The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Problem With Empathy and the Advantage of Sympathy

I recently wrote an article on how to be happy in bad times, and advised, in effect, that in most cases one should avoid feeling other people’s suffering.

One should, to be happy, not constantly be empathizing with people who are suffering.

Empathy happens when you feel what other people feel. You put themselves in their shoes, as it were, and feel what they feel.

Empathy is a deeply problematic emotion. It works best when we identify with someone else. It is for this reason that, for example, when New York or London suffers a terrorist attack, we (Westerners) get very worked up, but when Iraq suffers (yet another) attack, we hardly even notice and if we do, most Westerners care little, if at all.

Empathy requires us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to imagine ourselves as them. It is near automatic with people who are like us, with whom we identify, and virtually non-existent for people with whom people we don’t identify.

When empathy works, we feel a version of what the other person feels; if they are suffering, we suffer. If they are happy, we are happy, and so on.

Sympathy is different: We care about someone else, and we want them to be better. We do not have to feel what they feel, instead we feel caring. And when we feel caring, we tend to act. Sympathy is a positive emotion, it feels good to care. It is beneficial to us to feel sympathy, and it is beneficial to others if we act.

These are two distinct emotions, and they show up on brain scans as activating different areas of the brain.

Empathy is important in personal interactions with people with whom we identify or are close to. It shows that we are like them. It is a marker of being one of the tribe or the family. If my best friend or spouse is horribly upset and I’m smiling, we’re going to have problems.

But it is unhealthy in a networked world, where I identify with people thousands of miles away. Someone is always hurting, and if I read the news and feel empathy for every bad story, I’m going to be hurting a lot in empathy with them.

This wasn’t a problem in a hunter-gatherer band. I knew only a few people, and if something was hurting them, given our close ties, it was something I should really care about.

Empathy does not imply, either, what sympathy does: a desire for the other person to be better off. A torturer can feel empathy with a victim, and get off on it. Sympathy includes “want them to stop suffering,” empathy doesn’t always. I take care to feel empathy for my enemies, so I know what they feel and how they think, so I can defeat them, after all.

For most purposes, in our world, sympathy is the better emotion. Have sympathy for others, act if you can, and get on with your life. Don’t feel the pain of strangers in trouble all the time, because there are too many of them. Your empathy does nothing for them, and it is harmful to you to feel bad so much.

I’m a strong proponent of being able to feel empathy for almost anyone. But much of the time, using empathy should be a conscious choice, because doing so with someone who is suffering, hurts.

(Of course, learning to feel empathy for happy people is one of the best skills one can have. In fact, it is one of the “four Buddhist treasures.” Someone’s always happy, if that makes you feel happy, well, you can be happy almost all the time.)

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How to Be Happy in Bad Times


Adam Smith Explains Why Good Guys with Guns Don’t Stop School Shooters


  1. nihil obstet

    I don’t remember when empathy became the appeal of choice for significant numbers of charities, but I think it coincides with the rise of neo-liberalism. I was struck when the AIDS campaign focused on convincing people that they too could get AIDS from a blood transfusion rather than treating it like say polio where sufferers simply needed help. The 1984 Band-Aid fundraiser “Let Them Know It’s Christmas” has the jarring line “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”, as though how you feel is the issue in a drought and famine. And yet it seems to me that’s how lots of activism is now done. Ratchet up the empathy as a play in which we suffer deep emotions, because our lives don’t give us vivid enough feelings appropriately appreciated by others.

    The distinction from sympathy is helpful here.

  2. ponderer

    Well said. Yet more advice I wish I could give to a younger self. I wonder how much MSM news is to set up Emotional overload so when we do hear about those people thousands of miles away we don’t have any Empathy left to give as a sort of self protective function. It seems to be a lot, especially when there is a shooting.

  3. Rain is bad if one is having a parade or a picnic, but good if one is a farmer. In reality, rain is simply rain, inherently neutral. Good and bad are value judgements which we place on rain based on the effect which it has on us and on those we care about.

    If someone I care about is having his picnic rained out and I am railing with him about how bad the rain is I am being empathetic, but I am not helping him. Actually, I am harming him, because I am helping him focus on and live in misery. If I am sympathetic I help him pitch an awning over his picnic table.

  4. realitychecker

    Just some thoughts, not to push any particular conclusion:

    It’s hard to understand what you hate. And it’s hard to hate what you understand.

    In my youth, we were all very familiar with the saying that “You can’t understand a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

    We don’t hear that last sentiment much anymore, but I have always tried to take it a bit further, and frame it in my own mind as, “If you want to understand another being, imagine yourself living inside it’s skin.” Skill at visualization helps with this, and I usually like the results of going through that process. The result generally feels like a combination of the best aspects of empathy and sympathy, and its usefulness to understanding transcends, to me, the value of deciding on one label over the other.

    Separately, a minor quibble I have with the idea that empathy depends on factual social or biological ‘alikeness’ is that I most often find some of my strongest empathic reactions occurring when I consider animals being subjected to unnecessary cruelty; I think it is because the sense of injustice is highest with creatures that are most helpless to exercise any choice or remedy for themselves. I think also that such resonates so strongly because it reminds me of all the painful things I have had to experience personally that seem, even upon careful forensic consideration, to have come out of the blue, with no input or fault of my own, and no conceivable strategy that would have reasonably allowed me to avoid them. The feelings aroused by that sense of unbearable injustice, even if they be primarily of the empathy flavor, do indeed move me to want to take action, generally the kind of action that would appropriately punish the deliberate instigator of the injustice.

    Just some thoughts.

  5. Sid Finster

    The happiest people I have ever known were successful sociopaths.

    By contrast, Christ and Abraham Lincoln were each described as “the man of sorrows”.

  6. someofparts

    Everyone who is themselves mistreated does not necessarily learn compassion for others from it. Sometimes it goes the other way and mistreated people harden into sadists.

    Maybe one of the things that sympathy has to recommend it, is that it can be a kind of emotional north star that can show someone a good way to transmute our own hardships, so that our own hard lessons lead us to be kind instead of heartless.

  7. Willy

    There’s the kind of pain you didn’t worry much about, because it never happened to you. If you saw happen to somebody else, it was somehow their fault, their business… their struggle. Then it happens to you. And the empathy thing gets switched on full blast.

  8. Dan Lynch

    I mostly agree with Ian, but as Sid points out some great people had a lot of empathy — and paid an emotional price for it. In addition to Lincoln, Martin Luther King comes to mind.

    It is useful to be able to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, to view the world through their eyes.

    But … we need to be able to turn that off, so that we can go on about our lives without being depressed all the time. Just don’t turn it off all the time.

  9. sidd

    Thanks for turning on comment moderation.

    I find it impossible to control either empathetic or sympathetic feelings …


  10. Ché Pasa

    Some people are natural empaths. They can’t not be empathetic, and the ones I know embrace their empathetic natures. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult. They aren’t necessarily happy, and they certainly aren’t happy all the time, but then they don’t have to be. Nor does anyone.

    On the other hand, some people are apparently incapable of empathizing with another being and can only sympathize — if they can do that. I think there are many who can’t.

    Empathy and sympathy are so often intertwined though that not everyone can distinguish between them.

  11. S Brennan

    When I was young I’d often hear the phrase “but for the grace of God go I”. Those people of the great depression are almost all gone now, but they understood the capriciousness of “God’s grace” and this knowledge kept their ego in check.

    When Milton Freedman took to the PUBLICLY OWNED airways [PBS] to preach weekly the Satanic verses of neoliberalism, one of the first things he sought to do was to ridicule sympathy for your fellow man. That serpent, who is with his dark master now, taught that sympathy, [and worse, empathy] was “counterproductive” and “useless”, greed & self aggrandizement was the path to moral an enlightened society. Satan has never had a more useful serpent.

  12. Webstir

    My brain seems to have a running soundtrack and this post has brought to mind the Stones Sympathy for the Devil — a song dripping with irony in my translation.

    The root “sym” from the ancient greek means with, in company with, or together with. Added to “pathy” we get the feeling of being together with, or, “in the same boat.” As if to say, “I get what you’re going through” so I’m going to help you through it. Whereas the root “em” most likely stems from the French assimilation of en- “in, into.” This is the ‘forcing the issue’ of imaging what it must be like to someone suffering, but having no reference of such. Into feeling.

    Back to the Stones. We all have sympathy for the devil because at times all of us are that devil. We identify. We don’t have to imagine because we know “every cop is a criminal” and that “all the sinners” are “saints.”

  13. Herman

    @S Brennan,

    I remember my grandparents having that exact attitude. They suffered during the Great Depression and understood that no amount of “meritocracy” could save you from the vagaries of life. When I compare their attitude to that of their children (Baby Boomers) and my own generation (Generation X) and the Millennials I don’t see the same attitude of “but for the grace of God go I.”

    Instead most people today operate on the assumption that they are special. If they run into rough times it is because some other group screwed them and they deserve help but other people who are having a rough time are lazy or stupid or didn’t make the right decisions and so deserve no help. If they are successful it is all due to their efforts and no luck is involved. This is a major reason why I am not sanguine about positive change in the future.

    I don’t think we have to worry about people being too empathetic since empathy has declined significantly since 2000. Sherry Turkle has written a good article about this issue:

    We should be much more worried about our raising a generation of children who are emotionally stunted due to overuse of technology and the promotion of “me first” and “greed is good” ideology.

  14. BC Nurse Prof

    A lot has been written on this topic, but the most recent and revolutionary thoughts come from Ajit Varki and Danny Brower (now deceased). Their book is called Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. It’s one of the most important books I ever read and I re-read it often, always getting something new out of it. Written by a physician/researcher and an insect geneticist, they posit that modern humans (and perhaps some older species of Homo) developed two separate mutations, each by themselves deleterious, but when occurring at the same time allowed humans to develop their deeply social culture and to take risks no other species would take.

    The two mutations are: 1) a full theory of mind. (Some animals have partial theories of mind and can act that way, including apes, dolphins and some corvids like ravens). This means that you know you have a mind and you know that other people and other creatures also have minds, including emotions. This gives you both sympathy and empathy. 2) the ability to deny or ignore the minds and feelings in yourself or others if it suits your purpose.

    I can’t do justice here to the whole book, but you can watch this 20 min video by Ajit Varki that explains the whole thing. Be advised that he could win an Oscar for his very dry sense of humour that goes with his professional demeanor. I’ve known a lot of physicians who are like this.

    And there is a blog devoted to this work:

    These two mutations are rather new, evolutionaryily speaking, so they are variable. This means that there are some humans who are almost incapacitated by their ability to sympathize and empathize. I am one of those people – if I see a picture of a tortured or abused dog I am unable to function and I’ll lay down and cry for a week. The image will haunt me for years before the effect fades. Pictures of tortured humans don’t bother me as much, and I was a very good nurse for all those years. Among psychopaths, their ability to deny the very humanity of other people, much less that they even have minds of their own, is legendary.

    Watch the video. You’ll be amazed. You’ll begin to see the effects of this in your everyday life immediately.

  15. Billikin

    Sympathy and empathy are often confused these days. Empathy is the more recent term, originally used in the field of art. It’s original meaning was to enter into the feeling of a work of art. Nor did it mean to feel the same thing as the artist, or another observer. It was taken up by psychotherapists, who definitely did not mean feeling the same thing as the client; doing so would be bad for both the client and the therapist. In both art and psychotherapy empathy implies a certain distance, a combination of both subjectivity and objectivity, emotion and cognition. Interestingly, even the faith healer Oral Roberts said that sympathy could be a burden to the person in need of healing, as well as to the person feeling the sympathy. (Roberts did not talk about empathy, as far as I know.) OTOH, empathy could set the stage for catharsis. Ian is right that empathy does not imply a concern for the other person. A certain level of empathy is useful for a con man.

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