Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?


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Sympathy provides emotional strength: Image by andyreis

What is Sympathy?

Let’s say that you hear a story, and you understand what the person is feeling, but you do not feel emotionally the same. Perhaps you understand someone is upset that a pet died, but you don’t feel the same sadness as the person hurt by the loss. In this instance, you are feeling sympathy. You feel bad for the person who has been saddened, but you don’t feel sadness yourself.

It is possible to be sympathetic without being empathetic, and vice versa. Scientific studies have looked into the roles that sympathy and empathy play in a social setting. Sympathy appears to work in society by allowing people to continue without being tied down with emotions. This is helpful in hunter-gatherer societies, where members must continue to find food for the tribe. Empathy, by contrast, was used to provide the emotional support and closeness required for the person to recover and contribute to the group. In today’s society, these emotions continue to exist, with similar purposes.

A sympathetic person feels sorry for this Seaman, but won’t share his pain: Photo courtesy of US Navy

For a family, if one member is hurt by an event, it is important for someone to be strong and support the emotionally injured person. Support systems of friends and other family members can provide the empathy needed. The sympathetic person can help maintain the family structure and provide assistance, but in different ways.

Understanding Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy and empathy are complex social behaviors that have deep roots in human relationships. With a clearer understanding of sympathy and empathy, including how they developed, what they are used for, and how they influence our understanding of human interactions in today’s society, you will be better able to differentiate between the two.


Burgo, J. (2011). Empathy vs. Sympathy in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. After Psychotherapy. Accessed January 5, 2012.

de Waal, F. (2005). The Evolution of Empathy. University of California – Berkeley. Accessed January 5, 2012.

Dictionary.com. (2012). EmpathySympathyAccessed January 5, 2012.

Flam, F. (2011). Survival of the kindest: The evolution of sympathyPhiladelphia Inquirer. Accessed January 5, 2012.

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