Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?


Home / Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

An empathetic person will share her sadness emotionally: Photo by Taremu

When I was in school, I had an English teacher who pointed out commonly confused and misused words. These included a full list of homophones and other words that sounded similar. A duo that she mentioned were empathy and sympathy. Though she didn’t really explain either of these terms in detail, she did say to use caution. Many people do confuse the two, so today, we will look into both words and how they apply to our understanding of the social sciences.

What is Empathy?

Have you ever heard a story from someone that caused you to react with the same emotions as the speaker? Perhaps it was a story about being bullied as a child, or the loss of a pet. If the emotions the speaker has about the subject mirror your own emotional responses to the subject matter, you are experiencing empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand, feel and relate to the speaker on the same emotional level. It is similar to the concept of being in the same shoes as the person who is conveying the story. The ability to empathize with others is used frequently in movies and books as a device to hook a viewer or reader. It is also used in marketing, as a motivator to purchase a product which is supposed to make you feel better in some way.

In scientific research, empathy is used to determine various responses to situations, or feelings about a situation. If you have a strong empathy towards a particular event, you may be traumatized again by similar events, even if you were not victimized by the second event. Research in sexual assault, domestic violence, and family issues have shown empathetic pain to be as powerful in witnesses as the events were for those affected.

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