Let's break empathy down into three components:
1) the initial affective (feeling-based) process that does not require deliberate cognition - this is how we automatically feel when we see or hear about someone suffering
2) the secondary evaluative process - we might adjust our feelings based on a deliberate evaluation of the situation, that is, think about how the other person is probably feeling
3) the final behavioral component - how we express our empathy, which may or may not include deliberate cognition
It is important to understand these components because we can see that, in many cases, empathy is purely automatic and unconscious. For example, if you see a little kid fall down, you might immediately rush over to help him up and ask if he is okay. So in many cases of empathy, there is no dilemma because there is no reasoning involved. In some cases there is deliberate cognition. If we saw a little kid crying in the park following what appeared to be his mother while pointing at balloons, we might evaluate the situation and conclude that the little brat just didn't get the balloons he wanted, and we no longer feel for him.
Your birthday party example would better fall under the category of social intelligence
than empathy. This includes knowing the likes and dislikes of other people and treating them how they want to be treated rather than how you would want to be treated. Social intelligence is partly learnable, but there is also a genetic component to it. Some people are simply better than others at it.
If you are interested in developing your social intelligence, I suggest this classic book by Daniel Goldman: https://www.amazon.com/Social-Intelligence-Science-Human-Relationships/dp/055338449X
Bo Bennett, PhD
Social Scientist, Business Consultant
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