top of page

Post Publication Research   

Sympathy and Empathy

There exists quite a difference of understanding between the terms sympathy and empathy. In modern use, the word empathy seems to be used prominently to describe an audience reaction to music or theatre. Let’s look at two online dictionaries definitions and distinctions:


"Sympathy is the older of the two terms. It entered English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.” Since then, the term has come to be used in a more specific way.

Nowadays, sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune. This sense is often seen in the category of greeting cards labeled “sympathy” that specialize in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need. You feel bad for them … but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes.

Empathy entered English a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology.

Unlike sympathy, empathy has come to be used in a more broad way than it was when it was first introduced; the term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person….

The differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms is:

sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters

empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, which is why actors often talk about it."

From Merriam-Webster online (a view that is almost 180° apart!):

"Sympathy, constructed from the Greek "sym," meaning together, and "pathos," referring to feelings or emotion, is used to describe when one person shares the same feelings of another, such as when someone close is experiencing grief or loss. Empathy is a newer word also related to "pathos," but there is a greater implication of emotional distance. With "empathy" you can imagine or understand to how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself….The difference in meaning is usually explained with some variation of the following: sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them."

For the longest time, in my earliest teaching of the book, I used Merriam-Webster’s definition, until corrected by a friend, which I verified via the reference. The reference was supported by an article I had originally referenced in researching my book:

Morley, Ian. 2003. “The Evolutionary Origins and Archaeology of Music: An Investigation

into the Prehistory of Human Musical Capacities and Behaviours” Phd. Dissertation, Cambridge University. Accessed (again!) November 18, 2019.

“There is also the possibility of being aware of emotional expression on the part of the composer or performer of the music (expression theory), which may or may not elicit the same emotion in the listener. Expression theory views the expression of emotion not as an act of the music itself, which is not sentient, but to occur as a consequence of either an expression of emotion by the composer, performer, or some perceived persona that is represented in the music itself (Davies, 2001). Whilst an emotion can be elicited in a listener in a variety of ways (as discussed above), when it is a response to an emotion being expressed in the music, it may be useful to view it in terms of sympathy and empathy. We can be sympathetic to another’s emotional state without experiencing it ourselves. However, if we empathise with another’s emotional state, we experience (at least something of) the emotion that they are experiencing themselves. The same might be said of music. We can be quite aware of the emotion being expressed, and in many circumstances not experience that emotion ourselves; in this case, we are in sympathy with the music. When we find ourselves experiencing the emotion being expressed, then this is an empathic response to the music." (155)

It was upon this discussion upon which I based the statement on page 88:

“Keep in mind that empathy is the ability or tendency to feel what another person is feeling. This differs from sympathy, which is simply the ability to understand what another is feeling, but not to actually feel the same emotion oneself.”

Clearly, in the paragraph that follows, Iacaboni uses the term empathy in the same manner:

"Iacoboni describes experiments specifically tailored to investigating our ability to empathize, that is to feel what someone else is feeling, and imitation. In short, he found that “through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel” (2009, 659)."

However, I admit that it also seemed odd that the two elements of the autonomic nervous system are named the sympathetic and the parasympathetic (see page 201). In our particular case, we are talking about how music affects these basic physiological systems without conscious attention on the part of the listener, that is, music literally makes us feel something.

In a completely unrelated incident, I was discussing the problem of empathy with a friend who is a doctor in an emergency room of a hospital, and he offered his thoughts on the empathetic training of doctors. This set off an alarm bell: if empathy involves feeling the same things the patient is feeling, how could anyone bear the burden of that, day in and day out? It seemed like it would be one thing to understand what a patient was going through in order to sympathize with the patient, but quite another to be going through the same emotional duress. This opened up the proverbial “can of worms” in which I once again immersed myself in understanding the differences between the two terms. This is when I discovered that there doesn’t appear to be any generally agreed upon distinction between the two terms as the dueling dictionary definitions above suggest, and arguments being made on both sides using the etymology of the words to support the arguments. For more, just Google “what's the difference between empathy and sympathy?”

I next decided to explore the clinical definition of empathy, to try to understand my doctor friend’s unique situation better. I found a nice description of the clinical definitions in Hojat and other’s publication:

Hojat, Mohammadreza, Mangione, Salvatore, Nasca, Thomas J., Cohen, Mitchell J. M., Gonnella, Joseph S., Erdmann, James B., and Veloski, Jon. 2001. “The Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy: Development and Preliminary Psychometric Data.” Educational and Psychological Measurement, Vol. 61 No. 2, April 2001 349-365 © 2001 Sage Publications, Inc.

"Two important components of a meaningful interpersonal relationship are empathy and sympathy. These two distinct concepts are often mistakenly thrown in one terminological basket. Empathy, according to Aring (1958), is the act or capacity of appreciation of another person’s feelings without “joining” them. Sympathy is the act or capacity of entering into or joining the feelings of another person. A deep sympathetic feeling in medical care can sometimes interfere with objectivity in diagnosis and treatment (Aring, 1958; Blumgart, 1964; Spiro, 1992). Empathy, on the other hand, is a cognitive activity distinguishable from sympathy that is more of an affective response to a patient’s misfortunes (Brock & Salinsky, 1993; Streit-Forest, 1982; Wolf, 1980). In fact, the term compassionate detachment has been used to describe the physician’s concern for the patient while being aware of his or her own emotional separateness (Blumgart, 1964). Similarly, Jensen (1994) suggested that “affective distance” may be necessary for personal durability of physicians. In contrast, empathy is often considered as the backbone of a meaningful physician-patient communication (Spiro, Curnen, Peschel, & St. James, 1993) and, according to Bolognini (1997), is a complementary state of separateness and sharing, which makes empathy, according to Jackson (1992), a crucial element in healing….In a medical context, empathy can be viewed as an uncritical understanding of a patient’s inner feelings and experiences as a separate individual, as opposed to “feeling with” the patient, which characterizes sympathy. Therefore, it is important to note that empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is defined as mostly (Rick’s own italics) a cognitive rather than an affective mental process (Nightingale, Yarnold, & Greenberg, 1991). By observing physicians’ encounters with their patients, Suchman, Markakis, Beckman, and Frankel (1997) suggested that the basic empathic skills included recognizing when emotions may be present but not directly expressed (nonverbal cues) and effectively acknowledging these emotions so that the patient feels understood. (351-352)"

In considering all of these apparent contradictions, it’s probably better to take the distinctions made on page 88 and on page 250 in the context of our discussion of definitions on page 2: the concepts here are hopefully clear, but what word you’ll use to describe each will depend on how you define the terms sympathy and empathy.

1 Comment: May 24, 2021 Another interesting take on this subject appeared on Inc.: While not a "scholarly" article, what makes this article distinctive is the way the author, Bill Murray Jr., defines not just sympathy (does not require conscious action, e.g., the autonomous nervous system) and empathy (requires a conscious action), but also pity, which has a great bearing on on Aristotle's use of the term related to catharsis we discuss in chapter 12. Of special interest is the Murray's assertion that "pity carries with it a connotation that you explicitly aren't in the same emotional position as another person. Instead, your position is higher than theirs." Is this in conflict with Aristotle's claim in the Poetics, Part XII that the tragic hero must be "a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families"? In one sense, tragedies employ characters of "noble" birth and stature, great leaders such as Oedipus. Hard to consider our position as "higher than theirs." But, in another sense, perhaps more closely related to sympathy and empathy, the tragic hero makes a mistake, one that we may plainly feel that we would not make, the so-called tragic flaw. From this vantage point we might certainly feel our position as "higher than theirs."

Recent Posts

See All

Another Bottleneck!

Apparently there has been more than one bottleneck along the way to our current milieu. In new research reported in Popular Science, apparently 99% of the human population was wiped out 800,000 years


Have research to share?
Send suggestions to

bottom of page