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 Teach them how to forgive, how to love, how to have compassion, how to show empathy. 1843, "Confederacy in the ’hood," 2 Apr. 2020 Students and professors must remember to have empathy for one another when setting expectations during this viral turmoil. Esther Ngumbi, Wired, "The Magic of Teaching Science Labs Isn't Lost Online," 25 Mar. 2020 Other studies have found that people with higher socioeconomic status have less empathy in general. Ezra Dyer, Car and Driver, "New Study Says Expensive Cars Are Bought by Jerks Who Won't Yield," 28 Feb. 2020 With empathy, efficiency, and a willingness to adapt, the pair created a holy grail for adaptive rock climbers: A badass prosthetic foot that doesn’t just level the playing field, but dishes—if not super powers—a real sense of empowerment. Popular Mechanics, "How One Designer Created a Prosthetic Leg for Climbers," 5 Nov. 2019 Finally, apologies should meet the standard of recognition: expressing empathy to those who have been hurt. Lisa Leopold, The Conversation, "3 tips for Justin Trudeau on how to say ‘I’m sorry’," 23 Sep. 2019 But findings that rats laugh when tickled and can respond with empathy to another’s pain have started to shift that perspective. Emily Underwood, Science | AAAS, "Lab rats play hide-and-seek for the fun of it, new study shows," 12 Sep. 2019 So when friends are at odds over social distancing, Kirmayer recommends preserving those friendships when possible, and using empathy rather than shaming to resolve the conflict. Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, "Losing Friends During a Pandemic," 29 Apr. 2020 Remember the ones who were heroic and compassionate, those who chose love over greed and empathy over apathy. Dave Murphy, SFChronicle.com, "Coronavirus: There’s a lot of crying in our future, if we’re lucky," 23 Apr. 2020

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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Learn More about empathy

Time Traveler for empathy

Time Traveler

The first known use of empathy was in 1909

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Statistics for empathy

Last Updated

31 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Empathy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy. Accessed 31 May. 2020.

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More Definitions for empathy

empathy

noun
How to pronounce empathy (audio)

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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