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.


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]

45 thoughts on “Empathy vs. sympathy”

  1. I feel sympathy for Jodi Arias – I have not been on trial for my life but I believe it’s a nerve-racking experience and Jodi does not deserve to be treated like that, expecially after what she’s been through!

    • Jodi Arias is a murderer given too much attention because she is pretty. She was on trial because she killed somebody which, along with the sentencing, is the just deserts for the particular offense. How in the world could you sympathize with her?

    • You don’t have to have been in the other person’s shoes to feel empathy.
      You merely have to be able to imagine what it would be like to feel the guilt, shame and fear Ms. Arias must feel knowing she’ll probably pay with her life (or the rest of her life incarcerated) for the horrible crimes she’s committed.

  2. In other words, “empathy” is something middle-class white people invented to feel good about themselves in spite of having no clue about what really goes on in the world.

    • Why does it always have to come down to race? For goodness sake – one Black person may empathise with another Black or White person and visa-versa. Have Black people been given a bum deal in the past in South Africa? Absolutely. No person in their right mind could deny this fact. But does that mean that the Black people in South Africa are the only ones that suffer? White, Indian, Coloured people – we just have grand lives and never experience any pain, suffering, loss or fear! Wake up and smell the coffee – your silly statement may annoy some people for a few minutes, but the bitterness you obviously feel is eating at your soul and is permanently damaging you and your life!

    • Non-Whites flock to White majority nations because Whites build the most desirable societies.

      The problem in racially diverse societies is that the following White traits become detrimental to White survival:

      1. moral universalism (obsession with caring, fairness, kindness, compassion and justice)

      2. proneness to feeling guilt

      3. ethno-masochism (celebrating one’s own ethnic displacement)

      Non-Whites take advantages of these unique White traits. (And no-one can provide evidence that these traits are displayed in non-Whites to the same degree).

      Evolutionary psychologists have proven Whites build societies built on trust and morality. Non-Whites build them on kinship. But most Whites don’t recognise the difference due to heavy Cultural Marxist propaganda telling everyone we are the same.

      However in a White only society, these weakness are strengths. It’s these traits (especially no. 1) that cause Whites to build high trust, more desirable societies)

      • What the heck is a white only society? Nazi Germany? Your rantings are absurdly ignorant of the complexity of history. I love the trust that the English Kings put in their rivals- the Tower of London is full of their satisfied souls, and the Bastille was a remarkable place to spend a vacation, and who didn’t find the Spanish Inquisition warm and welcoming? But let’s get out of Europe and see how trusting the white were of their “host” cultures, anyone ever meet an Apache who didn’t just love America, the land of opportunity? And the Aztecs, oops, I think they are all dead at the hands and snotty, disease ridden noses of the glorious white “societies”!

    • Nona, I do think that people like to fancy themselves in a certain way. It is sad that we too often lack self-awareness, are quick to judge, and base our opinions on too little information and too many biases.

      It can be infuriating and frustrating to deal with such folks. I wish you the best in staying strong despite all the hardships. I am sure that you have beauty in your soul, and hope you can stay focused on the gifts you alone can bring into this world. Be well.

          • That’s as may be, but when you talk about the beauty in her soul when clearly she has not demonstrated any to be present, well, that’s a put down. I’m English, whereas I suspect you may be American which may explain my interpretation of your comment. I know you didn’t mean it to be a putdown but in the UK it would be considered a good one – someone speaks venomously as did Nona, and you smile sweetly and say how beautiful they are inside. That’s a putdown from which they can’t cone back.

            To answer Nona’s point properly, most words in English have been invented by white people, and a long time ago. To think that a word has been invented to make anyone feel good about themselves is just plain stupid. Using a word may be to make you feel good about yourself – not inventing one. It would be good if Nona could give us a list of words that black people, or people of colour, have invented, marking any which make anyone feel good.

          • I also did not find what Nona said to be “venomous” or an indication of a lack of beauty in her soul.

            I personally do not understand why people respond so negatively when someone else expresses hurt or anger. It seems our first response is to attack or punish.

            Nona did not receive sympathy or empathy here. I think that is a shame. We do not know what prompted her statements, what hardships she may have endured, or what she or members of her family or community have been through.

            Why can’t we listen? Why must our first response be to reject or dismiss someone else’s feelings and experience out of hand?

            And isn’t refusing to HEAR another person…or to acknowledge/validate another human being’s existence and experience the ultimate put down? Isn’t it this basic request for decency that is at the root of many of our problems? Wasn’t the meme that caught fire that what some people really wanted, more than anything, was simply to feel that they mattered?

            The overwhelming response has been “‘no’ – we could care less about you (your parents, your children). We refuse to make any changes to the status quo, and how dare you ask or bring up this uncomfortable issue.”

            We could have used recent events as an opportunity towards healing a historic wound, but the outpouring of hatred and negative responses have been intense. In other words, how many have behaved is the exact opposite of the concept conveyed in the definitions above, or a recent RSA on empathy (which, I think, was Nona’s point).

          • Sorry, but I don’t know what RSA means or what the events are to which you refer. You seem to know a lot about Nona and what she meant and what she has suffered about which I am totally ignorant. All I know is she wrote something designed to offend white people and succeeded in my case. Yes, you make a very good point about looking at why people make the comments they do. Nona may well have suffered from 400 years of bias, bigotry and racism, but I don’t know that. Her comment seemed totally gratuitous to me having no place in a discussion about grammar. I do think her comment was venomous as it just feeds racism and does nothing to fight it. I don’t know what a soul is so shouldn’t really have commented on its beauty or otherwise. Maybe you could define it for me and how you recognise a beautiful as opposed to an ugly one. Is it anything to do with what people say or do?

          • *** All I know is she wrote something designed to offend white people

            And HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?

            (How can you claim to both know nothing about her, AND that you know her motivations for the writing her comments?)

            I was not offended. I did not assume that offending me, or other white people, was her motivation. My guess is that what she wrote is descriptive of her experience and observations. My guess is that she feels frustration and anger (perhaps at a high level). I do not think that a person standing in their truth feeds racism — but that having others dismiss any and all attempts to express what it can be like to experience life as a person of a certain race or group, certainly might.

            If you are standing on someone’s toe, and they say “ouch, you are standing on my toe” are they saying it to offend you? to accuse you of being a terrible person? Or, do they just want you to move your foot ? Should you deny you are standing on their foot and stomp harder as punishment? Should you take their comment personally? Or, should you move your foot and offer an apology?

            I would also like to offer an apology to you. RSA is the Royal Society of the Arts (and one of their animated videos about empathy recently went viral). Originally I had included a link with my post, but Disqus wouldn’t allow my comment until I removed the link. Sorry for the confusion.

            Wishing the best to you …and Nona : )

          • Hi,

            Not sure what your capitals were for – hope I wasn’t standing on your toes! Apologies if I was.
            You’re right, I didn’t really know her motives. I just credited her with enough intelligence to have realised that she would offend with her racist comment.
            I can see that you are a good person and like to look at what has caused someone to behave in the way they do. I agree that it’s good to do this but it’s also right to point out when someone is just plain wrong. Racism is one of those cases. It’s not only white people who are guilty of racism.

            Anyway, as this is a ‘word’ forum, I would still be interested in what you mean by soul, and how it differs from personality and why you think Nona’s might be beautiful.


          • At work I overheard two mothers talking about their sleepless nights, and the challenges of sharing a bed with their children. I wondered if this a philosophical or cultural choice? That was when I learned that drug dealers beat loudly on the doors at their apartment every hour throughout the night, last night and every night, pressuring the residents to open the door and buy heroin. The mothers had each brought their children into their rooms for safety, padlocking that interior door as well as well as the main entry. My friend said that they would literally run from the door of their apartment to their car each morning, as a matter of safety. At one point, she had been happily married to a wonderful man — but on one occasion he opened the door, and that was it. He was addicted (and would do anything to get more). She could never trust him with the children again, so she had to go it on her own.

            A study of elementary school children in one city revealed that over 90% of the children had witnessed violence; over half had been the victims of some form of violence; 40% had seen a dead body. In an inner city high school, 100% of the children had never been further than one mile from their homes. They had never met or seen a real white person.

            I do not think that most middle class people know what it is like to live this way. My guess is that most do not often travel to the most dangerous parts of town or spend much time there (even though there are children who have no other choice but to deal with that level of toxic stress every day). Most of us give little thought to what happens to children there (and when we do think about it, we think in terms of “deserving” what they get. Or, we like to think that if “we” were in those circumstances that “we” would someone magically overcome all hardships to become one of the “success stories” held up as proof that anyone can succeed if they only try hard enough).

            But since I work with children and families from prenatal to 9 years of age, I find it hard to think of babies as “deserving” of violence or abuse (or a lack of nutrition, or lack of environments rich with language, healthy levels of sensory stimulation, appropriate opportunities for movement, etc.). When I say the word “soul” I am referring to the seed of potential and possibility that resides in each human being (the gifts that each of us are born with to offer the world and give meaning to our lives) from birth.

            Again, I did not read Nona’s comments as racist or an intent to offend — but possibly as a description of her own circumstance (and emotional response to people who claim to have “empathy” even as they go about their lives without ever noticing the suffering that happens in so many places). Although I will say that no one is immune to the fundamental attribution error, and that many people who ‘make it’ believe that it was because there is something special about them — rather than because they were lucky enough to get their needs met during critical periods of development.

          • Hi,

            I can see that your experiences of life are indeed very different from most people and I’m guessing you live, or work in a very tough neighbourhood if the USA. We have tough neighbourhoods in the UK but thankfully not comparable to those in the States. Even so, coming from a working class background myself, whose Dad died when I was six, I would never dream of thinking of someone having deserved to be poor and disenfranchised. I am truly thankful for the welfare state here that has not only kept me alive with free medecine and allowed me to be educated and graduate completely free. I have been lucky to have been given the opportunity to get a good job and own my own house. I never take these things for granted, especially with the rise of conservatism in this country which aims to keep poor people ‘in their place’. I know that even given opportunities, not everyone is able to take advantage of them.

            Even so, in the UK where people are helped more than in many other countries, it irks me when people deliberately cut themselves off by the language they use, and the clothes they wear. Right or wrong this makes it hard for them to get jobs and just perpetuates the situation. Nona’s response annoyed me because it won’t help her in the slightest bit. Yes, I know that when people feel aggrieved they are not likely to be the most conciliatory, but I was still annoyed all the same. As you say, we are not perfect and I’m no exception.

            It’s easy to forget that on the internet, one can be responding to someone anywhere in the world with totally different experiences to your own. My initial response was more appropriate for someone living in the UK, although your response is still better.

            Your job sounds very tough and I hope you get rewarded with positive results, as you are obviously a very caring and understanding person.

            I find your definition of soul a bit unusual but to argue the point seems churlish now. I think we can both agree though that it would be nice to live in a world where everyone gets a chance to achieve their full potential. Who knows, it may even lead to whirled peas!

            Care to say whereabouts you live? Don’t worry, I’m not asking for an address – just the city or State if you prefer. I live 20 miles north of London.

            Good corresponding with you and I wish you well for the future.


          • Thank you for your kind post, Dave. I am glad that you received the support (medical care, education) that you needed to become a thoughtful and responsible person.

            Most of my work with lower income children and families has been in Dallas, Texas. I wish we could reach more people (and that we would do a better job of effectively addressing poverty in my country).

            I have enjoyed our exchange as well, and wish you and yours the best also. Be well.

          • I was initially annoyed that this discussion of the differences between
            Empathy and Sympathy had been hi-jacked by some negative, probably
            Racist comment and the stream of responses to it, but having read them,
            discover that they are a better example of the differences between Empathy and Sympathy (or the lack thereof) than any dry analysis. My only regret now is that Nona’s original
            comment has been removed so we can’t judge for ourselves; and I refer to
            Judging our personal reaction, not Judging Nona or anyone else.

          • Actually not my only regret; I have a few :¬) The first that springs to mind is that people doing the really important jobs (like yours Whirled Peas) invariably get paid a pittance, where as people like hedge fund managers who think that they are important get paid obscenely large amounts

          • Nona said ‘So empathy was invented by a white middle class guy to make himself feel better’.

            I agree with your comments on the sort of job that Whirled Peas does compared with hedge fund managers.

          • Thanks Dave, but now I want to get back to the Semantics:
            Wouldn’t it be Sympathy which was invented to make him feel better as that is a concious acknowledgement that you would like things to be better for someone without actually feeling what they do, whereas Empathy would inherently make you Feel worse as it is sharing the feelings that the suffering person is experiencing ?

          • Hi, I would prefer to steer away from any ideas that words are invented to make anyone feel better about themselves. I take your point though – I always think that sympathy is more about thinking and empathy is more about feeling. Thinking can be automatic, abstract, and easy whereas feeling comes from the heart and is based on experience.
            Look at when people use the word sympathy. They say things such as ‘send her my deepest sympathies’. Easy isn’t it? I mean it doesn’t cost you anything. Or, ‘you have my deepest sympathy’ often followed by a ‘but’ as in ‘but you’ve still got to leave your property by tomorrow’.

            Now look at how people use the word empathy. It’s usually used about someone showing empathy for someone else; I.e. they actually did something for someone else to help them because they felt sorry for them. Or they just cried with them or showed support by being there.

            These are just my thoughts of course, and how I perceive people here in the UK to use the words. My conversation with whirled peas has taught me not to be quite so parochial. Also, if enough people use a word incorrectly it becomes correct. Don’t get me started on decimate……

          • Sympathy is not just spouting trite phrases. I know someone whose daughter committed suicide. There is no way that I can feel what she feels. I can sympathize. I took her groceries, and watched her young grandkids when she made the funeral arrangements. I wouldn’t dream of saying I felt what she felt. I just can’t as, thank heavens, my child is still with me. Sometimes sympathizing is all you can do.

          • I agree, sympathy can be heartfelt too and as I was saying in a previous post, I think the way the words are used sympathy and empathy overlap. I would say though that you showed empathy with your friend judging by your actions, as well as sympathy. I don’t think you have to have the same experiences to be empathetic, but have enough imagination to be able to put yourself in their place. I think in your case you probably imagined how you would feel if God forbid, you lost your son or daughter in the same way. You say you can’t feel the same as your friend but as parents we all know the pain we feel if we think our children are in danger.

          • What I didn’t like hearing was people who were telling her they knew how she felt even though it didn’t happen to them, or that her child was not in pain/in a better place. Some people are idiots.

          • Wow, I was just looking up a definition and I don’t usually read the comments, but I did this time. And scrolling through my first thought was that you people think to much. But then I actually read what was said and thank you for the entertainment.

  3. I see what you are getting at, but when you say that to sympathize is to have compassion for someone it reaffirms the difficulty of establishing the clear difference between sympathy and empathy. Compassion comes from the two Latin words Cum (with) and Passio (suffer); it implies that those who are compassionate suffer with others. Suffering is a feeling and this therefore seem to make sympathy [ Syn (with) pathos (feel)] identical with compassion and thereby with empathy as you have presented it. Is sympathy perhaps more tied to conceptually understanding and validating the condition of others while empathy is more closely linked to actually experiencing what another is feeling.

    • Yes, I think you have it. They are similar and overlap. One is more ‘thinking’ and the other is more ‘feeling’. People who don’t feel for others won’t bother thinking too much about them either.

    • I think I am good at sympathizing with people but horrible at empathizing with them. Example: If I see someone in severe emotional distress, then I feel bad for them, ask them if I can help make them feel better, etc. I feel sympathy for them and wish they weren’t in such pain. But then if they tell me what’s causing them such emotional pain and it’s something I feel is “stupid,” I just can’t put myself in their place at all. I still feel horrible for them, and I want them to be happy, but I simply cannot approach their state of mind in which they breakdown over something I perceive as trivial. Likewise, if someone is happy about something that I can’t understand how that could make them joyous, I’m glad they’re happy but I can’t understand it.

  4. Sympathy, according to my dictionary, can mean “the entering into or ability to enter into another person’s mental state, feelings, emotions, etc.” I think people just like the novelty of “empathy,” a word I don’t think I heard until the late 1990s. To me, the novelty of the word trivializes it.

  5. There’s a characteristic of empathy that’s missing from this piece. It’s narcissistic empathy. The people who cried for France, the people who need to tell you where they were on 911, etc. It going beyond feeling what other people are feeling and making something about yourself that has nothing to do with you.


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