empathy

noun

em·​pa·​thy ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio)
1
: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another
No novelist working today has Strout's extraordinary capacity for radical empathy, for seeing the essence of people beyond reductive categories, for uniting us without sentimentality.Pricilla Gilman
Seen from the protagonists' worldview, the film becomes an earnest call for empathy in a country that is witnessing an unprecedented influx of immigrants.Emiliano Granada
also : the capacity for this
a person who lacks empathy
We often think of empathy—people's ability to share and understand each other's experiences—as a hard-wired trait, but it's actually more like a skill. The right experiences, habits and practices can increase our empathic capacity … Jamil Zaki
2
: the act of imagining one's ideas, feelings, or attitudes as fully inhabiting something observed (such as a work of art or natural occurrence) : the imaginative projection (see projection sense 6b) of a subjective (see subjective entry 1 sense 3a) state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
At the time the term was coined, empathy was not primarily a means to feel another person's emotion, but the very opposite: To have empathy, in the early 1900s, was to enliven an object, or to project one's own imagined feelings onto the world. Some of the earliest psychology experiments on empathy focused on … a bodily feeling or movement that produced a sense of merging with an object. One subject imagining a bunch of grapes felt "a cool, juicy feeling all over." The arts critics of the 1920s claimed that with empathy, audience members could feel as if they were carrying out the abstract movements of new modern dance.Susan Lanzoni

Did you know?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy and empathy both refer to a caring response to the emotional state of another person, but a distinction between them is typically made: while sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful, empathy involves actively sharing in the emotional experience of the other person.

Sympathy has been in use since the 16th century, and its greater age is reflected in its wider breadth of meanings, including “a feeling of loyalty” and “unity or harmony in action or effect.” It comes ultimately from the Greek sympathēs, meaning “having common feelings, sympathetic,” which was formed from syn- (“with, together with”) and páthos, “experience, misfortune, emotion, condition.” Empathy was modeled on sympathy; it was coined in the early 20th century as a translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”). First applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology, empathy continues to have technical use in those fields that sympathy does not.

Did you know?

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Compassion and empathy both refer to a caring response to someone else’s distress. While empathy refers to an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person, compassion adds to that emotional experience a desire to alleviate the person’s distress.

… the story of Nellie Bly, the first female investigative reporter, who not only demanded justice from powerful institutions, but also insisted on dignity and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens. — The Christian Science Monitor, 17 Aug. 2022

Blonde clearly wants us to feel for Norma Jeane, but it dwells on her pain so obsessively … that the movie's empathy feels like another form of exploitation. — Justin Chang, NPR, 23 Sept. 2022

The distinction between compassion and empathy is frequently a topic of exploration.

By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain—I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings. … [I]f I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better. — Paul Bloom, quoted in Vox, 16 Jan. 2019

Compassion is a much older word; it’s been part of the language since the 14th century, and comes ultimately from Latin com- and pati, meaning “to bear, suffer.” Empathy is a 20th century coinage modeled on sympathy as a translation of the German Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”). It was first applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology and continues to have technical use in those fields.

Examples of empathy in a Sentence

Poetic empathy understandably seeks a strategy of identification with victims … Helen Vendler, New Republic, 5 May 2003
This is tough love with a vengeance, but what a gruesome view of God's saints bereft of all empathy. Sidney Callahan, Commonweal, 19 Apr. 2002
But in all those years of young womanhood, my Do-Unto-Others empathy never extended beyond sharing a trolley seat. Lois Mark Stalvey, The Education of a WASP, 1989
He felt great empathy with the poor. His months spent researching prison life gave him greater empathy towards convicts.
Recent Examples on the Web All of Mike’s specializations require the utmost attention to detail, devotion to helping those in need, and, most of all, empathy that enables lawyers to understand the disadvantageous position of their clients. Chris Gallagher, USA TODAY, 5 July 2024 Either way, express empathy for her misunderstanding. Haben Kelati, Washington Post, 3 July 2024 Biden has obvious strengths, chief among them experience, wisdom, decency, civility and the empathy that comes with crushing loss. Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 3 July 2024 Several of the song’s choruses also add a layer of angst and emotional rife as Cody LeRae seems to be swearing off love and empathy throughout the song. Marc Griffin, VIBE.com, 2 July 2024 See all Example Sentences for empathy 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'empathy.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion — more at pathos

First Known Use

1909, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of empathy was in 1909

Dictionary Entries Near empathy

Cite this Entry

“Empathy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy. Accessed 17 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

empathy

noun
em·​pa·​thy ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio)
: a being aware of and sharing another person's feelings, experiences, and emotions
also : the ability for this

Medical Definition

empathy

noun
em·​pa·​thy ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio)
plural empathies
1
: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2
: 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
also : the capacity for empathy
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!