What is sympathetic concern?

Dr. Marsha Lucas
Sympathetic concern is the capacity to appraise the other's situation and to try to understand why they're feeling the way they do. Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal calls this "cognitive empathy" -- you're putting some thought into your empathy, not just reacting at an automatic, bodily level.

This is also the level at which consoling starts to kick in. If you see your partner coming in the door looking tight and upset, you experience the emotional contagion (you feel some of her distress and alarm in your own body) and you can try to figure out why she's in such a worked-up state -- you might also then be able to consider accurate ways to console her.

You're not just feeling your partner's distress, but you're also figuring out what you might do to alleviate some of it. You might soften your face and ask empathically about what's up. You might put your arm around her.

Monkeys are capable of showing this level of sympathetic concern, and of consoling one another (one monkey might console the loser of a fight, for example, by putting his arm around him). But it appears (from Frans de Waal's point of view, as one example) that they're doing this because, as they experience the emotional contagion of the loser, they feel yucky inside, and in order to alleviate their own yucky feelings, they try to get their tribe-mate to feel better so they can feel better too.

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