Sympathy and Empathy

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Sympathy and Empathy


The terms “sympathy” and “empathy” have presented a semantic confusion for the behavioral scientist wholly out of proportion to the frequency with which they have been used. The principal contentions revolve around whether sympathy and empathy (1) are voluntary or involuntary capacities, (2) are emotionally neutral or negative, and (3) involve only affective or affective-cognitive elements. Sympathy means “with suffering or passion,” and, as the concept has been used both in theory and in empirical research, the connotations of negative affect predominate. Marked deviations from the etymological structure of the word and from general usage seem contraindicated. The following definition of sympathy, therefore, is offered. Sympathy is the capacity to apprehend the pain, suffering, or signs of negative emotions in man or animals and to respond to these with appropriate negative feelings. Sympathy is often an immediate, predominantly emotional awareness, but it is no less sympathetic when it is delayed and involves cognitive or reflective elements. The communication of sympathy is not required by the definition. Sympathy may involve “shared” feelings, but not all shared feelings can be communicated. Finally, the concept of sympathy, as used, has implied a fundamental capacity in man to respond to suffering, albeit by no specific neuropsychic structures. The definition, however, is not much altered by using the active form: that sympathy is the apprehending of suffering.

The concept of Einfühlung (Lipps 1903a) was translated by Titchener (1909, p. 21) as “empathy.” Empathy literally means “in suffering or passion,” but in this instance the etymology of the word and its use in aesthetics and in psychology differ. The connotations of empathy are emotionally neutral, lying between sympathy and antipathy but including the joyous emotions. Empathy may be defined as the self-conscious effort to share and accurately comprehend the presumed consciousness of another person, including his thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and muscular tensions, as well as their causes. Empathy may more briefly be defined as the self-conscious awareness of the consciousness of others. Empathy as used in psychology requires the empathizer to maintain an awareness of the imaginative nature of the transportation of oneself into another. In aesthetics, by contrast, the empathizer is supposed to “lose himself in contemplation.” Empathy, unlike sympathy, denotes an active referent. In empathy one attends to the feelings of another; in sympathy one attends to the suffering of another, but the feelings are one’s own. In empathy I try to feel your pain. In sympathy I know you are in pain, and I sympathize with you, but I feel my sympathy and my pain, not your anguish and your pain. Empathy as an act and “empathetic understanding” as a therapeutic process are not necessarily coterminous.

It is almost impossible to consider the concepts of sympathy and empathy apart from the systems of thought in which they were embedded and the times in which they flourished. It was against the impending doom predicted by Malthus, Hobbes’s perpetual war, and, more immediately, Hume’s subordination of reason to passion that Adam Smith took up arms in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and again in the Wealth of Nations (1776; see Allport 1954). Later, to challenge Darwin’s and T. H. Huxley’s preoccupation with the role of competition in the theory of natural selection, Kropotkin (1890-1896) collected a remarkable natural history of “mutual aid” in man and animals. Cooley (1902) reacted to Spencer’s (1855) and Ward’s (1883) biological and psychological reduction of sociology. And McDougall, who was thoroughly versed in the Scottish transcendentalism and the evolutionary theory out of which the concept of sympathy grew, wrote militantly to preserve “purpose” in a psychology rapidly becoming mechanistic (1908). Therefore, it has been the conceptual ill-fate of sympathy and empathy that they have endured more by contrast with opposing ideas than by the clarity of their own exposition [see Allport 1954, pp. 18-21; see also the biographies of Darwin; Hobbes; Hume; Malthus].


Adam Smith . In the sense that there were “poets before Homer and kings before Agamemnon,” there were social philosophers before Adam Smith who had used the concept of sympathy, but within modern times Smith was the first person to define sympathy with some degree of precision and to use it in a systematic manner. In his two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith developed a distinction between the inner, psychological states of man and the institutional, or legal, aspects of his relationships. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith was concerned with the nature of morality and the theory of moral motivation; in the Wealth of Nations he was concerned with an objective analysis of the institutional aspects of virtue, especially prudence. The Wealth of Nations was not, as some have maintained, based upon a psychology of individualism; therefore it is ironic that, notwithstanding his moral concerns, Smith’s major works should have contributed in such a singular manner to nineteenth-century, laissez-faire individualism.

Adam Smith began his discussion “On the Propriety of Action” with the observation that “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it . . .” ([1759] 1948, p. 73). Upon the basis of this “unselfish interest in the fortune of others,” Smith provided the classic description of sympathy. It is, he wrote, “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels . . .” ([1759] 1948, p. 74). There are certain emotions, like grief and joy, which arouse sympathy merely when they are perceived in others. But, in general, we are more easily moved to sympathy when the occasion that arouses the emotion is known. On the other hand, there are passions whose expression excites us with no sympathy until we are first acquainted with the condition that provokes them. Furious retaliation, even in righteous anger, may make us exasperated with the victim rather than with the wrongdoer until we know its provocation. This complication, in the otherwise simple tendency to “change places in fancy with the sufferer,” seems to depend, according to Smith, upon the degree of social involvement and the intrusion of cognitive elements into an otherwise affective tendency. Grief and joy are terminable in the person himself; resentment, by contrast, raises concerns about the rights of others and thus dampens feelings of sympathy.

Theory of social control. This consideration led Adam Smith quite naturally into an incipient theory of social control, which is worth stating briefly because it illustrates his systematic extension of the concept of sympathy. When the expressions of emotion in a person are in reasonable concord with the sympathetic emotions of an “impartial spectator,” they appear to the latter as just and proper; but, if the impartial spectator, “upon bringing the case home to himself,” finds the expressions of passion inordinate and inappropriate, he cannot sympathize with them. In any case there is a disparity between the passions of the persons and the sympathetic emotions of the impartial spectator, for they are affected unequally. In order to understand the person, the impartial spectator

put[s] himself in the situation of the other and . . . bring[s] home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion, with all its minutest incidents, and strive to render as perfect as possible that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded. (Smith [1759] 1948, pp. 84-85)

The person principally involved, on the other hand, longing “for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own” ([1759] 1948, p. 85), tries to flatten the pitch of his emotions to harmonize as much as possible with those of the impartial spectator. Upon these reciprocal human endeavors, the attempt of the impartial spectator to sympathize with the emotions of the sufferer and the attempt of the latter to subdue the expression of his emotions, are founded the two sets of virtues which are fundamental to Smith’s conception of society. Upon the former is founded the virtue of “benevolence” and upon the latter the virtue of “self-command.” Thus, for Smith, as for some of the Stoics by whom he was considerably influenced, individual happiness and social well-being follow from the control of one’s emotions by the principle of self-restraint. It is, as he wrote, “to feel much for others and little for ourselves, ... to restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, . . .” that grace and propriety are produced among mankind ([1759] 1948, p. 88). In the service of this principle is pressed not only the Stoical rationalization that between one situation and another there is no essential difference but also the Christian ideal that improper action will be followed by punishment.

In the final analysis, Smith was too much the man of his age to disavow himself completely of its prevailing psychological hedonism. Man’s basically egoistic nature must be contained. The principle of self-command was an element in his socialization. It became clear in the Wealth of Nations, where Smith developed the idea of institutionalization of self-command, that the crucial idea was social approbation rather than sympathy; that the latter subserves the former. Men could exist in a society without sympathy and benevolence but not without justice. Justice was the pillar upon which society was founded, and justice depended upon social awareness and, in the final analysis, upon a pre-established natural harmony and the fear of death. [See Smith, Adam.]

Herbert Spencer and Lester F . Ward. Herbert Spencer (1855) and Lester F. Ward (1883) both used the concept of sympathy in a manner not dissimilar from Smith’s. Ward defined sympathy as “the painful sensation which results to high nervous organizations at the sight of suffering in others” ([1883] 1926, vol. 1, p. 395). Sympathy, Ward wrote, arises only when the direct feelings of others are affected. The pain felt by the sympathizer and the direct pain of the sufferer are different, but the feeling of sympathetic pain is real, albeit produced not by stimulation of the external pain receptors but rather by a cognition or an idea ([1883] 1926, vol. 2, p. 369). Sympathy, as Ward used it in his sociology, became the basis of man’s moral nature —of honesty, benevolence, justice, and all those virtues that confirm man’s essential humanity. Man’s moral nature springs from his rational faculties and must be traced back to its origin in sympathy. Through what Karl Pearson came later to call “the law of sympathy,” sympathy, according to Ward, diffuses first to one’s immediate companions and children, then to the clan, the tribe, the race, and ultimately even to lower animals [(1883) 1926, vol. 1, p. 461; see also the biographies of Pearson; Spencer].

Since, for Ward, society was an association of individuals who were not by nature social ([1883] 1926, vol. 1, p. 460), the “egoistic basis of altruism” (vol. 2, p. 368) became the great moral paradox. To describe the extension of sympathy to larger and less personal social aggregates was not at all to explain why one person was moved to sympathize with another. This Ward deduced in a manner consistent with his hedonistic position. To feel sympathy is to experience real pain. In order for the sympathizer to terminate his pain, he must help the sufferer to escape. Although Ward regarded this as a “negative social force,” it was admittedly a real one. But the “great moral paradox” remained unanswered, for “why” sympathy should be a feature of egoistic man in the first place is never revealed. The concept of sympathy, once admitted, may be explained within a hedonistic psychology, but its presence there is always anomalous. [See the biography of Ward, Lester F.]

Charles Horton Cooley . Cooley also recognized the great moral paradox and attempted to resolve it (1902). The individual and society are two names for the same set of phenomena viewed from different perspectives. Man and society are not mutually antagonistic. The basis for Adam Smith’s preoccupation with the control of man’s passions disappeared by definition. Man is not born antisocial. He enters the world innocent, unself-conscious, unmoral, and with an inborn capacity for sociability. It is from society that man acquires his higher mental and moral life. With this conceptualization of society the concept of sympathy assumes another meaning. Sympathy for Cooley denotes “the sharing of any mental state that can be communicated”; it refers to a kind of communion, “an entering into and sharing the mind of someone else” (1902, p. 102). Sympathy as pity or compassion and sympathy as communion have nothing to do with one another. Since, for Cooley, society exists in the minds of men, sympathy provides the conceptual means whereby men can reach one another. Love, which is the normal, healthy expansion of human nature, provides the motive to do so. The concept of sympathy, as Cooley used it, had clearly transcendental and even pan-psychic implications, which were to be more fully explored by Max Scheler. [See the biography of Cooley.]

P’etr Kropotkin. During this same period, for reasons already referred to, P’etr Kropotkin published an important series of articles, later reprinted as Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin, while admitting that “life is a struggle,” contended that the struggle is more against adverse, mostly natural circumstances than against adversaries, and that “fitness” is no more important than “mutual aid.” In support of this position, Kropotkin presented a wide variety of examples showing the development of social institutions for mutual aid, the alleviation of suffering, and the elimination of open conflict. Because biologists, poets, and historians have emphasized the dramatic, warlike elements, scientists conclude that aggression is an inherent characteristic of life. But the study of the natural history of mutual aid among man and animals, Kropotkin insisted, shows that this is wrong. Men everywhere are found in groups, and groups at all times have been characterized as much by cooperation as by conflict. Despite their obviously evolutionary bias, Kropotkin’s efforts are lately being more fully appreciated. [See Kropotkin.]

William McDougall . One of the more sophisticated attempts to integrate the concept of sympathy in a systematic manner was made by William McDougall (1908; 1923). In order to understand where in McDougall’s system the concept of sympathy fits, it is necessary first to discuss briefly his theory of motivation and sentiments. An instinct, according to McDougall, is a mental structure, inferred from behavior, having three component parts. The cognitive, or afferent, portion of the instinct makes possible the perceptual preparation of the response. The conative, or efferent, portion of the instinct determines the behavioral expression. Both of these parts of the instinct are modifiable by learning, and here instinct and intelligence combine. The third component of the instinct contains an unalterable central core of emotional excitement. For each of McDougall’s 13 main instincts there are corresponding primary emotions. The primary emotions are the indicators of instinctive energies at work. Since two instincts can be excited at once, the primary emotions can be blended into secondary emotions, but secondary emotions are usually experienced in relation to objects for which sentiments have already been acquired. A sentiment, as McDougall defined it, is an organized and enduring system of emotional dispositions focused on the idea of an object deriving from the individual’s experience with that object. Sentiments are the units of character; instincts are the units of motivation. The organizing principle for both comes from the “self-regarding sentiment,” which is fed primarily by the instincts of submission and assertion. It develops from the “me” and the objects and ideas associated with “me.” Like Adam Smith’s principle of self-command, it is the master sentiment.

Clearly, a system of impulsive tendencies, confederated around the notion of the self, would be insufficient for explaining the structure of society, especially in its more highly organized forms, which, according to McDougall, were always characterized by a common purpose, cohesion, and altruism. For this purpose, McDougall invoked two explanatory notions—the “tender emotions” and the “nonspecific innate tendencies.” The former are associated originally with the parental instinct but are capable of including any person toward whom no hostility is felt. The nonspecific innate tendencies include the so-called “social instincts”— suggestion, imitation, and sympathy. In placing sympathy in this category, McDougall made it clear that no particular emotion is unavoidably associated with sympathy, but that the capacity for sympathy itself was an innate tendency in man. Of sympathy there are two kinds. The more basic of the two is called “primitive passive sympathy,” and it depends upon a special perceptual adaptation of each of the principal instincts for the reception of the emotional expression of that same instinct in others. In this way the instinct of fear can be excited by the sight of a threatening object or by the bodily and facial expression of fear in another person.

Sympathy, in this sense, has nothing to do with altruism. Only the confluence of the tender emotions with primitive sympathy moves one to alleviate the suffering of another. By itself, the easiest way to terminate sympathetic suffering Would be to avert one’s gaze. Sympathy may be an innate human characteristic, but sympathy alone cannot account for altruism. For altruism there must be an amalgamation of sympathy and the tender emotions. This was McDougall’s solution to Ward’s “great moral paradox.” In this manner altruism could be explained in animals possessing egoistic tendencies.

Active sympathy is less important in McDougall’s thinking. Active, or voluntary, sympathy is a social process whereby the individual seeks the sympathy of others because he wants them to share his feelings. It is not hard to explain sharing pleasurable emotions, since sharing pleasurable emotions intensifies the feelings of both parties. It is more difficult to explain the sharing of unpleasant emotions. This, for McDougall, depends upon the gregarious instinct, which when activated with sympathy, tends to decrease the emotional expression of all sufferers and thereby to reduce the suffering. [See Mcdougall.]

Max Scheler . Max Scheler (1913) made a serious attempt to construct a theory of sympathy, per se, from a phenomenological viewpoint. His position, which is complicated, extremely difficult to render into English, and not always consistent, cannot be presented in detail, nor can we engage the doubtlessly justifiable contention that his thinking itself represented an unconscious transmutation of certain antiempirical prejudices into a pretended science. But in order to grasp Scheler’s idea of sympathy, it is necessary to understand his theory of values and his treatment of the alter ego problem, the latter being the crux of any phenomenological social psychology.

As a result of his critical analysis of the various conceptions of sympathy, especially the “analogical inference” approach of Smith, Spencer, and Ward, and Lipps’s “projective empathy” theory, Scheler comes to the conclusion that both theories over estimate the difficulties involved in knowing others and underestimate the difficulties in knowing ourselves. If there is anything immediately obvious to one human being, it is the suffering of another human being. The problem for Scheler, and indeed for Cooley too, is that if one is concerned only with the pure emotional experience, as that which distinguishes man from animals, all one has immediately given is his own self and the bodily appearances and movements of the other person. The existence of the other self whose emotions are supposed to be expressed by bodily movements is never proved. Scheler’s particular solution to this problem is that a stream of experience exists in which there is no distinction between the self and the other. Whatever may be the metaphysical deficiencies in Scheler’s solution, they need not detain us here. The solution itself provides the basis for his theory of sympathy.

One person, says Scheler, can never experience the bodily feelings of another person. The physical separation of man is complete. But one person can perceive, directly and veridically, another person’s feelings—his terror in his cry, his shame in his blush, his joy in his smile. But genuine sympathy is not merely a matter of shared-feeling states. Genuine sympathy is an intentional act, a movement, like love, which intends to generate, from the lowest to the highest, the values potential in mankind. The lowest of these values is the vegetative level, with the vital, mental, and spiritual values ascending in that order. Therefore, the moral values of sympathy, for Scheler, depend not upon the fact of sympathy, but upon the level of emotional value potential in it. When the person concentrates upon his own emotional state, there is no sympathy and nothing of moral value is generated—the only effect is to increase the total amount of suffering present. In genuine sympathy, the sorrow of the other person is grasped as his sorrow, and the sympathizer’s sorrow is directed toward this fact. The person’s sorrow and the other’s sympathy are phe-nomenologically two different facts. The sympathy comes immediately from the other person’s sorrow; it is not the result of a contrived “changing places in fancy,” nor does it take place only in the presence of the other’s sorrow. Genuine sympathy intends (rae/nt) not one’s own feelings, but the center of awareness of the other person. It involves emotional “participation.” [See Perception, article onperson Perception.]

There have been criticisms of Scheler’s philosophical and ethical positions, especially of his assertion that the act of sympathy is more important than the social consequences of it, which suggests a view of human welfare inconsistent with a philosophy of sympathy. Moreover, Scheler took a particularly negative view of empirical psychology and research. [See the biography of Scheler


The concept of empathy has a shorter history than the concept of sympathy and fewer conceptual proliferations. Theodor Lipps (1903a) used the concept Einfühlung in the psychological description of the aesthetic experience. The appearance to the senses of a beautiful object, said Lipps, may or may not be the stimulus for the aesthetic experience, but one’s pleasure derives from one’s active encounters with it in imagination. According to Lipps, the distinction between the self and the object dissolves. One finds one’s self absorbed in contemplation of the object, and whatever movements, rhythm, or forces flow phenomenally in the object flow in the self. This is not like a psychotic experience: the observer knows who he is, for the experience happens to the “contemplative self,” not the real self (1905). In true aesthetic contemplation, involuntary imitative empathy may move the self or it may satisfy itself by mere perception that relaxes the imitative tendency, but, in either case, Lipps was primarily concerned with describing the motor and sensory characteristics of the creative imagination. [See Aesthetics.]

In Lipps’s thinking, as in Scheler’s, the epistemo-logical and the psychological theories are inseparable. For Lipps, psychology is concerned with immediate experience, but the object of that experience is an indispensable datum rather than, a phenomenal characteristic (1903a). The most important term in Lipps’s psychology is apperception, which is an inner organizing force concerned with knowledge of the self. Knowledge of things comes from sensations, while Einfühlung gives knowledge of other selves. Einfühlung becomes more complicated in Lipps’s theory, however, because every object of thought can have this transfusion of the self into it. This is more than the subject’s view of the object. As Titchener wrote, “Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride . . . , but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles” (1909, p. 21). This kinesthetic mimicry is the heart of empathetic knowledge.

The concept of empathy has been utilized by personality theorists, perhaps because, as Allport suggests (1937, p. 531), the understanding of personality is similar to aesthetic understanding. The apprehension of the consciousness of another self, however, which is the distinctive function of empathetic knowledge in Lipps’s psychology, remains unclear. It is equally unsatisfactory in G. H. Mead’s theory of knowledge of the other selves, where it is also solved by the assumption that in empathy the consciousness of the other self is sensed immediately. [See Allport 1937, pp. 532-533; see also the biography of Mead.]

Empathy, or empathetic understanding, is the term currently preferred by psychotherapists to designate the process and technique whereby the therapist consciously adopts the “internal frame of reference” of the patient without losing his own identity [Rogers 1959; see also Mental disorders, treatment of, article onclient-centered counseling].

Empirical investigations

Sympathy . Turning now to empirical investigations, one finds a conspicuous absence of research on sympathy; and what has been done is almost unrelated to any of the theories of sympathy. Glancing briefly at the results of these studies, the classic finding from Murphy’s research (1937) remains the relationship between sympathy and aggression in children—both are dependent upon general activity level. The relationship between activity and sympathy was also reported by Hof-státter (1956, pp. 155-161). The amount of sympathy in children, at least, bears no simple relationship to chronological age or to situational factors. It is worth noting, however, that the lack of enthusiasm for sympathy as a research concept cannot derive from ambiguities of behavioral manifestations, for sympathy, as a general trait in children, has been clear enough to permit high interobserver agreement. These basically genetic studies of sympathy have usually been interpreted within a conditioning framework (G. Murphy 1947). More recent work suggests that sympathy in adolescents emanates from a background of relative deprivation where the person projects his own history of deprivation onto others and then tries to meet their needs. Some similar investigations of sympathy as a function of personality variables like acceptance of dependency and affilia-tive needs and guilt have recently been made, but it would be premature to generalize from these preliminary investigations. There is a strong suggestion, however, that the past treatment of one’s affective needs influences one’s capacity for sympathetic relationships.

Empathy . On the other hand, what has passed for empathy in empirical research may be only one dimension of it. Empathy and empathetic understanding have been operationalized in two ways: (1) in terms of the summed discrepancies between the subject’s and a close associate’s, or group’s, trait ratings of a person, and (2) in terms of the summed discrepancies of a person’s actual ratings of himself and the subject’s presumption of how the person would rate himself. A wide variety of psychological variables have been studied and manipulated—self-confidence and humor, values, anxiety, and group atmosphere. Some objections to these procedures are inherent in the conception of empathy itself, especially the confounding of projection and empathy and of empathy and identification. Freud’s statement that “a path leads from identification by way of imitation to empathy” (1921) is well known. Clearly, where identification occurs, empathy is lost. The confounding of empathy and projection, however, has been amenable to some empirical investigation. If the amount of projection involved in empathy is inversely related to accurate perception of individual differences, then a number of critical reviews suggest that studies of empathy have been methodologically inadequate (for example, Cronbach 1955). Some studies have tried experimentally to separate projection from empathy, while some have tried to demonstrate the influence of personal preferences and frustration on ratings of others. Less frequently investigated but possibly important in empathetic ability may be general intelligence and stereotypy. Nevertheless, significant, if low-order, correlations are usually found across instruments (Cline & Richards 1961) and across individuals (Cline & Richards 1960), suggesting that a factor like empathy may exist.

Lauren G. WispÉ

[Directly related are the entries Emotionand Affection. Other relevant material may be found in Personality, article onpersonality Development; Moral Development; Phenomenology; and Social Psychology


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