place feels like the drinking lounge for cruciverbalists. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 16:17


This word appears to be like an active form of empathy without all the extra feel feel cultural implications.

Edit: also, Sherlock Holmes. Inductive or deductive reasoning may spark some ideas.


put oneself in another's shoes

"If you could put yourself in his shoes for a minute, you might understand how he ended up this way."

This phrase could (conceivably) "apply both to someone empathetic and to Hannibal Lecter".

Related terms might be "stand in someone's shoes" and "shoe-shifting".

  • "Shoe-shifting"? Is that a thing? I've heard the other expressions before. Are you sure that author didn't just make it up? Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 14:21
  • @chaslyfromUK, I had never heard the term before reading the article today. The OP can decide whether or not it applies to his/her situation. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 14:38

MW defines "see through" as "to grasp the true nature of" which seems like a good fit.

If you see through someone or their behaviour, you realize what their intentions are, even though they are trying to hide them.


  • I could see through his manipulative behavior and realized we would soon be arguing.
  • I can see through her. Actually, I can almost read her mind.

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