Sympathy (from the Greek words syn "together" and pathos "feeling"
which means "fellow-feeling") is the perception, understanding, and
reaction to the distress or need of another life form. This
empathic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal
perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is
3 Evolutionary origins
5 Human behavior
7 Neuroscience perspectives
8 Child development
8.1 Theory of mind
8.2 Innate feature
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
The words empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably.
Sympathy is a feeling, but the two terms have distinct origins and
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as "the action of
understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously
experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of
either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and
experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner".
Merriam-Webster defines that sympathy is when you share the feelings
of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but
do not necessarily share them, as sympathy was defined by 18th
century philosophers such as Adam Smith. Meanwhile, Grammarist.com
defines sympathy as "the feeling that you care about and are sorry
about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc."; "a feeling of
support for something"; or "a state in which different people share
the same interests, opinions, goals, etc.", but not necessarily the
feeling that you share another person's emotions.
Medical personnel aid a suffering woman after the 2010 Haiti
In order to get an experience of sympathy there are specific
conditions that need to occur. These include: attention to a subject,
believing that a person/group is in a state of need, and the specific
characteristics of a given situation. An individual must first give
his or her attention to a person/group. Distractions severely limit
the ability to produce strong affective responses. Without
distractions, people are able to attend to and respond to a variety of
emotional subjects and experiences.
Attention facilitates the
experience of sympathy, and without giving undivided attention to many
situations sympathy cannot be experienced.
The need of an individual/group is also considered to elicit sympathy.
Varying states of need (such as perceived vulnerability or pain)
require unique human reactions, ranging from attention to sympathy. A
person with cancer might draw a stronger feeling of sympathy than a
person with a cold. The conditions which sympathy is deemed as an
appropriate response are organized into individual differences and
The ways in which people think about human deservingness,
interdependence, and vulnerability motivate sympathy. A person who
seems 'deserving' of aid is more likely to be helped. A belief in
human interdependence fuels sympathetic behavior.
Sympathy is also believed to be based on the principle of the powerful
helping the vulnerable (young, elderly, sick). This desire to help
the vulnerable has been suggested to stem from the paternalistic
nature of humans, in which they seek to protect and aid the children
and the weak in their survival. People help others based on
maternal/paternal instincts to care for their own children or family
when they are in need.
Individual moods, previous experiences, social connections, novelty,
salience, and spatial proximity can also influence the experience of
sympathy. Individuals experiencing positive mood states and people
who have similar life experiences are more likely to produce sympathy.
Spatial proximity, or when a person or group exists close
geographically (such as neighbors and citizens of a given country),
they will more likely experience sympathy towards each other.
Similarly, social proximity follows the same pattern. Members of
certain groups (ex. racial groups) favor people who are also members
of groups similar to their own. Social proximity is intimately
linked with in-group and out-group status. In-group status, or a
person falling within a certain social group, is also integral to the
experience of sympathy. Both of these processes are based on the
notion that people within the same group are interconnected and share
successes and failures and therefore experience more sympathy towards
each other than to out-group members, or social outsiders.
New and emotionally provoking situations also represent an explanation
for empathic emotions, such as sympathy. People seem to habituate to
events that are similar in content and type and strength of emotion.
The first horrific event that is witnessed will elicit a greater
sympathetic response compared to the subsequent experiences of the
same horrific event.
The evolution of sympathy is tied directly into the development of
Social intelligence references a broad range of
behaviors, and their associated cognitive skills, such as pair
bonding, the creation of social hierarchies, and alliance
formation. Researchers theorize that empathic emotions, or those
relating to the emotions of others, arose due to reciprocal altruism,
mother-child bonding, and the need to accurately estimate the future
actions of conspecifics. In other words, empathic emotions were driven
by the desire to create relationships that were mutually beneficial
and to better understand the emotions of others that could avert
danger or stimulate positive outcomes. By working together, there were
better results for everyone. Social order is improved when people
are able to provide aid to others when it is a detriment to oneself
for the good of the greater society. For example, giving back to the
community often leads to personal benefits.
The conditions necessary to develop empathic concerns, and later
sympathy, begin with the creation of a small group of socially
dependent individuals. Second, the individuals in this community must
have a relatively long lifespan in order to encounter several
opportunities to react with sympathy. Parental care relationships,
alliances during conflicts, and the creation of social hierarchies are
also associated with the onset of sympathy in human interactions.
Sympathetic behavior originally came about during dangerous
situations, such as predator sightings, and moments when aid was
needed for the sick and/or wounded. The evolution of sympathy as a
social catalyst can be seen in both primate species and in human
Verbal communication is the clearest medium by which individuals are
able to communicate feelings of sympathy. People can express sympathy
by addressing the emotions being felt by themselves and others
involved and by acknowledging the current environmental conditions for
why sympathy would be the appropriate reaction.
Nonverbal communication presents a fascinating study of speech
intonation, facial expression, bodily motions and person-to-person
physical contacts. Some other forms of nonverbal communication include
how far people position themselves in relation to each other, posture
and appearance. These forms of expression can convey messages related
to emotion as well as opinions, physical states (fatigue), and
understanding. Emotional expression is especially linked to the
production of emotion-specific facial expressions. These expressions
are often the same from culture to culture and are often reproduced by
observers, which facilitates the observers' own understanding of the
emotion and/or situation. There are six universal emotions: happiness,
sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and anger.
Facial expressions can communicate sympathy and other emotions
Nonverbal communication cues are often subconscious and difficult to
control. Deliberate regulation of emotion and nonverbal expression is
often imperfect. Nonverbal gestures and facial expressions are also
generally better understood by people observing the gestures,
expressions, etc., and not by the person experiencing them first
Communicating using physical touch has the unique ability of conveying
affective information upon contact. However, this sensation must
be paired with the understanding of the specific context of a given
situation. The touch of the hand on the shoulder during a funeral
might be the fastest method of conveying sympathy. Patting a person on
their back, arms, or head for a few seconds can effectively convey
feelings of sympathy between people. Nonverbal communication seems
to provide a more genuine communication of sympathy, because it is
difficult to control nonverbal behavior and expressions. The
combination of verbal and nonverbal communication facilitates the
acknowledgment and comprehension of sympathy.
Although sympathy is a well-known term, the implications of sympathy
found in the study of human behavior are often less clear.
Decision-making, an integral part of human behavior, involves the
weighing of costs with potential outcomes. Research on decision-making
has been divided into two mechanisms, often labeled "System 1" and
"System 2." These two systems, representing the gut and the head
respectively, influence decisions based on context and the individual
characteristics of the people involved.
Sympathy is an agent working
in System 1, a system that uses affective cues to dictate decisions
whereas System 2 is based in logic and reason. For example, deciding
on where to live based on how the new home feels would be a System 1
decision, whereas deciding on a home based on the property value and
personal savings would be a System 2 decision.
Sympathy acts in a way
that provides a means of understanding another person's experience or
situation, good or bad, with a focus on their individual
well-being. It is often easier to make decisions based on
emotional information, because all humans have general understanding
of emotions. It is this understanding of emotions that allows people
to use sympathy to make their decisions.
Sympathy also helps to motivate philanthropic, or aid-giving, behavior
(i.e. donations, community service). The choice to donate, and the
subsequent decision of how much to give, can be separated into two,
different emotion-driven decision making processes. Mood management,
or how people act to maintain their moods, influences the initial
decision to donate because of selfish concerns (to avoid regret or
feel better). However, how a person feels about the deservingness of
the recipient determined how much to donate. Human sympathy in
donation behavior can influence the amount of aid given to people and
regions that are in need. Increasing how emotional a description is,
presenting individual cases instead of large groups, and using less
information and numerical information can positively influence giving
In addition to its influence on decision-making, sympathy also plays a
role in maintaining social order. Judging people's character helps
to maintain social order, making sure that those who are in need
receive the appropriate care. The notion of interdependence fuels
sympathetic behavior; this action is seen as self-satisfying because
helping someone who is connected to you through some way (family,
social capital) will often result in a personal reward (social,
monetary, etc.). Regardless of selflessness or selfishness, sympathy
facilitates the cycle of give and take that is necessary for
maintaining a functional society.
Sympathy can also impact the way doctors, nurses, and other members of
society think about and treat people with different diseases and
conditions. Sympathetic tendencies within the health field fall
disproportionately based on patient characteristics and disease
type. One factor that is frequently considered when determining
sympathy is controllability, or the degree to which an individual
could have avoided contracting the disease or medical condition.
People devote less sympathy to individuals who had control during the
event when they acquired HIV. Even less sympathy is granted to
individuals who have control over the means by which they contracted
HIV, such as individuals who engage in prostitution.
Sympathy in health-related decision making is heavily based on disease
stigma. Disease stigma can lead to discrimination in the work place
and in insurance coverage. High levels of stigma are also
associated with social hostility. Several factors contribute to the
development of negative disease stigmas, including the disease's time
course, severity, and the dangers that the disease might pose to
others. Sexual orientation of individual patients has also been shown
to affect stigma levels in the case of HIV diagnoses.
generally associated with low levels of disease stigmatization.
Sympathy is related to increased levels of knowledge regarding HIV and
a lower likelihood of avoiding individuals with HIV.
Sympathy is being studied with new technology.
Social and emotional stimuli, particularly those related to the
well-being of another person, are being more directly studied with
advent of technology that can track brain activity (such as
Electroencephalograms and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
Amygdala and insula activation occur when a person experiences
emotions, such as fear and disgust respectively. Primary motor
regions are also activated during sympathy. This could be caused by
humans' reaction to emotional faces, reflecting the expressions on
their own faces, which seems to help people better understand the
other person's emotion. In addition, researchers have also suggested
that the neural mechanisms that are activated when personally
experiencing emotions are also activated when viewing another person
experiencing the same emotions (mirror neurons).
Pain seems to
specifically activate a region known as the cingulate cortex,[medical
citation needed] in addition to activation that is mentioned earlier.
The temporal parietal junction, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral
striatum are also thought to play a role in the production of
emotion.[medical citation needed]
Generally, empathic emotions (including sympathy), require the
activation of top-down and bottom-up activity. Top-down activity
refers to cognitive processes that originate from the frontal lobe and
require conscious thought whereas bottom-up activity begins from
sensation of stimuli in the environment. From the sensory level,
people must sense and experience the emotional cues of another. At the
same time, indicative of the dual-process theory, top-down responses
must be enacted to make sense of the emotional inputs streaming in and
apply motive and environmental influence analyses to better understand
the situation. Top-down processes often include attention to emotion
and emotion regulation.
A baby will often cry at the sound of another baby's cries.
Sympathy is a stepping stone in both social and moral development. It
generally arises between 2–3 years old, although some instances of
empathic emotion can be seen as early as 18 months. Basic sharing of
emotions, a precursor for sympathy, can be seen in infants. For
example, babies will often begin to cry when they hear another baby
crying nearby. This emphasizes the infant's ability to recognize
emotional cues in his or her environment, even if not able to fully
comprehend the emotion. Another milestone in child rearing is the
development of the ability to mimic facial expressions. Both of these
processes act on sensory and perceptual pathways, yet executive
functioning for empathic emotions does not begin during these early
stages. Decety and Michalska (2010) believe that early affective
development and later development of executive functions create a
disparity between how children and young adults experience another
person's pain. Young children tend to be negatively aroused more often
in comparison to the older subjects.
Sympathy can lead to, and be the cause of prosocial and altruistic
Altruistic behaviour is when people who experience
emotional reactions consistent with the state of another person and
feel "other-oriented" (inclined to help other people in need or
distressed.) People are more inclined to help those in need when they
cannot easily escape the situation. If leaving is easy, an individual
is likely to reduce one's own distress (of sympathy; feeling bad) by
avoiding contact with the other(s) in need.
Sympathy is still
experienced when it is easy to escape the situation, showing that
humans are "other oriented" and altruistic.
It is important to acknowledge that the use or acceptance of sympathy
can be both altruistic and self-satisfying in social situations.
Parenting styles (specifically level of affection) can influence the
development of sympathy.
Prosocial and moral development extends
into adolescence and early adulthood as humans learn to better assess
and interpret the emotions of others.
Prosocial behaviours have been
observed in children 1–2 years old. Through self-report methods it
is difficult to measure emotional responses as they are not as able to
report these responses as well as adult. This is representative of
an increased efficiency of and ability to engage in internal moral
Theory of mind
The development of theory of mind, or the ability to view the world
from perspectives of other people, is strongly associated with the
development of sympathy and other complex emotions. These emotions
are complex because they involve more than just one's own emotional
states; complex emotions involve the interplay of multiple people's
varying and fluctuating thoughts and emotions within given contexts.
The ability to experience vicarious emotion, or imagining how another
person feels, is integral for empathic concern. Moral development is
similarly tied to the understanding of outside perspectives and
emotions. Moral reasoning has been divided into five categories
beginning with a hedonistic self-orientation and ending with an
internalized sense of needs of others, including empathic
A study conducted in Switzerland in 2006 sought to find whether or not
sympathy demonstrated by children was solely for personal benefit, or
if the emotion was an innate part of development. Parents, teachers,
and 1,300 children (aged 6 and 7) were interviewed regarding the
child's behavior. Over the course of one year, questionnaires were
filled out regarding the progress and behavior of each youth.
Thereafter, an interview was conducted in the spring of 2007. The
study concluded that children do develop sympathy and empathy
independently of parental guidance. Furthermore, the study found that
girls are more sympathetic, prosocial, and morally motivated than
Prosocial behavior has been noted in children as young as 12
months when showing and giving toys to their parents, without
promoting or being reinforced by praise. Levels of prosocial behavior
increased with sympathy in children with low moral motivation, as it
reflects the link between innate abilities and honing them with the
guidance of parents and teachers.
Ishin-denshin, traditional Japanese concept of unspoken mutual
understanding, sometimes translated as "sympathy"
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Look up sympathy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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Mirrored emotion by Jean Decety from the University of Chicago.
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