Empathy vs. Sympathy

If you’re familiar with the YouTube community, you probably already know Craig (aka WheezyWaiter). If not, I strongly urge you to check out his channel and subscribe. Craig recently made a video talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy.

I’m mentioning this video on this blog because the difference between sympathy and empathy is something I’ve talked about a lot – albeit mostly offline with friends – when I talk about changing the conversation on global poverty.

You see, one of the things that inspired me to start this project is that I hated how charities were (and sometimes still are) talking about global poverty. You’ve probably all seen the ads: it usually features black and white images of emaciated crying children with an ominous voice saying how you can save their lives for just $2 a day.

Screenshot from a child-sponsorship charity TV advertisement that airs here in Canada. Ads like this are sympathy-based marketing. We're provoked into donating because we feel pity for what we see - not because we relate to what we see.

The problem with this kind of messaging is that it reduces the poor to a “them” or to objects which we pity. More importantly, as we become a more connected and globalized society, many of the poor are becoming aware of how their images are being used abroad and do not want to be portrayed in such a manner.

And bottom line, if we get inundated with guilt-based messaging, it only becomes a matter of time until we tune out the whole issue of global poverty. Guilt-based messaging does a disservice both to the individuals whose images they use and the overall goal of ending extreme global poverty.

Empathy-based messaging tries to portray the depth, complexity, and humanity of those in need. It often skews towards positive and happy imagery because, as a nature of the human condition, we are able to better empathize with someone's joy than someone's pain.

Moving to empathy-based messaging is the first step to trying to understand the complexity of ending extreme global poverty. But, to paraphrase John Green, we are limited by our own experiences and the lives we were born into. This limits how fully and how complexly we can imagine those who are different from us.

But just because we have limits to empathizing what it’s like to be from a different culture, ethnicity, or religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly be striving to imagine people complexly. And this is where I think the next step (beyond empathy-based messaging) comes in. There can be bridge-makers (or “free agents”) who can help foster greater mutual understanding and empathy.

But that’s a blog post for another day.

2 Responses to “Empathy vs. Sympathy”


  1. 1 Nickgreyden

    I am so sad every time I see an ad like that run Shawn. I remember turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the problem because of it after a while. John’s video promoting you (us vs them) changed the message. Your videos and work changed the game. Hank hit the nail on the head in the following video. We were TAUGHT wrongly. We were taught that if you don’t have food, water, clothing, shelter, you don’t worry about happiness. You don’t worry about anything other than your needs. And as a result, people aren’t people anymore, they are one-sided, they aren’t complex, and are easily ignored.

    I’m so proud of you and the job you do. I’m so glad you got to Davos this year and it has helped. I’m so happy SOMEONE is changing the message. Because until the message is changed, until the world is educated, until we can imagine people complexly, we have no hope of winning the game.

    But each video view is another mind made aware. Each life touched by you and Nerdfighters is another player for the team. There can be no war on poverty, because poverty is an us problem, not a them problem. There can be only be an outpouring of empathy.

  2. 2 Rbbasinger@word press.com

    Hi Shawn, I say a hearty amen to your call for fundraising strategies that emphasize hope and possibility, including in situations that we North Americans can hardly comprehend. Thank you for this timely reminder.

  1. 1 3 Reasons Charities Need to Drop the Guilt | The Uncultured Project
  2. 2 We Speak For Ourselves | The Uncultured Project
  3. 3 Joy appeal « Final Countdown

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