Empathy, Sympathy, and Morality

by Ron Hedgcock

I am troubled by certain of the comments about empathy that I find on this site. What I plan to discuss can be summarized under a few headings:

1) Morality and empathy

2) Empathy and sympathy

3) The outer trappings of empathy

Morality and empathy

If possessing and exhibiting empathic qualities is to be seen as a moral issue, then being empathic means that I’m good and moral, and being unempathic supposedly means that I’m bad and immoral.

A lot of Autistics get rather angry or indignant when it is asserted that they are, by definition, almost incapable of empathy. Why? Is it a reflection on their goodness? Is it because empathy is considered a virtue? Or is empathy merely a particular faculty that some people have — and may or may not exhibit — while others don’t have it at all, with no lapse in virtue?

Certainly the quality is highly prized among human beings. It is of the greatest value to persons in intimate relationships of all kinds. And in those cases, it can commonly make all the difference between a relationship that will work and one that will not work. So the male partner in a marriage, for example, will be more readily recognized as a good man or husband if he has empathy. He is probably more likely to fail at his relationship if he doesn’t have it.

A good doctor, or one possessing a “bedside manner,” may be recognized as empathic. Counselors and psychologists, as well as priests and other ministers of religion, do well to have this empathy. They can fail at many crucial aspects of their work if they don’t have it. So they may well be classified as good if they have it, and as bad if they don’t have it.

Of course, as is argued time and time again by Autistics, the empathy that we often feel internally and emotionally may not be expressed or demonstrated most appropriately in word and action. And this, of course, can cause the Autistic to be classified as being bad by the general public — or even by their nearest and dearest.

We Autistics would like to feel that, with the intuitive (and empathic) insight that is claimed by so many NTs, surely, just surely, they should have the capacity to see inside us and to recognize the inherent sincerity, compassion, empathy, and goodness that many of us experience so powerfully? In this view, empathy is a good quality or capacity that all persons should possess and exhibit.

I notice that we don’t generally or legitimately blame a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s for any lack of empathy, so we do take it for granted that some people are incapable of expressing that capacity. And so the question naturally arises: are such persons to be considered as essentially lacking in moral virtue if they don’t feel or express empathy? I don’t think such is the case.

Empathy and sympathy

Another question: Can it be taken for granted that people actually know for certain whether they are empathic or not? Is it possible that the capacities or experiences interpreted by them as empathic may actually be different in nature altogether — may consist of sympathy rather than empathy?

Of course, this issue is completely speculative. None of us can really be certain that the experience we have inside corresponds precisely with the experience of another. I give as an example the use of common words and what they mean to me. I am a pretty well-educated person, with a wealth of reading behind me in psychology, religion, and personal relations, and with a wide vocabulary that I have put to good use in the public view. And yet, it was not until my 50s that I came to realize that my comprehension of such common and universally understood words like love and intimacy and bonding was completely unorthodox.

But whenever the matter of empathy comes up among Autistics, I hear and read people protesting “Of course I experience empathy!” And again and again, through some of the heartfelt and significant comments I see on the Autism and Empathy site, there are adults and children who feel deeply and excruciatingly the agonies that others are going through, or who get deeply involved in the suffering of animals, or in incidents and tragedies on television or on the screen. The stimuli that they are experiencing affect them deeply and can frequently knock them off balance.

But to me, there is no indication that, in these accounts, they have any real knowledge of just what is going on inside the head of the observed suffering person. From my perspective, they are essentially reacting in sympathy with the outer expressions of that other. It is just like one violin string vibrating in resonance with another string. The feeling onlooker is not necessarily experiencing or exhibiting any knowledge of the other party’s personal experience. The person is essentially responding to the outer expression of the emotion. And, as I see it, this is sympathy and not empathy.

When you consult a doctor, counselor or clergyman, you don’t get the best results if all they display is emotional resonance. You are wanting understanding, knowledge of your inner states and issues, insight, and help. Sympathy in itself may be very nice for an immediate fix or a sense of not being alone, but the truly empathic doctor, counselor, or clergyman will simply not be getting carried away by his or her reactions to you. To my mind, empathy that is worth its salt will retain some degree of detachment, some efficient process of boundary maintenance, so that the person can do the best for you without emotional imbalance.

Now, I am one of these distinctly sympathetic types. I can find myself distressed beyond measure if people are fighting or arguing in my presence. I can weep buckets of tears at certain scenes in movies, or on hearing certain pieces of beautiful music. But this I would maintain is not empathy. Based on a profound sensitivity, it is often considered sentimentality – something that can take one only so far before it becomes a selfish wallowing in emotion. I’m reminded of the old story about the aristocratic Russian lady who left her poverty-stricken coachman out in the freezing cold, and then went into the theatre and wept at the little child dying on stage. She forgot about any moral obligation to the coachman.

When I’m confronted by a distressed person, I might be affected by the emotion the person is exhibiting; and despite my possible incomprehension of just why the person should be upset at the time, I truly feel not empathy or understanding, but rather compassion. I’m thinking “Here is a person in distress, and heaven knows why, but nevertheless, perhaps I can go out of my way to help, and to stop the pain.” One can be deeply compassionate with or without empathy in its strictest meaning. I have generally found that Aspies carry a lot of compassion.

My pain on watching another person suffer might well be based on my own discomfort with the situation, as well perhaps with my confusion, and even my fear. Another person enduring a powerful and distressing upheaval can very easily be frightening to me. My resonating pain, and the desperate need I feel to help may be partly due to my passionate desire to put an end to the horrible input I am getting.

The outer trappings of empathy

Is it possible to fabricate the outer trappings of empathy, based solely perhaps on one’s compassion and sympathy?

I often find it impossible to see into the minds or hearts of my fellows, however closely related. I discovered that the longer I was married to any of my three wives, the more difficult I found it to “read” them. Sometimes, I feel that it is not so much a matter of lacking a “theory of mind” that spoiled my relationships and socializing, but rather a certain inability to actually be able to detect a real person behind the face and body of the other. For me, I’ve never understood just what it means to “know” another person, no matter how closely related. All others are essentially aliens, and that doesn’t mean that they are dangerous or nasty aliens. It means that, as an Aspie, I feel that I belong to a different species or come from the “wrong planet.” I value my friends very highly, but I can’t say that I truly know or understand any of them at all. I don’t have any of that problem in my relations with my cats. Somehow, we belong together almost to some other common lot or species.

However, despite my sense of not being able to understand others, I have become proficient in giving others a pretty good simulation of empathy. Observing human nature and mixing with people was a good basis. Training myself to treat all others with respect and kindness was a further step. Essential to the process is to always take it for granted, despite my inward lack of ability to recognize the person behind the face and voice, that there just is such a person and to treat the person in accord with that assumption. I have always retained and developed my inherent compassion for others, recognizing that this is the essence of human progress and relationships.

Of course, any sympathy I might naturally feel needs to be tempered with balance and common sense so that I don’t go overboard in taking my spontaneous assumptions about others too much for granted. I need to listen to others — to take on board seriously what they tell me, and not to assume that what they are going through is the same as what I might go through in similar fashion. In other words, retaining an unselfish and attentive mind, I can probably do much for others, by my compassion and good will, even when I lack true understanding.

About the Author: Ron Hedgcock is an Australian male of 75 years. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his mid 60s. He has lectured extensively on his experiences and speculations, and had his own book, Confessions of an Unashamed Asperger, published in paperback in early 2011. The question of empathy and its nature has interested him for years.

Empathy, Sympathy, and Morality was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.



15 thoughts on “Empathy, Sympathy, and Morality

  1. Catsidhe says:

    It all comes down to “What Is Empathy”, does it not?

    It is arguable that none of us can say with any real certainty what another person experiences. Maybe if I was plugged into someone else’s sensorium, what I experience as red, they experience as green. There’s also all sorts of cognitive filters. Maybe this sense is pleasant to one person because it reminds them of their childhood, but is unpleasant to another person because it reminds them of their childhood, despite impacting their sensory system identically.

    Going down that path too far leads to solipsism, and never being entirely sure that the people around you are people at all.

    Anyway… (what was the point I was trying to make?) I wonder if you’re making a distinction out of semantics where it’s not really as important as one might think. What Is Empathy? Is it feeling another’s pain? Some might say it is. Is it caring if another person is hurt?

    Or does it only count if you *grok* that hurt? Does it only count as empathy if you know why they hurt, and can match their internal state to achieve an equivalent mental state? Because by that measure, arguably very few people feel empathy, because no-one can truly and completely understand anyone. Even identical twins are different people.

    Then we come to the problem of psychopathy. With the renowned ability of psychopaths to read and respond to other people’s internal states, cannot a good case be made that they understand them better than we do, or even NTs? The difference being that they don’t (according to their reports and the available testing) know and understand, but don’t care.

    Does that then imply that psychopaths are empathic, and all the rest of us are relegated to the lesser “sympathy”, which “merely” involves caring very much about other peoples’ pain?

    • Emily says:

      This is similar to what I was thinking, if I’m understanding this comment correctly. It sounds like what the author is describing when he describes sympathy and compassion, is in fact empathy. We all understand each other from the outside. Empathy is an “outside” condition simply because it cannot possibly, physically, be an “inside” condition. None of us can get “inside” the mind of another. We may say we have another person figured out, and we can understand or infer what is going on inside their heads, but we must always remain outside. So if this is why he states that he (and a lot of us) possess sympathy and compassion instead of empathy, then I don’t understand the reasoning at all, because that would be the case for everybody, not just those of us on the spectrum.

      I also think that, when the author (sorry to call you “the author”, Ron…I don’t know if I should be addressing you or the comment to which I’m responding, since I’m technically responding to both of you)…but when I see this:

      “Sometimes, I feel that it is not so much a matter of lacking a “theory of mind”…but rather a certain inability to actually be able to detect a real person behind the face and body of the other.”

      I think that is a huge part of what lacking a theory of mind actually is. I think this is again an issue of semantics.

      But, with that being said, I applaud whatever allows one to describe their experience in a way that feels true; so while I approach things like this in my own systematic, analytic way, I’m not trying to devalue your own process if it is allowing you to understand yourself.

      • Ron Hedgcock says:

        yes, quite true that all (or most) of us only ‘understand each other from the outside’. Unless extraordinarily psychic, no empathic person can know without being told, that this emotional person has just had a fight with his wife, or has just learnt of the death of his mother or whatever. No such insight of factual knowledge is ever demanded of the empathic person. All that any of us has to go on is what we see and pick up from the outside.
        But understanding and the desire or impetus to go on to understand further lies at the heart of the Empath. This Empath doesnt cease thinking or understanding the moment that he starts emotionally resonating in synch with the other person. The inner capacity to understand is not the gaining of facts and events in the other person’s life, but rather the comprehension of the other’s motivations, conflicts and problems. These can certainly be understood by the good (and empathic) friend or therapist. The purely Sympathetic person will not necessarily be impelled to understand at all.
        That purely sympathetic person, because he is tossed about by the emotional expressions of the other remains virtually where he was when he first observed the other’s emotions. His understanding is limited by his own emotions and those outer expressions.
        One book I possess describes it like this. In Empathy, a person steps into the other’s shoes, – he remains altogether himself, but can rationally and compassionately observe what the other person is telling him and describing. However in Sympathy, that other (or his emotions), as it were, steps into YOUR shoes and metaphorically TAKES OVER. You are no longer yourself, and therefore you experience (what you have observed or THINK that you have observed) of that other’s emotions, but have essentially lost the capacity to understand rationally. This is surely not what we want from a husband, or wife, or a therapist.
        Emotions are catching, let’s face it. they can be every bit as powerful in that way as is yawning in public.
        If we determine that there is truly no such distinct thing as Sympathy, then we are left, I suppose, with distinctions between ‘Empathy Mark 1(with understanding or the desire to understand) on one hand, and ‘Empathy Mark 2 (with resonating feeling) on the other hand. Wouldnt it be better for mutual understanding if we simply described them as Empathy and Sympathy?
        I guess I come back to my opening argument where I observed how Empathy is seen by so many as being ‘moral’ and lack of Empathy is somehow not moral. And thus it may be insulting to be defined as lacking in Empathy.
        Keep in mind just how often persons on the Spectrum just get automatic-ally upset when other people are getting emotional. This is simply NOT Empathy. They are NOT trying to understand anything. They find themselves descending into chaos. My cats get desperately upset too, when there is a fight going on in the human world. Small babies are never credited with Empathy when they get emotionally disturbed by being near adults in conflict. This is simply Human Sympathy, – resonating in synch with others, or reactions of fear.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

        Ron, I completely disagree with the idea that an intense empathic response only leads to personal upset and not understanding. That is very far from my experience. When I was a child in Hebrew school, for example, I saw archival footage from the Holocaust in which people got lined up in front of a ditch and were shot. I felt their fear, their pain, their grief — all of it. I even imagined the pain of bullets hitting my body. It was as though I were standing there, right at the edge of the ditch. Except for the fact that I was still aware I was sitting an auditorium, I was very much in their shoes. But along with this intense empathic response was an instinctive sense of “I must never let such a thing happen again, to anyone.” It was the beginning of my understanding the imperative to ease human suffering. If autistic people have difficulties with acute empathic response being overwhelming, it is largely because we have not been taught how to channel and make use of the response. That response does not preclude exploration and understanding. It’s an opening to it.

        I think that I was fortunate to have first encountered scenes of human suffering in a religious environment, because there was an ethical framework in place for managing my response. It wasn’t simply upsetting. It outraged me morally, and I was able to take those feelings and plug them into a moral imperative that empowered me and organized the feelings into action. I see no reason that other empaths can’t also be taught to channel this gift in other ways.

      • Claymore says:

        Can you please not assume that non-religious/atheistic people do not have a moral framework? I have been very irreligious since I was a child, I was raised by buddhist parents, I had a miserable childhood in which my parents’ religious beliefs contributed to that misery, I did not even really believe in souls and I certainly don’t now, but that has not stopped me from caring about others or feeling empathy for them. I find religion to be unbearably horrible, I am triggered by being in churches, synagogues, mosques and the like, it has caused me a lifetime of sexual shame so bad that I would constantly think about cutting my genitals (religions just love that!) as a punishment for masturbating and believed I deserved to be raped for intending to have an abortion if I got pregnant (and I use two methods of contraception as well), it has made me endlessly hate and be cruel to myself, things are getting better now but for years I have been convinced that the internal hell that is my intrusive thoughts was something I deserved, that I was being punished by god for being bisexual and that I was a sociopath. I am really sick of people going on about how religion provides a positive moral framework, as it mostly provides an abhorrent moral framework. I can come up with a much better moral framework that that provided by any religion (seeing as they’re based on ancient ignorance and prejudice), thankyou very much.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

        Claymore, I would never make any such assumption. I was saying that seeing scenes of human suffering in an environment that gave me an ethical framework helped me channel my empathy. I was not saying that a religious institution is the only place to find an ethical framework. Obviously, plenty of nonreligious people have perfectly sound ethical paradigms by which they live perfectly sound ethical lives.

        I’m sorry that you’ve had such awful experiences in religion, but not all religious people think that atheists are immoral and headed straight to hell, and I’d appreciate your not making that assumption based simply on the fact that I’ve gotten something valuable out of my religious and spiritual practice.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

        I’ve never had any difficulty “detecting a real person behind the face and body of the other.” In fact, I’ve had difficulty shielding myself from detecting too many levels at once. A lot of autistic people share this experience. This is why so-called “theory of mind” difficulties can’t be the defining feature of autism, because ToM difficulties are neither universal among us nor unique to us.

    • Ron Hedgcock says:

      Thanks for your comments, Catsidhe.
      Now, if the emotional expressions that I’ve described are preferably to be defined as Empathy, then why do we still have the word Sympathy which bears its own dictionary meaning? Have you and any other dissenters come to the conclusion that in reality, there is no such distinct thing as Sympathy? If you maintain that there actually is Sympathy AS WELL, then what is it? How do you distinguish and define it?
      Oh, for sure, unless one is in some sense ‘Psychic’, one cant instantly know the facts of what is hidden in the mind and heart of another person. But the distinction I’m pointing to, is the difference between some sort of insight about the other on one hand, and emotional reaction to their expressions on the other hand.
      Strictly speaking, the ’empathic’ people I’ve known in my life were close observers who retained all of their objective faculties as they interacted with the other. They were not swayed by their emotional and automatic reactions, and they continued through the interaction to observe, and probably to question the other. Their specific skill lay in the ability to detect subtle hints or reactions in the other that would illuminate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that Empathy means any sort of immediate knowledge of what is not knowable.
      But rather a process of feeling, detecting and grasping the significance of the inner states of that other. That is why the empathic person will ask questions to elaborate and/or to confirm their impressions.
      Now this latter is precisely the ability which the sympathetic and purely reacting individual can rarely achieve. Sorry, but to me the distinction I’m describing is extremely important.
      Of course Autistics most frequently have strong emotional sides to their nature, and their feeling responses can be powerful. But I say again that if I go to be interviewed by a Therapist, I dont want him or her to be emotional, and to simply reflect my OUTER feeling expressions. I want him to see beyond and behind them. When observing tears or anger and investigating by questions etc, the true Empath would normally be capable of determining whether the expressed emotion were justified indignation, or natural grief, or frustrated selfishness.
      I recall stories related by NT wives of Aspergers males, where they tell of how their husbands just broke down or went hysterical when confronted by the female emotions. These guys were simply devastated by what they were observing, but appeared to have not the slightest concept of what was happening and why the lady was upset. Even when the lady in question explained what was going on, they were lost.
      In my definition of Sympathy, I would want to make it plain that what is bringing about the Sympathy is essentially the outer signs of the upset in the other person. If the person is bottling it all up or hiding their feelings, then the sympathetic non-Empathic individual is most unlikely to be aware of anything.
      Heck, I recall incidents in one of my marriages when my wife deliberately covered up her feelings during an outing to put on a false front for one reason or another. I had not the slightest idea that anything was wrong! On one occasion, I finished up the day we’d spent together, with a happy feeling of what a pleasant day we’d had. The typical literalism of the Aspie will rarely enable him to detect what is going on beneath the surface. Our real Empath will usually be picking up the crucial and subliminal clues that are being dropped by the suffering person, whether by words or by body language.
      I stress here that I am NOT saying that autistic people are NEVER empathic. Individuals may be, but dont let’s just assume that they are picking up the subtle clues and getting real knowledge of the other’s inner state just because they express emotion.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

        “..,. a process of feeling, detecting and grasping the significance of the inner states of that other. That is why the empathic person will ask questions to elaborate and/or to confirm their impressions. Now this latter is precisely the ability which the sympathetic and purely reacting individual can rarely achieve.”

        But the question becomes “Why is it rarely achieved”? I ask this because I’ve been able to achieve it. I could not have raised a well-adjusted child to adulthood, or have a happy marriage, or work as a personal caregiver if I hadn’t. I’ve been able to achieve it because I recognized being an empath as a gift and sought out people to help me learn how to use it effectively. The problem isn’t the intense response. The problem is that we live in a culture in which intense responses are pathologized, and so those of us who have them tend to get no guidance in how to handle them except to simply repress them, usually with the use of medication.

      • Catsidhe says:

        It seems your argument really does all come down to semantics.

        You posit two qualities:
        Q1: the tendency to viscerally react to another person’s distress
        Q2: the ability to calmly and with reason respond to another person’s distress.

        You then claim that Autists aren’t empathic, because Empathy is, by your own definition, something which Autists don’t have. To this end, it seems more than a little circular.

        Moreover, your definition of (especially) Empathy seem at odds with that of everyone else, which may go some way towards explaining why we are having such a hard time getting our heads around it: we are getting stuck between “Empathy” in the way we understand it, and “Empathy” as your jargon term, which has a different meaning.

        I posit that what you are describing as a fundamental difference between Q1 ( = “sympathy”, if I’m getting your jargon right) and Q2 (= “empathy”), are in fact two points on a multi-variate spectrum of sensations, sensitivities and responses, and that the separation of them is largely imaginary.

        People vary in the ability to notice another person’s distress.
        People vary in the intensity of response to the realisation of another person’s distress.
        People vary in the ability to cope with that intensity of response.
        People vary in the ability to come up with an appropriate model of that other person’s distress.
        People vary in the ability to come up with one or more responses to that distress.
        People vary in the appropriateness of any response, let alone effectiveness. (This may be because of a model failure, or it could be an tangential issue: such as where the intensity of response overwhelms the coping ability and thus the ability to respond rationally, or because there is simply no working model of response to start from.)

        Even the Empathic (under your definition) can overload and be unable to respond. Even the “merely” sympathetic can figure out another’s mental state, given enough information and a head start.

        And calling upon the differing definitions of “Empathy” and “Sympathy” as evidence that they are different things looks like reification: the fallacy that if a word for a concept exists, then the concept must exist.

        Sympathy: Greek syn (single, united) + pathos (feeling). One of the definitions is “empathy”.
        Empathy: A borrowed word to translate Einfühlung, which is German Ein (one, single) + Fülung (feeling).

        They both seem to mean fundamentally the same thing, etymologically speaking: feeling the same thing as someone else.

        That there may be a more or less intellectual understanding of what is felt is another question, and seems tangential to the feeling itself. And given that Empathy and Sympathy already have understood meanings (and the understood meanings, in my experience, are the opposite in force to yours to some extent — Empathy being the more complete understanding of another’s pain, and Sympathy being a much weaker ‘mere’ intellectual experience, as in Sympathy being “I know what your pain is,” but Empathy being “I fully understand your pain, because I feel it also”), I think they are too strongly bound to the existing terms, and you might be better served renaming the concepts you’re describing.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

        Catsidhe, I think your points are very well taken. It seems to me that Ron’s definition of “sympathy” is what most people would call “emotional empathy,” and that his definition of “empathy” is what they call in the literature “cognitive empathy.” The first is about an emotional response; the second is about being able to grok where the emotional response is coming from.

        I think that autistic people have difficulties with the latter only because most people operate so differently from us; the difficulty isn’t inherent, but situational. There are times, for example, when I have to intellectually figure out where someone is coming from by asking questions and trying to imaginatively put myself in their shoes based on the answers, but certainly, non-autistic people do the same with me all the time. I think it’s always a perilous course to say, “Autistics just don’t understand human beings,” because it really begs the question of which human beings you’re talking about. If I’m in a minority, and the human beings I best understand are in that minority that’s not a failure of empathy. It’s simply a function of being a minority person. After all, I could say the say the same thing about being a Jew in Christian culture. I understand the sensibility of Jewish people far better than I understand the sensibility of Christians because I’m immersed in Jewish culture. It doesn’t mean that I somehow lack the ability to understand the sensibilities of other people. In terms of understanding Christian sensibility, I will always been an outsider seeking to understand what isn’t mine to the very best of my ability. I see no difference between that and my position vis a vis non-autistics.

      • Ron Hedgcock says:

        I’ve never heard in popular parlance, the terms Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy. People just dont say it. I know you find them in the literature. But my use of the words Sympathy and Empathy have met with approval when I’ve discussed them with Psychologists or whatever.

        It strikes me that on your Site, the majority of your correspondents are just tossing the word Empathy about without making it plain which level they mean in your own terms. While the Therapists and Psychs I’ve known are inevitably using my definition whenever they talk about Empathy.

        Do you deny that that some people at least, do simply react to violence and harsh words with distress and lack of emotional control. Is it still true Empathy when a person weeps tears at a piece of music or cries when a tragic event happens to a person on stage or on TV? I expect I’m not the only one that this has happened to, but I’ve wept tears on a few occasions when a CARTOON character had a tragic event.
        Heavens above, that is anthropomorphising line and colour drawings! I recall seeing a film in which the notorious Al Capone was weeping tears at the death scene in La Boheme.

        What about one case I read about lately, when an empathic person on the Spectrum had been most distressed when she was told by a friend about a calamity that had befallen her? She reacted in sympathy only to discover that she had been lied to. Surely in these cases, the ’empathic’ one could not possibly have got any sort of truth from inside the head of the deceiving other.

        Now by contrast, a trained and empathic Psych would be observing all the little indications, whether by body language or subtle hints in speech, that would most likely give away the truth.

        It seems odd to me that the only type of affect that ever seems to be discussed in these forums about Empathy, is sorrow or pain. Dont you agree that truly empathic people will also pick up signs and hints of joy, of excitement or of uncertainty and doubt? These are clearly a lot more subtle and hard to register. Cant recall ever reading an account from the parent of an Autist that their child picked up that sort of thing. That is the sort of thing that makes me wary when I read accounts of Autistics purely reacting or resonating to stimuli of pain and hurt.

        I stress again now that I have never said or believed that all Autistics and Aspies are by nature incapable of Empathy. Doubtless many individuals do have it. But again and again I’ve seen good evidence that many of us are capable of what I call Sympathy. And heaven knows, I’ve read a lot of accounts from women who complain that their Aspie husbands lack Empathy.

        Rachel, you are obviously a person gifted from an early age with every genuine processe of Empathy. Your experience with the images of the Holocaust demonstrates that. Your consciousness took the whole thing further. You were looking critically on at the terrible truths of the event, and in the process, you were not carried away or taken over by the experience. You may have started with an immediate Sympathy, but true Empathy clearly resulted.

      • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:


        In answer to your comments:

        1) There are many ways of defining empathy, and how it’s popularly understood is just one way. Simon Baron-Cohen defines it as having emotional and cognitive components, and defines sympathy as a subset of empathy. For him, emotional empathy is about having a response; sympathy is about having a response and wanting to do something to help the other person. I don’t completely agree with Baron-Cohen’s definitions; I’m just putting them out there to show how variable the definitions are.

        2) I believe I said in my other comments that people do react with a lack of emotional control out of extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others, so I’m not sure why you’re suggesting otherwise. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t happen. I’m arguing that it’s only a beginning point, and that if we lived in a culture that did something other than pathologize hypersensitivity, people might actually get some guidance about how to channel that sensitivity as a gift, rather than attempt to medicate it away as a problem. To feel the pain and sorrow of another as though it were one’s own is, I think, a gift that the world badly needs. The challenge is how to use it.

        3) Yes, it’s empathy when you weep over the plight over a character in a play, or cheer on a character in a movie. You can’t do anything about what’s going on, obviously, but the feeling is there, and it can be put to use in other situations in which you *can* do something. For me, empathy is about the emotional response, not about whether you can do anything at that moment. After all, I have empathy for people in the world I will never meet or even see.

        4) Regarding whether a “trained and empathic Psych” would know whether they’re being lied to, that’s sometimes true and sometimes not. One of the things about this whole issue that bugs me is that there seems to be this myth that non-autistic people can read others sufficiently to know when they’re being lied to. It’s just not the case. People lie and cheat all the time, and get away with it, because people don’t pick up on the all the little cues. Some people are particularly talented at picking up on those cues, but many are not. And, of course, it all depends upon whose cues you’re talking about. I’ve found that people are particularly bad at picking up on my cues, because my signals tend to be unusual. For instance, if I’m looking tense, it can be because I’m working hard to hear, not because something is bothering me, but I’ve had people who keep saying, “What’s on your mind?” when I’m just dealing with sound. I also know autistic people who do pick up on lying very well, because they register a dissonance between the look on a person’s face or the tone of a person’s voice and the words coming out of their mouths. I’ve always been able to do that, perhaps because it’s a survival skill I picked up in order to be safe in a violent home environment.

        5) I have written many times about feeling other people’s joy as though it were my own, as have other autists and parents of autists. If people talk more about picking up sorrow or pain, it’s because those things are much more challenging to handle. If I walk into a room in which people are basically happy and peaceful, I don’t tend to talk about it, because it’s such an easy situation. It doesn’t mean that I don’t register all the great feeling in the room. I do. I think that parents talk about their kids picking up difficult emotions because those are the things that hurt the child.

        6) Like you, I’ve read lots of things in which people say that their Aspie husbands lack empathy. I’ve also read lots of things in which people say that their neurotypical husbands lack empathy. There is more than enough lack of understanding to go around.

  2. Dalai Lama tweeted today…
    Compassion is a feeling from deep in the heart that you cannot bear someone else’s suffering without taking steps to relieve it.

    Hm..my “captcha” was descsiab Lama…coincidence or….? Damn..changed to botelyt custodian when I responded incorrectly. Nevermind.

  3. Ric says:

    I have always wondered about this difference between sympathy and empathy. Yes, I am sympathetic and compassionate, but reading your article makes me think perhaps I do not empathize that well… Many times when a loved person was upset and sharing their anger with me about someone, I would try to explain to them why the other person said or did what they did, and it would make them angrier that I don’t understand. I used to do that because I was able to see both the viewpoints, and thought (erroneously) that if I explain to them, it would make them calm down. Since this went wrong many times with many people, I started listening silently, and not offering to explain to them what I was itching to blurt out. I was terribly pained at the incidents (sympathy) as these were very dear people, but perhaps I was failing to see that logic was not what they were looking for right then. Is that lack of empathy?

    But I think many neurotypical people are not so endowed with empathy either, it is not as if all NTs are empathetic. Many are not even sympathetic!

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