Empathy Vs Pity, Sympathy, and Compassion


In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not in all cases. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Envy or Emulation?

Envy is also a question of attitude. Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation.

Envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them.

This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why can some people rise to emulation, while most seem limited to envy? In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or noble disposition. In other words, whether we react with envy or emulation is a function of our self-esteem.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Coping with Envy


How to keep a lid on envy? We envy because we are blind to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording it, to say nothing of the many risks and inconveniences of driving such a car. In the words of Charles Bukowski, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and above all by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that the investment banker or hedge fund manager has effectively sold his soul for his ‘success’, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy the advantages that he has acquired. Such a man is not to be envied but pitied. To keep a lid on envy, we have to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Shame Vs Guilt


Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are often confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame). Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions. Shame is egodystonic, that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can largely be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which is sometimes thought of as a defence against shame. Guilt on the other hand is egosyntonic, that is, consistent with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and, unless left to fester, is either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning. Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt than to shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

The Causes of Laziness


Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival. In any case, in the absence of modern conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads, and refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term.

Today, mere survival has fallen off the agenda, and, with ever increasing life expectancies, it is long-term strategizing and effort-making that leads to the best outcomes. Yet, our instinct, which has not caught up, is still for conserving energy, making us reluctant to expend effort on abstract projects with distant and uncertain payoffs.

Ambition and perspective can override instinct, and some people are more future-oriented than others, whom, from the heights of their success, they often deride as ‘lazy’. Indeed, laziness has become so intimately associated with poverty and failure that a poor person is commonly presumed to be lazy, no matter how little or much he actually works.

In general, people find it painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide any immediate gratification. For them to embark on a project, they need to believe that the return on their labour is likely to exceed their loss of comfort. The problem is that they tend to distrust and discount a return that is distant or uncertain. People are poor calculators. Tonight they may eat and drink indiscriminately, without factoring in the longer-term consequences for their health, endurance, and appearance, or even tomorrow’s hangover.

The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously argued that pleasure is the highest good for man. However, he cautioned that not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and conversely, not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people are unable to handle.

Many ‘lazy’ people are not intrinsically lazy, but are so because they have not found what they want to do, or because, for one reason or another, they are not doing it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills and fills their best hours may have become so abstract and specialized that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in improving other peoples’ lives. A builder can look with aching satisfaction upon the houses that he has built, and a doctor can take pride and joy in the restored health and gratitude of his patients, but an assistant deputy financial controller in a large corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect or end-product of his labour. So why should he bother?

Other factors that can lead to ‘laziness’ are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or do not have enough self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is a way of sabotaging themselves. Shakespeare conveyed this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.’ Conversely, other people fear failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. “It’s not that I failed, it’s that I never tried.”

Yet other people are ‘lazy’ because they understand their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think through it, let alone do something about it. As these people are unable to address their situation, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy, and, to some extent, the same could be said of all lazy people. In other words, the very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy—that is, presupposes the existence of free will.

I could close with a self-help pep talk or my top-10 tips for over-coming laziness, but, in the longer term, the only way to overcome laziness is to understand its nature and particular cause or causes: to think, think, and think, and over the years, slowly arrive at a better way of living.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions


Heaven and Hell

Sorry for the radio silence: I’ve been very busy working on my new book on the psychology of the emotions.

The good news is that the book has now gone to press!

The hardback is coming out on 1 June in the UK and 30 June in the USA, and the Kindle edition should be out this week.

Please do pre-order your copy, and the book also makes an excellent gift for anyone that you care about.

Also, do get in touch if you would like to review or feature the book on your blog.

Back cover:

Today more than ever, the education doled out in classrooms is cold and cognitive. But, once outside, it is our uneducated emotions that move us, hold us back, and lead us astray. It is, at first and at last, our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics, and our relation to money, sex, and religion. Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more.

Yet many people lumber through life without giving full consideration to their emotions, partly because our empirical, materialistic culture does not encourage it or even make it seem possible, and partly because it requires unusual strength to gaze into the abyss of our deepest drives, needs, and fears.

This book proposes to do just that, examining over 25 emotions ranging from lust to love and humility to humiliation, and drawing some useful and surprising conclusions along the way.

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