empathy

noun
em·​pa·​thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio) \

Definition of empathy

1 : 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 this
2 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

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Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy and empathy are closely related words, bound by shared origins and the similar circumstances in which each is applicable, yet they are not synonymous. For one thing, sympathy is considerably older than empathy, having existed in our language for several hundred years before its cousin was introduced, and its greater age is reflected in a wider breadth of meaning. Sympathy may refer to "feelings of loyalty" or "unity or harmony in action or effect," meanings not shared by empathy. In the contexts where the two words do overlap, sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Some of our users are interested in the difference between empathy and compassion. Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain:

Our rationalizations for lying (or withholding the truth)—"to protect her," "he could never handle it”—come more out of cowardice than compassion.
— Eric Utne, Utne Reader, November/December 1992

Sometimes compassion is used to refer broadly to sympathetic understanding:

Nevertheless, when Robert Paxton's "Vichy France" appeared in a French translation in 1973, his stark and devastating description ... was rather badly received in France, where many critics accused this scrupulous and thoughtful young historian either of misinterpreting the Vichy leaders' motives or of lacking compassion.
— Stanley Hoffmann, The New York Times Book Review, 1 Nov. 1981

Empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves:

For instance, people who are highly egoistic and presumably lacking in empathy keep their own welfare paramount in making moral decisions like how or whether to help the poor.
— Daniel Goleman, The New York Times, 28 Mar. 1989

"The man thought all this talk was fine, but he was more concerned with just getting water. And, if I was going to be successful on this mission, I had to remember what his priorities were. The quality you need most in United Nations peacekeeping is empathy."
— Geordie Elms, quoted in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1992

In some cases, compassion refers to both a feeling and the action that stems from that feeling:

Compassion, tenderness, patience, responsibility, kindness, and honesty are actions that elicit similar responses from others.
— Jane Smiley, Harper’s, June 2000

while empathy tends to be used just for a feeling:

She is also autistic, a disability that she argues allows her a special empathy with nonhuman creatures.
— Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books, 29 April 2009

Did You Know?

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens counted on producing an empathetic response in his readers strong enough to make them buy the next newspaper installment of each novel. Today, when reading a novel such as A Tale of Two Cities, only the most hard-hearted reader could fail to feel empathy for Sidney Carton as he approaches the guillotine. One who empathizes suffers along with the one who feels the sensations directly. Empathy is similar to sympathy, but empathy usually suggests stronger, more instinctive feeling. So a person who feels sympathy, or pity, for victims of a war in Asia may feel empathy for a close friend going through the much smaller disaster of a divorce.

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 Enter a new inmate … a giant black man with a gift of preternatural empathy; he can literally suck the pain out of people. — Richard Corliss, Time, 13 Dec. 1999 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.
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Recent Examples on the Web

Where women’s stories are told in depth and in detail, with attention and empathy. Chloe Angyal, Marie Claire, "The Only Thing Worse Than Valentine's Day Is Valentine's Day," 14 Feb. 2019 At times, Jarecki seems to be actively avoiding insight and empathy. Gary Thompson, Philly.com, "'The King' goes on the road looking for Elvis and America, and hits a dead-end," 11 July 2018 On Thursday, tributes to Koko’s legacy poured out on social media with many remembering her kindness and empathy. Sophia Rosenbaum, Time, "Koko, the Cat-Loving Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Dies at 46," 21 June 2018 Moss has secured our empathy with her riveting and eye-centric performance, so each near-miss is excruciating. Matthew Gilbert, BostonGlobe.com, "A well-timed ‘Handmaid’s’ hiatus," 9 July 2018 Yet her extreme empathy with her subjects feels convincing and authentic. Eve Macsweeney, Vogue, "The Secret Life of Cows," 15 June 2018 His words and actions target, question, and attack our empathy, challenging us on our sense of community and gaslighting our sense of togetherness. Danielle Campoamor, Teen Vogue, "Donald Trump Is Devastating Our Mental Health With His Policies and Rhetoric," 12 June 2018 But subsequent novels tended to be bloated and revealed the limitations of his empathy. Jeet Heer, The New Republic, "Tom Wolfe reunited journalism with literature.," 15 May 2018 Halford always tried to understand the pain of the participants in his study; his empathy was part of what drew them to him. Amanda Schaffer, WIRED, "The Dying Scientist and His Rogue Vaccine Trial," 1 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'empathy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of empathy

1909, in the meaning defined at sense 2

History and Etymology for empathy

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

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More Definitions for empathy

empathy

noun

English Language Learners Definition of empathy

: the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings

empathy

noun
em·​pa·​thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio) \

Kids Definition of empathy

: the understanding and sharing of the emotions and experiences of another person He has great empathy toward the poor.

empathy

noun
em·​pa·​thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē How to pronounce empathy (audio) \
plural empathies

Medical Definition of empathy

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

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Comments on empathy

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