Existing Research: Cognitive & Affective Models of Historical Empathy

Cognitive Models of Historical Empathy

The inclusion of affect and care in definitions of historical empathy is a relatively recent development. Stuart Foster’s assertion that history is “primarily a cognitive, not an affective act” encapsulates the perspective of most historical empathy researchers between the 1970s and the early 2000s. Scholars of historical empathy have been wary of making space for student emotions or affect, instead favoring definitions that equate historical empathy with context knowledge and use of primary source evidence. Emotion is seen as either an obstacle or inconsequential to students’ development of these skills.

Cognitive models of historical empathy typically associate the following habits with historical empathy:

  1. Recognition of difference between past and present perspectives and values.
  2. Recognition of common humanity between past and present.
  3. Ability to narrate the complex reasons motivating past perspectives and view these reasons as normative for their time and place.
  4. Ability to use primary source evidence to justify the reasons for past people’s actions and perspectives.
  5. Ability to produce conclusions about a past time and place that are “well-grounded but tentative.”

Scholars emphasize the importance of context and evidence in order to prevent “imagination, overidentification, or sympathy” in students’ encounters with past peoples. Contrary to Collingwood’s historical thinking as an imaginative act and Brown’s definitions of everyday empathy, scholars like Foster, Yeager, Davis, and Lee and Ashby insist that historical empathy cannot include envisioning oneself in the past or trying to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” When educators ask students to place themselves in a past situation, they risk students aligning themselves with people who perpetuated horrendous acts in the past. Students therefore should not be encouraged to imagine “shared feelings” between past and present. Students too easily assume their feelings are exactly the same as those of the people they study, despite vast differences in time and space.

Revulsion is as common as sympathy from students; students often find the differences between past and present jarring and are apt to perceive past actions as strange, unethical, or incomprehensible. In cognitive models of historical empathy, close study of historical evidence is the balm for both sympathy and revulsion. Multiple studies of students at primary and secondary levels support the assertion that opportunities and appropriate guidance in examining primary source documents and artifacts can temper students’ affective reactions. When educators present students with diverse materials and help set primary sources in context, students frequently exhibit keener attention to context and evidence. They more easily recognize differences and similarities between past and present, narrate the reasons for past actions and beliefs, make frequent references to evidence from primary sources, and understand the limitations of their conclusions.

Affective Models of Historical Empathy

Cognitive models of historical empathy continue to be influential today, but affective models advocate a different approach. Scholars who affirm the role of affect in historical empathy build on cognitive definitions of historical empathy. Context knowledge and use of primary source evidence remain central to the practice of historical empathy. However, affective models of historical empathy insist that comprehension alone is insufficient. For Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, “Empathy without care sounds like an oxymoron.” They argue that objective evaluations of past worldviews might avoid sympathy or revulsion, but do nothing to discourage indifference or relativism.

Barton and Levstik worry that students, when confronted with morally loaded episodes in history, too easily default to the belief, “we can only judge them by the standard of their day.” This perspective not only glosses over the multiplicity of perspectives present in each “day,” but also asks students to deny their instincts for care and concern. Barton and Levstik argue instead that students and historians alike can and should exercise a variety of forms of care in their historical practice:

We can care about the people and events of the past when we select some as more interesting or personally meaningful than others, we can care that particular events took place when we react to the triumphs or tragedies of the past, we can care for people in history when we want to respond to suffering by the victims of injustice or oppression, and we can care to change our beliefs or behaviors in the present based on what we have learned from our study of the past.

Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good.

Practicing “care about,” “care that,” and “care for” can aid the growth of students’ “care to” address present-day injustices. Barton and Levstik are clear that historical empathy is not a panacea for racism, sexism, classism, or any other form of discrimination. However, care-ful historical study can be a step toward more empathetic encounters with past and present peoples. Barton and Levstik hope students’ empathy for historical figures will equip them to practice empathy in their contemporary context.

Barton and Levstik use the term “emotion” instead of “affect” in their discussions of care and commitment, but their concerns align with those of Jada Kohlmeier, who calls for further study of the “affective dimension of historical empathy.” In her study of primary-school students’ discussions of women’s biographies, she encountered common obstacles posed by affect. Kohlmeier’s pupils at times over-sympathized with the women they studied or expressed confusion when the women responded to a situation in a way that seemed counterintuitive to them. Yet Kohlmeier concluded that her students’ care for historical figures was a help rather than a hindrance. Affect “motivated students to do the hard work of historical analysis.” Kohlmeier’s definition of historical empathy as “a complex balance between considering the perspectives of and connecting with people in the past” therefore encompasses both cognitive (“considering”) and affective (“connecting”) elements of the practice.

Building on the work of Barton, Levstik, and Kohlmeier, Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks present a model of historical empathy that incorporates affective and cognitive elements. Their holistic definition of historical empathy involves the intersection of three practices:

  • Historical Contextualization: A recognition of the difference between past and present. This understanding is grounded in knowledge of the events that took place before, after, and during the time period under consideration. Comprehension also requires careful attention to what was “normal” (politically, socially, and culturally) in that time and place.
  • Perspective Taking: Cognizance of the beliefs, values, and experiences a person possesses. Awareness and understanding of these elements of a person’s life allows one to more fully comprehend and narrate how a person might have considered or interacted with their circumstances.
  • Affective Connection: Taking into account the ways a historical person’s actions might be the result of their “affective response.” This is best done by making a connection to one’s own life experiences and assessing the ways both experiences and affective responses might be similar or different.

Endacott and Brooks’s affective model of historical empathy reaffirms many of the qualities associated with historical empathy in the cognitive models, including the importance of recognizing difference, utilizing evidence to understand context, and the value of comprehending the reasons for past beliefs and values. However, the authors argue that the combination of historical contextualization, perspective-taking, and affective connection is more effective for making sense of actions that are not rational.

Affective response allows students to make sense of past actions driven by “pride, fear, love, hate, desperation, or greed” and helps them discover connections between themselves and past peoples. This connection to historical figures does not subsume students’ own identities (Yeager and Foster’s overidentification). Nor does it require agreement (sympathy in Yeager and Foster’s critique). Instead, affective connection, guided by investigation of evidence and acknowledgment of complex perspectives, gives students the necessary tools to recognize the humanity of seemingly alien peoples.

Historical Empathy in this Study

As noted in the introduction, I define historical empathy as including both care (expressed as affective response) and understanding. However, this was not my working definition of historical empathy when I conducted the World Civilizations course in Spring 2017. At the time, I framed historical empathy in the course using a cognitive model of historical empathy. In my Learning Outcomes for the course, I defined historical empathy as: “an ability to understand and respect the motivations, beliefs, and daily life of past peoples, without necessarily agreeing to every worldview.” My goal was to foster students’ perspective taking, ability to use evidence, and capacity for perceiving past peoples’ actions as legitimate and normative for the times and places we studied. Affective response was not a part of this endeavor. In fact, I actively discouraged students from including emotional responses in their blog posts and class discussions.

Students nonetheless consistently used affect to make sense of course content. This is unsurprising given Barton, Levstik, Kohlmeier, Endacott, and Brooks’s arguments that affect is always present in historical study. Barton and Levstik even call care the “motivating force behind nearly all historical research.” Based on the presence of affect in students’ work and the influence of proponents of affective models of historical empathy, I have therefore revised my definition of historical empathy to include both care and understanding.


  1. Stuart J. Foster, “Final Thoughts,” in O. L. Davis, Elizabeth Anne Yeager, and Stuart J. Foster, eds., Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 168.

  2. A few authors do see personal engagement as necessary for students’ development of historical empathy. Davis argues that historical empathy activities may be more effective if students enjoy the topic than if they are bored, thereby creating space for students to explore personal relevance. However, his promotion of personal engagement does not fully affirm the value of personal experiences or emotion. Instead, Davis reiterates the central thesis of the cognitive model: students’ personal perspectives and emotional reactions should always be firmly controlled by unwavering focus on context and evidence. O.L. Davis, “In Pursuit of Historical Empathy,” in Davis, Yeager, Foster, Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies, 2-3.

  3. Denis Shemilt, “Beauty and the Philosopher: Empathy in History and Classroom,” in Learning History, ed. A. K. Dickinson, P. J. Lee, and P. J. Rogers (London: Heinemann, 1984), 50-54, http://thenhier.ca/en/content/shemilt-d-%E2%80%9Cbeauty-and-philosopher-empathy-history-and-classroom%E2%80%9D-1984.html. Rosalyn Ashby and Peter Lee, “Children’s Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History,” in The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Christopher Portal (London; New York; Philadephia: Falmer Press, 1987), 68-74.

  4. Shemilt, “Beauty and the Philosopher,” 47-48.

  5. Peter Lee, “Explanation and Understanding in History,” in Alaric K. Dickinson and P. J. Lee, eds., History Teaching and Historical Understanding (London: Heinemann, 1978), 78.

  6. Elizabeth Yeager and Frans Doppen, “Teaching and Learning Multiple Perspectives,” Davis, Yeager, and Foster, Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies, 97.

  7. Stuart J. Foster, “Historical Empathy in Theory and Practice: Some Final Thoughts,” in ibid., 174.

  8. Elizabeth Anne Yeager and Stuart J. Foster, “The Role of Empathy in the Development of Historical Understanding,” in ibid., 13. It’s worth noting that some cognitive model proponents are not quite as skeptical of imaginative exercises. Christopher Portal, for example, actively encourages “projective imagination” of past figures’ emotions and actions as one method of helping young students understand past peoples as at least somewhat similar to themselves. Christopher Portal, “Empathy as an Objective for History Teaching,” in Portal, The History Curriculum for Teachers, 90.

  9. Karen Riley’s “The Holocaust and Historical Empathy: The Politics of Understanding,” in Davis, Yeager, and Foster, Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies, 141, outlines the risks of students’ overidentification with people who perpetuated acts of torture, violence, and genocide. Riley found that students either viewed concentration camp guards and doctors as monsters or dismissed their actions as acceptable given the time and place. Neither reaction helped students comprehend the experiences of the victims or understand the motivations of camp guards and doctors. In 2017, a South Carolina social studies teacher faced opposition to an activity that asked fifth graders to imagine themselves as members of the Ku Klux Klan and justify their actions against black Americans. Maggie Astor, “South Carolina 5th Graders Are Asked to Explain K.K.K.’s Thinking”, The New York Times, accessed January 19, 2018, http://web.archive.org/web/20190415020103/https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/us/south-carolina-teacher-kkk.html?smid=pl-share.

  10. Rosalyn Ashby and Peter Lee, “Empathy, Perspective Taking, and Rational Understanding,” in Davis, Yeager, and Foster, Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies, 24.

  11. The emphasis on the evidence as a moderating force for imagination stems from the work of G.R. Elton who, in response to E.H. Carr and R.G. Collingwood, wrote, ““Imagination, controlled by learning and scholarship, learning and scholarship rendered meaningful by imagination—these are the tools of enquiry possessed by the historian.” See G. R. Elton, Practice of History (London: Fontana/ Collin, 1987), 87.

  12. Studies in which authors provided students’ with guidance include: Keith C. Barton, “Historical Understanding among Elementary Children” (D.Ed., University of Kentucky, 1994), https://search.proquest.com/docview/304128747/abstract/5794124B34F6494BPQ/1; Jada Kohlmeier, “‘Couldn’t She Just Leave?’: The Relationship Between Consistently Using Class Discussions and the Development of Historical Empathy in a 9th Grade World History Course.,” Theory & Research in Social Education 34, no. 1 (2006): 34–57; Jason L. Endacott, “Reconsidering Affective Engagement in Historical Empathy,” Theory & Research in Social Education 38, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 6–47, https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2010.10473415; Margery Dillenburg, “Understanding Historical Empathy in the Classroom” (Ed.D., Boston University, 2017), https://search.proquest.com/docview/1915983841/abstract/72862D90B08E4CF5PQ/1. Most other studies left students to their own devices and either observed or interviewed students about the historical materials provided. See Rosalind Ashby & Peter Lee, “Children’s Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History” in Portal, The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Christopher Portal (London; New York; Philadephia: Falmer Press, 1987), 62-88; Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, “‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History’: National Identity and Students’ Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record 99, no. 3 (March 1, 1998): 478–513, Elizabeth Anne Yeager, Stuart J. Foster, and Sean D. Maley, “Why People in the Past Acted as They Did: An Exploratory Study in Historical Empathy,” International Journal of Social Education 13, no. 1 (April 15, 1998): 8–24.

  13. Foster, Yeager, and Maley found especially compelling evidence of the usefulness of diverse evidence in their study of students’ interaction with narratives related to Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. See Elizabeth Anne Yeager, Stuart J. Foster, and Sean D. Maley, “Why People in the Past Acted as They Did: An Exploratory Study in Historical Empathy,” International Journal of Social Education 13, no. 1 (April 15, 1998): 8–24.

  14. Barton and Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good, 228.

  15. ibid., 216.

  16. ibid., 229.

  17. ibid., 229. Ashby and Lee, despite more closely adhering to cognitive models of historical empathy, make a similar point in “Children’s Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History,” in Portal, The History Curriculum for Teachers, 65.

  18. Jada Kohlmeier, “‘Couldn’t She Just Leave?’”, 19.

  19. ibid., 43.

  20. ibid., 37.

  21. Jason L. Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8, no. 1 (2013): 41–58. In addition to Barton, Levstik, and Kohlmeier, Endacott and Brooks credit the influence of Joan Skolnick, Nancy Dulberg, and Thea Maestre. Through Other Eyes : Developing Empathy and Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Studies, Toronto: Pippin Publishing Corporation, 2003, accessed March 1, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=3385998#

  22. ibid., 42-43.

  23. Endacott and Brooks’ exact language is “social, political, and cultural norms.” Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” 43.

  24. ibid., 42-43.

  25. See Syllabus in Downloads & Datasets.

  26. Barton and Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good, 228.