Sympathy is identifying with another person’s feelings, especially emotions of distress, due to having experienced a similar situation. People identify what they have previously felt in a similar past situation and relate that to another person’s experience, so they have greater insights into the other’s subjective reality. People share common ground.
Sympathy works through identification. If people felt deeply sad and disorientated after the loss of a loved one, they can feel sympathy for a person who has just lost a loved one. They had a similar experience, which they recall to memory, and use it to identify what types of feelings another could be having. It does not have to be the same loved one for people to appreciate the sense of loss, sadness, despair, lethargy and disorientation another is experiencing. People are able to plan for the behaviour of others they feel sympathy towards and make allowances that are appropriate.
Everyone uses sympathy as a key indicator to see if people are following a conversation, or to what depth someone has grasped what has been said. This happens in virtually all conversations, and, most of the time, people do it subconsciously. In the course of following a conversation, people have different feelings that relate to what has been said. People imagine the scenario and relate it to their experience and then express the similarities they have grasped.
Expressions are compared to see if they match. A match equals an expression of sympathy. Everyone does this. It’s the most natural and common way of relating to people. An amazing amount can be gathered from expressions of sympathy. People learn how much they have in common: what types of emotional expressions to which people react negatively; what ones to which they react positively. This means people can adapt and fit responses that are tailored to an individual – informed from experience.
Sympathising is humanity’s natural way of relating, and people do it without thinking. The more emotionally literate people become, the more the experience of sympathy filters into conscious awareness, so slowly becoming a process that is wielded and appreciated. This is a fundamental aspect of developing good interpersonal skills – which take years to learn.
To be proficient in sympathising gives people advantages in real-time interpersonal situations. To some degree, they have advantages that others are susceptible to because others are unaware of the information they are revealing. Every little expression of sympathy is a potential insight into the behaviour and experiences that a person has had. It is an insight into motive and orientation. It tells where people’s interests lie, and what sort of convictions they have on the subjects expressed.
Although sympathy is a natural way of communicating, it does rely on people having had similar emotions from similar situations. This can lead to strong emotions fazing people’s perceptual framework that keeps them from depths of understanding they could otherwise achieve. This is because sympathising describes a state where emotions from the past are directly recalled to memory. People can become over involved. They can distort the communication they are receiving by intermingling it with their feelings and what they recalled from memory. This is the fundamental difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy does not require people to remember a past event that is associated with their self (ego). Nevertheless, sympathy makes it possible to identify with someone and feel a much stronger bond of common ground than is achievable with empathy.
This in turn elicits graditude far more frequently, for the intention to help is almost always perceived.
Sympathy and empathy are often used as if they mean the same thing. This is wrong. The definition of sympathy is a couple of thousand years old and works on having had similar experiences. The definition of empathy is less than a hundred years old and means “to look as if through the eyes of another” and does not require people to have had similar experiences.
The sympathetic process is performed consciously, but also on a pre-semantic level too, so sympathy instinctively compels people to respond in certain ways.
For example, when people see a sad face, evidence shows they instinctively sympathise with the owner of the distressed face.1 Onlookers have physiological responses and expressions to perceptions of distress, and these manifest as overt attempts to help from children (as early as eight months old) and adults.2 The eyebrows and cheeks are what humans predominantly use to detect sadness.3 There is a direct link between subconscious processing of such features and behaviour.
This can be seen as a useful evolutionary strategy that automatically selects a beneficail social response, and speedily enacts a bias (emotional and cognitive) towards choosing it. One can imagine how easily fluent child-parent interactions would evolve on the back of such interactive instincts.
Nevertheless, this dynamic also allows people to have their instincts duped. Sympathy can be abused. For example, when people disproportionately create a sad face, or perception, they can manipulate others to engage in helping them. If the sympathiser is unaware of the deceit, they will feel inclined to aid whoever they perceive to be in distress. The more intense the perception, the less control the sympathiser will have over their response, for as emotions reach the limits of their intensity, they progressively assume control over behaviour.4 The sympathiser will feel like they are doing a good thing, and act to protect the deceitful person.
Similarly, cuteness could be considered an evolutionary emotion that compels parents to overlook a child’s inappropriate behaviour due to innocence. Are adults who do bad things and then act cute exploiting this sympathetic path?
Latin. Sympathia = having a fellow feeling.
1. A (real or supposed) affinity between certain things, by virtue of which they are similar or correspondingly affected by the same influence.