Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Sympathy

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What is sympathy? Why do we experience it? What are the consequences? How can it be facilitated?

Overview[edit | edit source]

“Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

As human beings we seek to make and maintain connections with the people around us, [grammar?] these connections create meaning and purpose within our lives. Sympathy is a constant aspect of human nature. It helps shape interaction and connection by facilitating feelings of care and concern. Sympathy is an emotional expression of sadness and love towards another individual. This emotional experience allows an individual to be moved by the feelings of another (Taylor, 2002), sharing in a fellow feeling of pain or sorrow (Scheler, 1923), (Hollender, 1958).  Sympathy is the phenomenon of sharing in someone else’s feelings and experiencing them. This book chapter focuses on how we can improve our sympathetic responses to enhance our connections with others.

The essence of this book chapter is to explore sympathy as an aspect of human emotional connection. Sympathy is woven into our everyday lives without most people realising. It remains at the centre of how we connect and show care for others by offering a verbal or physical appraisal and recognition of someone else’s hardships.

Figure 1. Have you ever reached out to someone in a time of sorrow?

Think about a time where you may have:

  • Sent[grammar?] a condolence letter to someone who has lost a loved one
  • Held someone’s hand during a funeral
  • Provided a listening ear to someone in need
  • Reached out to someone in a time of sorrow

Sympathy, while being an integral part of social relations still remains an ambiguous emotion[grammar?]. There are many misconceptions about what sympathy is and how we show sympathy, often mistaking it for simple pity. This chapter addresses this ambiguity and answers the following questions:

  1. What is sympathy?
  2. Why do we experience sympathy?
  3. What are the consequences?
  4. How can it be facilitated?

Focus questions:

  • How do we experience sympathy?
  • How is sympathy different to empathy?
  • What does sympathy look like?

What is sympathy?[edit | edit source]

Sympathy arises out of identification of another’s feelings (Scheler, 1923). Sympathy is an emotional response to suffering which stems from the distress an individual feels in reaction to another’s emotional state, leading to feelings of sorrow or concern for them (Eisnberg & Eggum, 2009).

“Try to imagine society without sympathy. Suppose unsympathetic fathers and mothers look impassively at their children’s scraped knees and bruised feelings. Friends yawn with boredom when they hear of each other’s misfortunes and upsets. No one says, “I’m so sorry” or “that’s too bad”. Community members offer no condolences to the bereaved. Without mercy or consideration of extenuating circumstances, judges, bosses, and teachers hold people accountable for every action they take or fail to take. Imagine yourself a member of this group, never giving sympathy or getting any”.

- Candace Clark

Our emotions are part of being human, they are the glue that connect us to others and give meaning and purpose to our lives (Hasson, 2014). Sympathy provides much richer emotional interconnectedness than pity. Sympathy is not simply a “primitive knee jerk response” to pain, but a deeper connection to an individual’s personal experience of pain. To experience sympathy, one person’s pain must be like the others, but not identical to it. True sympathy is about the recognition of the other’s pain as theirs (Wispe, 1991).

In some respects, sympathy is intertwined with feelings of love and affection. Meaning that it is more than a mere understanding or vicarious emotion, but instead can be considered rooted in an act of love (Scheler, 1923).

Why do we experience it?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. To experience sympathy you must be paying attention and focused on the other person

When looking at sympathy, a vital question we must ask ourselves is, why does the suffering of another move us? (Taylor, 2000).

Emotions are the fundamental driving force behind human behaviour and influence everything we do (Hassen, 2014). As human beings, we are motivated by our emotions, to act in ways that will foster connections and bonds with others. Showing sympathy can provide an opportunity for strong emotional connection, leading to the forming of meaningful relationships with those around us.

Sympathy is linked to the principle of humanity in which people desire to care for the interests of others. It can be considered a mechanism that influences an individual’s moral behaviours and feelings of benevolence (Russell, 2016).

During our lifetime we seek out meaningful and long-lasting relationships with others who show constant care and concern for us. Sympathy allows people to enter into the sentiments of another, through an experience of affection that is willingly passed from one person to the other (Russell, 2016).

How do we experience sympathy?[edit | edit source]

In order to experience sympathy, certain elements are necessary. Most importantly, you must be paying attention and focused on the other person. For sympathy to occur the other individual must also be in some kind of need. How we perceive their level of need will determine how we engage in sympathetic behaviours (Switankowsky, 2000).

The Nature of Sympathy

  1. Immediate community of feeling: A sense of ‘one feeling’ between the individuals, which creates a “feeling in common”. As opposed to each individual having a unique perspective and experience of the feeling (Switankowsky, 2000)[grammar?].
  2. Fellow feeling about something: To rejoice in their joy and commiserate in their sorrow. It involves intentional reference to the individuals suffering as the catalyst that motivates the feeling (sympathy). Participation based on the reaction to the other’s emotion and experienced through a sense of vicarious feeling (Switankowsky, 2000)[grammar?].
  3. Emotional infection: The way in which an environment can influence and spread to us and how we experience the situation[grammar?]. The state of feeling is transferred; the origin of the feeling can be communicated, but the insight of the feeling remains with the single individual. We take the emotion on to be our own, rather than relating it to another (empathy) (Switankowsky, 2000).
  4. Emotional identification with the feelings or states of another: The whole sense of the emotion experienced by an individual is passed over to another. This identification highlights the transition between strong feelings of sympathy towards an engagement in empathetic responses (Switankowsky, 2000).
Figure 3. Sympathy places a focus on emotional identification of the individual in need

How is sympathy different to empathy[edit | edit source]

In a basic sense, sympathy and empathy vary in intensity level of emotional reaction to someone else’s pain.

Sympathy: the ability to experience concern (warm-heartedness) in response to negative impacts on another’s wellbeing (Maibom, 2009).

Empathy: the capacity to experience emotions equivalent to someone else’s and experience them for that person (Maibom, 2009).

It is important to make the distinction between sympathy and empathy as being two different psychological capacities. These two terms are often used interchangeably to describe similar emotional situations. In this way there is a misconception that sympathy is a less meaningful type of empathetic response (Switankowsky, 2000).

Empathy is an understanding of another person’s life circumstances from their perspective (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). When experiencing empathy, a more active and reflexive response is given. Compared to sympathy which arises at a pre-reflective level, in the form of feeling for another individuals[grammar?] pain. Sympathy places a higher focus on emotional identification while empathy focuses on emotional experience. The empathiser feels the emotions with that person, rather than for that person (Switankowsky, 2000).

Our intentions for showing sympathy are not always communicated effectively, creating the misconception that sympathy is merely pity. The connotations of this create a stigma surrounding sympathy, symbolising it as a non-genuine response to suffering. In this way, empathy is viewed as a more meaningful response to emotional turmoil, leading individuals to avoid sympathising with others out of caution that it may come across as unwanted pity (Taylor, 2000).

When sympathy is truly understood and expressed appropriately it should place a focus on the individual in need, with two individuals sharing in one person’s experiences. Whereas, empathy allows two individuals to share in different perspectives of one feeling[grammar?]. Sympathy offers a unique opportunity for immediate, unthinking shared connection that places significance on the recognition of another’s suffering (Taylor, 2000).

Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion[edit | edit source]

Compassion: Feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other. Focused primarily on a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

Pity: Feelings of sorrow for another’s suffering or distress (Hollender, 1958).

Compassion is often confused with sympathy and empathy (Sinclair, et al. 2017). At the outlook, these emotions appear quite similar, and it is true that they do share some similar qualities. Each of them is concerned with the emotional experiences of another individual. However, the way in which they are expressed and felt create the distinctions between them. Compassion can be viewed as a blend between sympathy and empathy, with the added aspect of wanting to relieve and remove the suffering the other is experiencing (Darwall, 1998).

Table 1.

The difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion

Sympathy Empathy Compassion
Acknowledging and recognising

another person's emotional hardships

and providing comfort.

The ability to experience the

feelings of another person.

Feelings of sympathy and empathy

in reaction to someone's pain. The

need to help alleviate their pain.

Sympathy focuses on awareness Empathy focuses on experience Compassion focuses on action
"I understand your suffering" "I feel your suffering" "I want to relieve your suffering"

How would you respond?[edit | edit source]

Imagine you see an old lady attempting to carry grocery bags to her car. On the way, one grocery bag breaks and her groceries fall all over the ground.

  1. Sympathy

Your heart sinks for this old lady and you feel terrible for what has happened to her. You walk past her, give her a slightly mournful look and say, “I’m sorry, are you okay?”. Your main focus here is on how this event has impacted her.

  1. Empathy

Your heart sinks for the old lady and you feel terrible for what has happened to her. You walk past her, and give her a pat on the shoulder, ask if she is okay and tell her not to worry as it has happened to you many times before. Your main focus here is on how this event has impacted her, as well as how you can relate to a similar feeling she is experiencing.

  1. Compassion

Your heart sinks for the old lady and you feel terrible for what has happened to her. You rush over to her and pick up the groceries that had fallen. You walk her over to her car and pack the groceries in for her. Before you leave you ask if there is anything else you can help her with. Your main focus here is on how the event has impacted her and how you can help relieve the pain.

Case study: sympathy, empathy and compassion[edit | edit source]

Sympathy, empathy and compassion - A grounded theory study of palliative care patients' understandings, experiences and preferences (Sinclair, et al. 2017).

This study looked at how advanced cancer patients experienced sympathy, empathy and compassion. The aim was to investigate how their understandings, experiences and preferences for sympathy, empathy and compassion could lead to conceptual clarity for future research and inform clinical practice.

The findings of this study showed:

  • Sympathy was described as an "unwanted, pity based response to a distressing situation".
  • Empathy was experienced as an affective response that acknowledged and attempted to understand the individual's suffering.
  • Compassion enhanced key features of empathy while also adding distinct features of love and acts of kindness.
Questions to think about
  • How can we improve how we show sympathy?
  • Why is it important to distinguish between sympathy and pity?
  • What are the advantages of showing true sympathy?

Is sympathy an emotion?[edit | edit source]

Sympathy falls as a secondary aspect of the core emotion of sadness (Hasson, 2014). While sympathy does not represent a core emotion (joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear), it is a vital secondary emotion which allows individuals to experience a different perception of sadness.

Figure 4. Sympathy is an aspect of the core emotion of sadness

Classification of a core emotion (Reeve, 2018)

  • Distinct facial expression
  • Distinct pattern of physiology
  • Automatic (unlearned) appraisal
  • Distinct antecedent cause (significant life event)
  • Inescapable (inevitable) activation
  • Presence in other primates
  • Rapid onset
  • Brief duration
  • Distinctive subjective feeling state
  • Distinctive cognition (thoughts)
Social functions
  • Make social interactions deeper
  • Most emotions are influenced by social interaction
  • Involvement/triggered by others
  • Navigate social environment
  • Bond and association with others

Our emotions bring colour to our lives and create meaning within our relationships and interactions with others. Sympathy can be considered a kind of ‘emotion’, within a wider scope than the five core emotions. It is a distinctive aspect of human nature which is influenced by significant life events and innate to each individual (Hasson, 2014). Sympathy serves an essential social function; we have the capacity to sympathise with one another and share in the emotions of each other which provides an atmosphere where we can enhance our social bonds while also engaging in prosocial behaviours that improve our interpersonal skills (Farrant, Devine, Maybery & Fletcher, 2011).

What are the consequences?[edit | edit source]

Watch the following video clip: empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection

Then reflect on the following questions:

  • Do you agree with the statement “sympathy drives disconnection”?
  • Does sympathy come across as pity more often than it comes across as care?
  • Is sympathy less important than empathy?
  • In your experience, do you feel sympathy as being “detached concern”?

The case study presented above highlights the important role sympathy has in the healthcare field. Sympathy is not only relevant in our interpersonal relationships and within our personal lives, but also within the professional sphere. Professions including doctors/nurses, teachers/educators, counsellors/therapists, veterinarians and social workers are a few examples where sympathy is a fundamental requirement (Jeffery, 2016).

The results from the study indicated that sympathy was received rather negatively, being described as an “unwanted, pity-based response to a distressing situation, characterised by a lack of understanding” (Sinclair, et al. 2017).

These findings beg us to question whether sympathy is viewed as less important than empathy? Does this lead people to perceive sympathy as just being pity?

How can we improve how we sympathise with others?[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. How can we improve how we show sympathy?

In addressing these questions in a proactive way, it is important to recognise empathy and sympathy as two distinctly different psychological experiences. Sympathy is not empathy and a major consequence with this assumption is that people often experience forms of empathy and compare that experience to one involving sympathy. This creates a discrepancy for the individual, which in turn leads to comparison between sympathy and empathy, where sympathy ‘falls short’ (Darwall, 1998).

Sympathy as an emotional experience can be related to themes of empathy, but in a sense does not involve the extent of mutual feeling between two people. This chapter has focused on unpacking sympathy in a meaningful way that describes it in a new light. Sympathy is often viewed as a pity-based response to suffering however, in reality, the main focus of sympathy is feeling for another person and acknowledging their pain as their own (Wispe, 1991).

In order to improve our sympathetic responses, we must view sympathy without the lens of pity. Pity can be experienced as condescending and un-thoughtful; these attitudes have no place in meaningful emotional experiences. People do not like to be spoken to in a demeaning manner and pity can often come across this way. When we engage in sympathetic behaviours, our emotional knowledge on what sympathy is can be limited to the scope of pity, and therefore in our responses we come across as showing pity based detached concern, when the intent was originally sympathy. To approach this issue, we must redefine sympathy and what is looks like in order to provide substantial comfort to those in need with sincerity (Hardy, 2019).  

How can it be facilitated?[edit | edit source]

At an early age, children start to take notice of others emotional states. They actively pay attention to, and take into account, the other persons[grammar?] emotions when thinking about how to best respond. This indicates that we are capable of expressing sympathy very early on in life (Malti & Song, 2016).

Sympathy, being concern for another person, is based on the ability to comprehend the unfortunate situation and emotional state of another. The activation of a sympathetic response is possible because this understanding creates cognitive thinking where an individual can make links between the situation and the consequential feelings that arise from it. In this way, sympathy goes beyond mere feelings of sadness or pity, and rather guides our actions (Malti & Song, 2016).

How do we facilitate sympathy in young children?

Figure 6. How would you feel if your friend took a toy your were playing with away from you?

Inductive reasoning: This method focuses the child’s attention to the consequences of their behaviour during a social interaction (Heit, 2000).

If a child were to snatch a toy off their friend, the caregiver (teachers, parents, guardians) would ask the child a question like:

“How would you feel if your friend took a toy away from you?”

This method encourages children to reflect on how their actions can affect other’s feelings, which subsequently can influence the facilitation of sympathy (Malti & Song, 2016).

The facilitative effect from inductive reasoning by parents and teachers encourages children to engage in perspective taking behaviours. This indicates that the role played by parents, teachers and other role models in a child’s life are significant in the development of sympathy and other prosocial behaviours (Farrant, Devine, Maybery & Fletcher, 2011).

How do we facilitate sympathy in adults?

Silk ring theory: Later in our lives, we develop and advance into more sophisticated sympathy experiences (Malti & Song, 2016). Silk ring theory provides one perspective of how to appropriately show sympathy to someone in need. This theory focuses on the mantra of “how to not say the wrong thing” (Silk & Goldman, 2013). This theory looks at how we show sympathy through a series of levels.

The situation: Silk ring theory is based on a woman called Susan Silk. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had to undergo tremendous amounts of procedures and treatments. During this time, she did not feel like having visitors. However, one of her colleagues was adamant to see her and responded to Susan’s request to recover quietly on her own with, “this isn’t just about you” (Silk & Goldman, 2013). While this colleague was a friend of Susan’s, and appeared distressed and worried for her, what she said was not appropriate and diminished Susan’s situation.

Here’s how it works:

  • To begin, draw a circle. This creates the centre of the ring. In this first ring, put the name of the person at the centre of the current trauma. For Susan’s breast cancer, it would be Susan.
  • Then draw a larger circle around the first one, in this ring put the name of the person who is next closest to the trauma. For Susan, that would be her husband.
  • This process is then repeated as many times as is necessary. In each proceeding ring put the next closest people to the trauma. Parents, children, relatives, intimate friends and so on.
  • The person in the centre of the ring can say anything they want to anyone in the other rings. They are allowed to complain and cry and winge about how “life is unfair”.
  • Everyone in the other rings are allowed to complain too, but only to people in the larger rings outside their own.
  • When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than your own, someone who is closer to the centre of the trauma, the goal is to help and provide support.
  • If you want to cry or complain or tell someone about how you are feeling and reacting to the trauma, it needs to be with someone from an outside ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT (Silk & Goldman, 2013).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Being able to feel and experience sympathy connects individuals together

The ability to feel concern for others is one characteristic that makes us human. Being able to feel, experience and demonstrate sympathy connects individuals together and increases feelings of interconnectedness and relatedness. The emotional experience of sympathy allows individuals to share in another’s pain and feel that pain with them.  

Emotions are an integral aspect of human behaviour, they influence how we think, feel and act. They are the glue that bind us and give colour and meaning to our lives. Sharing in someone else’s emotional state encourages us to engage in prosocial behaviours which enhance our emotional knowledge.  

Sympathy is linked to the emotion of sadness and enhances the simple emotional experience of pity. The misconceptions that surround sympathy as being pity, or confuse it with empathy, diminish the true nature of sympathy and how it can influence how we show support and care for others. Sympathy is a powerful emotion that has themes similar to that of empathy and compassion but is shown and experienced in an entirely different manner. Sympathy is the acknowledgement of someone else’s emotions as their own.

This book chapter has placed a main focus on how to facilitate sympathy and how to show sympathy appropriately. When we engage in sympathetic behaviours, we must take on a reflective approach, remembering that what lies at the heart of sympathy is showing sincere care and concern.

Take-home messages
  1. Sympathy is a deep connection to an individual's experience of pain.
  2. True sympathy is about the recognition of another's pain as theirs.
  3. Sympathy is an aspect of sadness which shares characteristics with empathy and compassion and less commonality with pity.
  4. Sympathy requires us to take a true interest in another persons[grammar?] life circumstances and the pain they are experiencing.
  5. We must redefine sympathy as being a separate experience from pity.
  6. Showing sympathy provides us with an opportunity to show sincere care and concern in order to build stronger connections with others.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Criminal empathy (Book chapter, 2020)
  2. Empathy (Wikipedia)
  3. Empathy (Book chapter, 2011)
  4. Compassion and empathy (Book chapter, 2014)

References[edit | edit source]

Clark, C. (1997). Misery and company: sympathy in everyday life. The University of Chicago Press.

Darwall, S. (1998). Empathy, Sympathy, Care. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 89(2/3), 261-282.

Farrant, B. Devine, T. Maybery, M. Fletcher, J. (2011). Empathy, perspective taking and prosocial behaviour: the importance of parenting practices. Infant and Child Development. 21(2). 175-188.

Hardy, C. (2019). Clinical sympathy: the important role of affectivity in clinical practice. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. 22. 499-513.

Hasson, G. (2014). Emotional intelligence: managing emotions to make a positive impact on your life and career. Wiley and Sons Ltd. Heit, E. (2000). Properties of inductive reasoning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 7(4). 569-592.

Hollender, M.H. (1958). The seeking of sympathy or pity. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 125(6). 579-584.

Jeffery, D. (2016). Empathy, sympathy and compassion in healthcare: is there a problem? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 109(12). 446-452.

Maibom, H. L. (2009). Feeling for others: empathy, sympathy and morality. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy. 52(5). 483-499.

Malti, T. Song, J. H. (2016 September 22). Here’s how to raise a child to be sympathetic. The Conversation.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion. John Wiley & Sons Inc

Russell, P. (2016). The oxford handbook of Hume. Oxford University Press.

Silk, S, Goldman, B. (2013 April 7). How to not say the wrong thing. Los Angeles Times.

Sinclair, S. Beamer, K. Hack, T. F. McClement, S. Raffin-Bouchal, S. Chochinov, H. M. Hagen, N. A. (2017). Sympathy, empathy and compassion: a grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences and preferences. Palliative Medicine. 31(5). 437-447.

Singer, T. Klimecki, O. M. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology. 24(18), 875-878.

Switankowsky, I. (2000). Sympathy and empathy. Philosophy Today. 44(1). 86-92.

Taylor, C. (2002). Sympathy: a philosophical analysis. Palgrave Macmillan

Wispé, L. (1991). Perspectives in social psychology. The psychology of sympathy. Plenum Press.

External links[edit | edit source]