What You Thought Was Empathy Was Actually Sympathy

Empathy has come to have a bad rep lately. After enjoying years in the spotlight as the antidote to just about everything from prejudice to poverty, empathy is now being rebranded as the cause—not the solution—to those problems.

The arguments are not insignificant.

Psychologist Paul Bloom has been a long-time critic of empathy in the charitable sector, arguing that empathy is “a poor guide to moral decision making” and leads to ineffective philanthropy since donors are doing “what feels good” and not what is actually good. He uses the example of giving money to child beggars, which we know exacerbates the problem of poverty.

Another familiar voice in our sector is Vu Le, whose recent article on the subject argues that empathy perpetuates the inequity we already see in the philanthropic sector, that a mostly white donor base gives to mostly-white-led organizations that make them feel the most good about their giving.

Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts. 

I have written extensively about empathy, particularly the ways it manifests in fundraising communications and interactions between donors and the end users of nonprofit programs, so I first want to make clear that I agree with many of the arguments put forth by Bloom and Le. Giving to child beggars is ineffective. Fundraising, as an industry, has centered the feelings and wishes of white donors and perpetuated an othering between donors and program participants.

But I disagree with the diagnosis: empathy is not the problem.

What is “Empathy”?

My argument is that “empathy” has been so overused, misused, and otherwise thrown around in articles that it has almost lost all meaning. No one thinks about where their version of the term came from or where it will show up tomorrow.

So, in this article, I clear the air around the many ways this word is showing up and explain what why or why not certain definitions are effective:

The general public seems to think “empathy” means feeling exactly what another person feels; if you’re sad—I’m sad. This may be because the most famous empathy-expert, Brené Brown says empathy is “feeling with people.”

Marketing professionals use this term to mean getting into the mind of the customer.

Fundraisers often use “empathy” is a synonym for “emotion”; to them, making a donor feel empathy means pulling at their heartstrings.

Psychologists tend to define “empathy” as an emotional simulation of what we believe another person feels.

But in the field of anthropology, we have an entirely different definition.

Anthropologists basically define “empathy” as understanding and emotionally connecting with another person’s experience from their perspective (which may be different from your own).

I use this definition in my work because it tackles a tricky problem:

If we’re supposed to feel what someone else is feeling – how do we really know what someone feels? Often, we’re just projecting what we would feel in another person’s situation.
But what happens when we didn’t experience the same situation—not even remotely?

This is often the case with donors and program participants, where the chasm between their lived experiences can be vast. So how do we understand and emotionally connect to people who are different from us?

This is where the nuance of the anthropological definition of “empathy” helps.

How Empathy is Different from Sympathy

Here’s another definition for you:

“Empathy [is] the experiential understanding of another person’s perspective, in which an individual resonates emotionally with the experience of another while at the same time imaging the situation from the point of the view of the other” (Hollan and Throop, 2011a).

This “point of the view of the other” is the key element that makes empathy more effective than sympathy. To further distinguish between the two, I cite the work of sociologist Milton Bennett, who explains this in a very simple way:

“Sympathy assumes similarity.
Empathy assumes difference.”

In sympathy, we treat people the way we want to be treated because we assume that they are similar to us.

In empathy, we treat people the way they want to be treated because we assume they are different from us. (Bennett, 1979)

The Golden Rule doesn’t really hold up when we encounter people who have experienced very different things than we have.
Empathy accepts that I do not hold all of the human experience in the world.
Empathy accepts that I haven’t lived your life; I don’t know how you feel.
So all I can do is be comfortable with that fact that I don’t know, be comfortable with that ambiguity.

When we define empathy in this way, we can hold a magnifying glass back up to the arguments of Bloom and Le and see that they were really talking about “sympathy” all along. People give to child beggars out of pity, an emotion closely associated with sympathy, or out of projection—“what if that was my child on the streets?”—and not because of understanding.

To Vu’s point about inequity and systemic racism in the charitable sector: total structural reform is the solution, but empathy is an effective tool in reducing prejudice among individuals (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2011). This will be necessary to ensure that any of overhaul of the philanthropic sector is mindfully carried out and sustainably enacted.

Remember, when you exhibit sympathy, you’re thinking about how you would feel in the other person’s situation, and thus project your own feelings onto them. When you exhibit empathy, you suspend your own feelings and judgment to make room for the other person’s feelings. As the metaphor goes, you have to take off your own shoes before you can walk a mile in someone else’s.

Sources Cited

Bennett, Milton J. (1979) Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and  Empathy in Intercultural Communication: Selected Studies in Intercultural Communication. Volume 3: Issue 1: Communication Yearbook 3 Annals of the International Communication Association (pp. 407-422)

Hollan, D.W., & Throop, C. (2001) The Anthropology of Empathy: Experiencing the Lives of Others in Pacific Society.

Tropp, L. R., & Page-Gould, E. (2014). Contact between groups. In m. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, J. F. Dovidio & K. A. Simpson (eds.),   APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Wolume 2: Group Processes (pp. 535-560). Washington, dc: American Psychological Association.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: the dynamics of intergroup contact. New York: psychology press.

Tropp, L. R., & Mallett, R. (eds.) (2011). Moving beyond prejudice reduction: pathways to positive intergroup relations. Washington, dc: American psychological association.