Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Empathy vs Altruism Narcissism and Sympathy

In several of my recent blogs, I have used the word empathy. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions”. Initially, this seemed straightforward. The more I thought about the concept of empathy, the more complicated it became.

Ultimately, I realised that its complexity is derived from 2 separate dimensions and 2 opposites: self vs others and also in mind vs in appearance. I have borrowed the latter dimension and opposites – in mind vs in appearance – from my audit profession. The audit profession has some similar challenges as psychology when it comes to human behaviour.

Psychology is the study of behaviour and mind, embracing all aspects of conscious and unconscious experience as well as thought (Wiki). Auditors are only interested in human behaviour, not in its alleged psychological motivation. The combination of auditing and psychology gives an interesting matrix of 4 different though related concepts: altruism, empathy, narcissism and sympathy.

Narcissism is a focus on yourself, both in mind and in appearance. A current example of narcissism is Donald Trump (see my 28 May 2016 blog, see 2015 Psychology Today article). 

Altruism is an opposite focus on others, both in mind and in appearance. Classic undisputed examples of altruism would include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

Empathy and sympathy are very much related although empathy is collective and in mind while sympathy is specific and in appearance. The words “in mind” would include (cognitive) experiences and also feeling emotions and would exclude behaviour. The words “in appearance” would require a visible display in behaviour (eg, expressing condolences, helping refugees in person). Sympathy would always include empathy unless sympathy is faked (eg, psychopath).

A 2015 Psychology Today article explains that there are 2 types of empathy, being cognitive (understanding) and affective (sharing feelings). Affective empathy requires responsiveness (eg, caring) towards the other person(s). In my view, affective sympathy just becomes another word for altruism – feelings and behaviour that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness (Merriam Webster).

The above matrix and explanations may thus differ from views in psychology. Nevertheless, I believe in the KISS principle: Keep It Simple & Stupid. Whatever is in our minds is impossible to verify. Only verification of human behaviour is possible. As the Sarbanes Oxley Act would require: Show me, prove me. 

Robin S – Show Me Love (1993) – artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

So baby if you want me

You’ve got to show me love

Words are so easy to say, oh ah yeah

You’ve got to show me love


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