Sympathy Graphics courtesy of Inspiration FeedOpens in new window

Although emotion scholars do not all agree about the meaning of sympathy, most agree that sympathy is an emotional response to the distress of another person that does not require that the sympathizer experience the emotion the other person is experiencing.

In other words, sympathy is understood as a feeling of caring and empathic sadness for another who is in distress (Eisenberg et al., 1989).

Another way to describe it is to say that it may include any of a number of negative feelings (such as sadness, fear, worry, concern, or indignation) and/or behaviors (e.g., concerned facial expression, hugs) that one individual directs toward another who is suffering or experiencing bad fortune or trouble (Clark, 1999).

According to these descriptions, sympathy occurs if another person is suffering or is in distress. The emotional response of sympathy is sadness, concern, or sorrow for another person’s experience and distress.

Persons who experience sympathy can recognize that they may not understand the feelings of another person and, more importantly, that that another person’s feelings are not the same as the sympathizer’s feelings.

While a person who experiences sympathy recognizes that her or his understanding of another is incomplete and partial, the experience of sympathy stimulates a judgment that another person’s experience is bad or wrong and promotes a cooperative response based on that judgment.

Arne J. Vetlesen argues that sympathy is an important moral emotion because the experience of sympathy does not always depend upon actually meeting or seeing a person in emotional distress. It is possible to experience sympathy by imagining the emotional distress of another person you never meet.

According to Clark (1999), “getting to” sympathy is a process.

  • First, an individual must take the perspective of another person.
  • The next step toward sympathy is feeling the inner experience of the other person, especially her or his emotions, or acting on the cognitive understanding of the person’s situation, without necessarily feeling anything—or both feeling and acting.
  • According to the definition of Eisenberg et al. (1987), an additional step would be to care about the suffering.

If feelings of sympathy are present, they may be experienced in many ways.

  • Sympathy may be felt as intense sadness for a friend whose child died.
  • Another example is righteous anger on hearing about a case of racial discrimination.
  • Or sympathy may be a brief pang of uneasiness that the individual pushes away and forgets quickly.

As mentioned, sympathy may or may not be translated into behavior. The sympathetic person may have sympathetic feelings, and do nothing. Or, she or he may engage in behavior ranging from empathic, supportive listening, to providing tangible expressions of sympathy such as sending cards or flowers, to behavior that may be costly in terms of energy and time invested, such as intervening on behalf of the person to help him or her to pursue a racial discrimination claim.

Clark (1999) discusses how societies vary in terms of average amounts of sympathy of their citizens. Additionally, rules for expressing sympathy are very particular to cultures. She briefly describes anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s depiction of a society in which little sympathy is present.

In Death without WeepingOpens in new window, Scheper-Hughes (1992) recounts her experience with the Alto do Cruzeiro people of Brazil, who were so impoverished that they were not able to feed all their children.

Fewer than half of the Alto children survived to adulthood. If an infant became sick, family members would not attempt to nurse the infant to good health, nor would they report feeling sympathy. Instead, they would give a greater share of food, clothing, and other necessities to healthier children. If an infant died, people would not cry when the infant was buried. Clark (1997) discusses the relationship between culture and sympathy in her book Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life.

See also:
  1. Clark, C. (1997). Misery and company: Sympathy in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Clark, C. (1999). Sympathy. In D. Levinson, J.J. Ponzetti, & P.F. Jorgensen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human emotions (2nd ed., pp. 651 – 656). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
  3. Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death without weeping. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R.A., Miller, P.A., Fultz, J., Shell, R., Mathy, R.M., et al. (1989). Relation of sympathy and personal distress to prosocial behavior: A multimethod study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 55 – 66.