Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

Examples

The government must not mistake the empathy we feel for Denise Fergus’s loss with sympathy for her views. [Guardian]

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao conveyed sympathy to the nine coal miners who were safely taken out of the Wangjialing Coal Mine. [English.news.cn]

Male participants … will walk a mile-long obstacle course in high-heel shoes to give men a sense of empathy for the female experience. [The Sun News]

Bruce says he has sympathy with the player’s stance, describing his frustrations as completely appropriate. [SAFC]

Altruism is likely driven by empathy—our tendency to “resonate” with the emotional and physical states of other people. [Wired]

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