Empathy versus Sympathy

The terms sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably in modern language, but their meanings differ.   In practice, when translated into action, the two fundamentally diverge.

Empathy means “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”[1] Sympathy, on the other hand, is “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.[2]

Often in real life, I have witnessed that people who are primarily sympathetic tend to limit their feelings to people within their closest circles. Their sympathy rarely extends beyond people they know well or to circumstances they have experienced first hand. On the other hand, people who have a deep well of empathy often “feel” for people and non-human animals experiencing unbearable situations or conditions even though they personally have never and will never face the same horrors.

Does it matter if people are emphatic or sympathetic? Both are critically important for humanity, but only one enables humans to transcend their own needs and feelings to assist, care for, and embrace plights of non-human animals. People instilled with empathy react more fiercely when they witness suffering, cruelty, or torture of humans and non-human animals alike. They are deeply disturbed by the unnecessary suffering experienced by others. Their empathy drives them to correct a fundamentally unfair situation. Sympathy, on the other hand, may engender concern or sorrow, but less likely translates into action.

How does empathy translate into action in the context of animal welfare? Empathetic feelings transcend humans to encompass care and concern for non-human animals as well.   Empathetic people are more likely to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets (and probably take other actions to assist non-human animals in need). At least one notable scientific study documented increased levels of empathy in vegetarians and vegans, compared to non-vegetarians, through both brain scans and written questionnaires[3].  Vegetarians and vegans likely adopt a reduced or cruelty-free lifestyle because of their relatively higher level of empathy drives them to act on their reactions to cruelty. Empathy often equates to action and as Emerson said “you cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know when it will be too late.”

So can empathy be taught or is it innate? If empathy can be learned, it is incumbent upon all of us to learn how to have more empathy and to incorporate more empathy into our lives and educational curriculum. Some studies claim that empathy can be taught, but the data are not clear. Some contend that empathy can be taught through basic practices, like teaching people to stop and listen to others.[4] Others contend empathy cannot be taught or forced. People may become more aware of their surroundings, become more patient and caring, but empathy is likely a core characteristic that cannot be learned.[5]

I tend to believe that empathy is innate. It cannot be taught, but we can all learn to stop and think about our actions. We should examine the consequences of our behavior. We should actively teach our children to examine their attitudes, behavior and actions to invoke an empathetic response, even if not based on full, innate empathy. We may not transform ourselves into an empathetic person, but we can improve our world and life for all its inhabitants through actions to protect others that we previously ignored or discounted.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathy

[3] M. Bekoff, “ Brain Scans Show Vegetarians and Vegans Are More Empathic than Omnivores” Psychology Today, July 12, 2012 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201207/brain-scans-show-vegetarians-and-vegans-are-more-empathic-omnivores

[4] “Can you teach people to have empathy?” BBC Magazine, June 29, 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33287727

[5] Davis, C.M, “What is empathy, and can empathy be taught? Phys Ther. 1990 Nov; 70(11): 707-11; discussion 712-5. http://ptjournal.apta.org/content/70/11/707




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