Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy vs. Sympathy (Click for full article)

By Dr. Neel Burton, 2015

Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always.

Dr. Neel Burton wrote a thoughtful article helping to elucidate the distinction between empathy and sympathy.

In short, Dr. Burton cites psychologist Edward Titchener who in 1909 translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy has been defined as the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress. Dr. Burton and Brene Brown have both been cited to describe empathy as more than merely putting onesself into another’s position. It is instead imagining onesself as the other person, and, more than that, imagining onesself as that person in a particular situation in question. One cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling.

Dr. Burston nicely outlines how empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings. Pity is often perceived with paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight; it seems little more than an acknowledgement of the plight of its subject.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is defined as a feeling of care and concern for someone, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions. I love Dr. Burton’s eaxmple that it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to ensnare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Finally, compassion, or “suffering alongside” someone, is described as more engaged than simple empathy. It is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion share your emotions AND elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Dr. Burton concludes by saying that compassion builds upon empathy and is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Please find the article in its entirety here.

Robert Shelton
This infographic was designed by Robert Shelton, a psychologist in a Californian high school, upon reading Dr. Burston’s article.


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