Empathic or Empathetic?

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Mary Meehan wonders about the difference between empathic and empathetic:

I was reading a book that discussed the importance of empathy. The author routinely used the adjective “empathic” to describe those possessing the quality of empathy. I have always heard and used the adjective “empathetic”, although upon looking it up it seems both words are valid.

Are there any rules or guidelines regarding the proper use of these two words?

Both empathic and empathetic derive from the noun empathy:

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. –OED

Since both forms of the adjective are recognized by the OED and Merriam-Webster, speakers and writers are free to choose the form they prefer.

The older form is empathic (1909). The form empathetic derives from the more familiar pairing of sympathy and sympathetic. The earliest date for the use of empathetic given in the OED is 1932. It could be that scientific writers prefer the older term.

The word empathic makes me think of the word empath.

Neither the OED nor M-W has an entry for empath, but I know from a StarTrek episode that an “empath” is a being who can feel another’s pain–literally.

“The Empath” (1968) is excruciating to watch. Gem, the “empath” of the title, is an alien who combines feelings of empathy with the power to heal. When Kirk and McCoy are injured by torture, she is able to heal them with her touch. However, in healing them, she takes their injuries into herself, suffering horribly in the process.

Because of the StarTrek influence, I do see a difference between empathic and empathetic. I would use empathetic to describe the empathy an ordinary person feels. I’d use empathic to describe the feeling experienced by an empath.

Although neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster has an entry for empath,Answers.com Science Fiction Dictionary has. The word is illustrated with excerpts from the writings of J. T. McIntosh, H. Ellison, A. McCaffrey, M.Z. Bradley, S. Stewart, and M. Rosenblum.

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36 thoughts on “Empathic or Empathetic?”

  1. I would never use the word “empathetic”; it’s not a real word. (Dictionaries follow usage, and a lot of people use words erroneously, so it doesn’t really surprise me that it made it into a dictionary, but I am surprised by the date).

  2. Empathetic may indeed harken to the words sympathy and sympathetic, yet the connection I make is to emetic. And that doesn’t fit, really. Or maybe pathetic. Pity, that.

  3. I’m with Maeve on this one. I think of empathic as feelings experienced by an empath, and empathetic as something we Muggles can experience.

  4. The terms empathetic and empathic, next-door neighbors in the dictionary, bear similar definitions, etymologies and historical usage (Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 1991). Though some authors writing about empathy demonstrate shifts in usage (e.g., Zillmann, 1991; Zillmann, Mody, & Cantor, 1974), and some misread one for the other (e.g., den Heyer, 2002; cf. Yeager & Doppen, 2001, p. 99), major works on empathy (e.g., Batson, 1991; Davis, 1994; Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Ickes, 1997) as well as prominent researchers of media and empathy (e.g., Landis & Koch, 1977; Hoffner & Haefner, 1997; Preece & Ghozati, 2001; Tamborini, Stiff, & Heidel, 1990; Wilson & Cantor, 1985; Zillmann, 2006), all prefer the term empathic.


    Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
    den Heyer, K. (2002). [Review of the book Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social studies (Davis, Yeager, & Foster, 2001)]. Education Review, Review 165.
    Eisenberg, N., & Strayer, J. (Eds.). (1987). Empathy and its development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    Hoffner, C., & Haefner, M. J. (1997). Children’s comforting of frightened coviewers: Real and hypothetical television-viewing situations. Communication Research, 24(2), 136–152.
    Ickes, W. (Ed.). (1997). Empathic accuracy. New York: Guilford Press.
    Landis, J. R., & Koch, G. G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics, 33(1), 159–174.
    Preece, J. J., & Ghozati, K. (2001). Experiencing empathy online. R. R. Rice & J. E. Katz (Eds.), The Internet and health communication: Experience and expectations (pp. 237–260). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
    Tamborini, R., Stiff, J., & Heidel, C. (1990). Reacting to graphic horror: A model of empathy. Communication Research, 17(5), 616–640.
    Wilson, B. J., & Cantor, J. (1985). Developmental differences in empathy with a television protagonist’s fear. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39(2), 284–299.
    Yeager, E. A., & Doppen, F. H. (2001). Teaching and learning multiple perspectives on the use of the atomic bomb: Historical empathy in the secondary classroom. In O. L. Davis, E. A. Yeager, & S. J. Foster (Eds.), Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social studies (pp. 97–114). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
    Zillmann, D. (1991). Empathy: Affect from bearing witness to the emotions of others. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135–167). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    Zillmann, D. (2006). Empathy: Affective reactivity to others’ emotional experiences. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 151–181). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    Zillmann, D., Mody, B., & Cantor, J. (1974). Empathetic perception of emotional displays in films as a function of hedonic and excitatory state prior to exposure. Journal of Research in Personality, 8(4), 335–349.

  5. Empathetic is so firmly established in the language that empathic now seems jarring. Shouldn’t the goal of our writing be to communicate information as clearly and without interruption as possible? When I stumble on a word like empathic, my first response is that it’s a typo. It wouldn’t help if I looked it up and found that it was the older version.

  6. Thanks for the post describing the difference between those words.

    I wish I could write really good English on any topic. Since I’m a 16-years-old guy from Bangladesh and English isn’t my primary/native language, I’m not fluent in English. I like writing in English better as this language is globally understood.

    I am glad that I found such a nice site (DWT) which teaches us writings tips though it made me sad that my English is still full of thousands of errors. 🙁

  7. Was the origin of empath as a paranormal psychic ability created in Star Trek, in Russian mind-control warfare research, or within the New Age and Pagan communities? Or academic research?

    According to Wikipedia, early psychic research has been going on for while. “The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London in 1882.” Apparently, in parapsychic circles, an empath is one branch of telepathy.

  8. I probably have to research this more, but for now I have to report that while “empathy” obviously comes from Ancient Greek, at least in Modern Greek it has almost opposite meaning: to be εμπαθής (empathetic) means to be spiteful (empathy accordingly)

    The Ancient Greek dictionary I just checked lists:
    a) someone who has lost self-control & is overtly emotional/shaken
    b) “εμπαθής τινί”/ “εμπαθής προς τι” (empathetic towards something): someone excessively affected by something
    c) “εμπαθης φιλία” (empathetic friendship): very passionate friendship

    Excuse the bad translation (i really need to get to sleep), but isn’t it interesting how the Greek & Ancient Greek uses are so far apart and how the English is actually closer (but not identical) to the Ancient Greek? The obviously all revolve around the idea of passion (one of the meanings of ancient & modern greek πάθος [pathos]) but the Modern is VERY negative. ho-hum.

  9. Interesting question.

    The term empathetic appears to be the one commonly used in experimental psychology, social neuroscience, and cognitive science. Perhaps because empathic may have been preempted by clinical psychology as well as popular psychology, often with a special emphasis on picking up another’s moods and feelings. It is also used to characterize people who are especially good at such things. In contrast, empathetic would typically cover a variety of responses and capacities, unconscious as well as conscious, involved in the perception of other people. These include the ordinary everyday capacity to interpret another’s behavior unconsciously by internally mirroring it (via mirror neurons).

    So, independently of StarTrek, I come around to agree with Maeve’s suggestion:

    I would use empathetic to describe the empathy an ordinary person feels. I’d use empathic to describe the feeling experienced by an empath.

  10. Just trying to find the correct pronunciation of empath– and since it’s not in any dictionary that I can find, I don’t know the proper way to say it. I just want to make sure that I say it correctly. I believe that I am an empath.

  11. pronounced Em-path (path, like a road or walkway)

    I learned of this word when people applied it to me when I realized that I was picking up on other people’s emotional states. The confusion came because people often do not realize their own state but I was realizing it. It would seem so obvious that I would respond to it. Yes, some people have felt I was psychic when they would realize I was correct about their emotional state before they were. It upsets people, so I keep it to myself now and try to let it just help me to respond to people in a helpful way.

    Lots of people mistake empathy for sympathy or do not understand the difference. This is why I don’t like the word empathetic because I think it furthers this confusion and maybe is derived from the confusion.

    I am not surprised that the original Greek meaning would lead to the modern Greek meaning described above, as modern, western culture condemns the emotional for the rational. So it is easy to see how people who embrace the emotional could be labeled as “out of control” and “excessively affected.” This is simply a negatively slanted definition of passion.

  12. also, em-path-ic (path, like a road or walkway)

    (all short vowel sounds, the a in -pa- sounds like the u in gum, the e in -the- sounds like the e in leg)

  13. As a linguist who focused on phonetics, I find empathetic to be clunky, awkward and inefficient. Empathic makes much more sense phonetically and sounds far better than the alternative in my opinion. I think it would be a shame for science fiction and pseudoscience to co-opt that word and spoil it for the rest of us. If one wishes to make up a new being, if you will, i.e. empath, then one should make up new signifiers as well. Is that too much to ask?

  14. Empathic was first and sounds better and is easier to say.

    Empathetic has the word “pathetic” in it which inadvertently sounds like you think the person is pathetic rather than empathising with them!

  15. I would definitely use ’empathic’ to refer more to the abilities of empaths and ’empathetic’ to refer to a normal person understanding the feelings of others.

    Sympathetic also has the word pathetic in it. Would you consider calling someone ‘sympathetic’ akin to looking down on them and calling them pathetic?

  16. I prefer “empathetic” because “empathic” feels like an awkward way to avoid a connection to the bad-adjective “pathetic.” So “empathic” feels a little dumbed-down to me, carrying an implicit rude logic that empathy=good; pathetic=bad, and of course we all want to be good, not bad.

    Also: “Empathetic” seems to properly direct attention to the feelings of the (pathetic) person with whom one shares misery; “empathic” by contrast seems to point out the special ability of the one who commiserates, the “empath,” perhaps a sci-fi figure, or a psychologist with special tools.

    So empathic=being like an empath. Empathetic=experiencing the pitiable (pathetic) person’s feelings as one’s own.

  17. @ Ava for all your reasons, why not just stick to sympathetic?

    I agree, having the word “pathetic” in there does seem to imply that the person being described with these words sees the other as pathetic. And that’s why I like the word “empathic” because there should be a similar word for people who are not feeling pity or viewing the other as pathetic.

  18. Kim and Ava,
    I think there may be a disconnect between the conventional meaning of “pathetic,” which has to do with stirring compassionate emotions, and a contemporary usage which employs “pathetic” as a negative epithet.

  19. What a wonderful conversation! So good to see that there are indeed people who are interested in words beyond the current barrage of texting abbreviations. (I had a college student actually say “BTW” to me the other day.)
    Given the sacred christening of OED and Webster, I should say that it is nice to be able to choose for ourselves and debate the merits of each here. My undergrad is in English and graduate degrees are in Counseling and therefore I have grown curious, since I use the word very often and read it both ways as well.
    I prefer “empathic” and haven’t yet had to explain myself, though I am “sympathic” towards those who may be confused by it. : ) I don’t think Star Trek or telepathic research has made much of a dent in the expectations of the general public on the derivatives of the word empathy. A few of us know it, but I haven’t found that Star Trek affects my word choice or connotations.
    Of course, the truth is that we make up the rules and try to follow them, but, in the end, we make our own choices depending on common usage, preference, or influential exemplars.
    Happy choosing my friends!

  20. @Mary, I agree with the distinction you make between ’empathic’ and ’empathetic’. I also use empathetic to describe the empathy an ordinary person would feel, while empathic (or clairempathy) is more appropriate to describe the feeling experienced by an Empath.

    The use of the term ’empathy’ to describe an extra-sensory ability is inaccurate, confusing and misleading. It is a a term that is increasingly being abused by people who have no real psychic ability. Empathy is a normal human psychological trait, and it is something all people have to some extent (unless you are a psychopath, sadist or pathological narcissist).

    Empathy basically means being able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the natural tendency we all have to identify with, and be understanding of another person’s feelings, motives and circumstances. Some experts believe we are born with it, while others say we are taught to be considerate towards others by our parents.

    The more sensitive or empathetic you are, the more able you will be to comprehend and sense how others are feeling. But this is NOT an extra-sensory ability! You are not an Empath just because you are able to pick up on someone else’s feelings through cues you get from their body language, their facial expressions, their tone of voice, as well as behaviors like crying, or sighing, etc.

    Yet many people go around announcing that they “have empathy”, which makes them somehow special or gifted. By implication this would mean that all people who do not consider themselves Empaths, but instead see themselves merely as normal, caring people, should in fact all be called psychopaths and narcissists.

    If you are someone that has strongly developed empathy for others (i.e. you are very ’empathetic’) you would naturally be very aware of emotional signs and moods in someone else. But that does not make you an Empath. It just makes you a very well-adjusted, kind and considerate person.

    I am an Empath myself, and in my experience an Empath is a person who has vivid ‘clairempathic’ experiences or abilities. This means that the Empath has a direct experience of the other person’s emotions and moods, as if they were his own. Often you don’t even know where these feelings are coming from.

    Empaths who are unaware of their own ’empathic’ ability are known to go around for years ‘picking up’ unwanted emotional signals wherever they go, without understanding why their positive state of mind has suddenly changed to a really bad mood the moment they went out in public.

    Therefore, being ’empathetic’ is not just about identifying with someone else and feeling bad for them when they are having a tough day. With clairempathy you literally feel the sadness along with the other person, often without communicating directly with them or being in the same room with them. The Empath doesn’t only know or understand how others feel, he actually feels what others feel and also knows what the cause is and what could be done to resolve it. With normal empathy you don’t necessarily know why someone is sad, but you still feel sorry for them. With clairempathy you know where their feelings are coming from without any prior information, and you know how they will feel tomorrow and you also know how their current feelings are linked to their childhood, etc.

    Clairempathy is further also associated with physical sensations or medical symptoms. For example, I would be in line at the supermarket and suddenly feel pain or numbness in my shoulder, and when I turn around there would be someone further down the line of people who has their arm in a sling. Clairempathy or ’empathic’ ability is considered to be an aspect of clairsentience (clear sensing or feeling).

    So, clairempathy or ‘being empathic’ is a developed extra-sensory perception of emotions and feelings. It is a paranormal phenomenon and it goes beyond empathy or ‘being empathetic’ as a natural human trait. Your distinction between being ’empathic’ and being ’empathetic’ is therefore useful and meaningful.

  21. @ anton: This may be a bit pedantic, but empathy is not the ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes. It is the ‘as if” quality…as if you were in there shoes, as you can never truly know how it feels to be in their shoes. This is how Carl Rogers, the creator of Person Centred Therapy describes empathy, one of the three core conditions in the therapy.

    @ Rachel I would see close similarities between sympathy and looking down on a person to a degree, as sympathy isn’t necessarily understanding a person…..it has a quality of listening to the person and then patting them on the head and saying “awww”. Calling them pathetic however, I don’t see as relating to either sympathy or empathy.

    I too have been curious about empathetic and empathic as I can’t remember which term we used at Uni and I’m having to right it in my CV at the moment.

  22. I’m with empathic all the way. That is how I learned it (and it was taught that empathetic was incorrect). Found this conversation because I got into a conversation with a friend my age who had never learned empathic. I, too, was surprised that empathetic was accepted as early as it was. Sounds so, so wrong to me – kind of like fingernails on a blackboard. I realized when I started to get to the bottom of this that I had no idea how one would even spell empathetic. Now I know.

  23. As an elder advocate, “empathic” implies a good listener who inherently communicates from an internal place of understanding, without adding any of our own stuff. “Empathic” makes room for the other party to express themselves or concerns. It may be a situation where the conversation turns to problems, but the “empathic” person is also willing and able to offer the other party a sounding board for fond memories, recalled accomplishments and sharing simple joys of life.
    “Empathetic” implies a more superficial attitude of “dear, dear, you poor thing” but not understanding.
    I’m going with “empathic.” Thanks for the conversation.

  24. Fascinating post and comments. I am a subscriber, so when I had a question from a student about which of the two was correct, I came here after the online dictionary gave me almost identical meanings. I personally prefer ’empathic’ and to me, ’empathetic’ sounds wrong, but I guess it’s what you’re used to in the long run. I think of all the ‘ate’ words that have come into being through evolution and incorrect usage but are now accepted. Empathetic is for me the equivalent of saying ‘orientated’. It has a usage, but not a general one (to me, that is)!

  25. I favor empathic over empathetic. Brevity is essential to poetry and empathic is shorter. Also I suspect that the use of “empathetic” grew from questions about the use of the word “empathic”. Much like uncertainty about the usage of “regardless” lead to the painfully common “irregardless”.

    Words and usage evolve over time and the reasons are many. However I would prefer that usage uncertainty or lack of understanding cause the demise of a perfectly serviceable and likable “empathic”

    Also I really like the idea that Deanna Troi, the empath from Star Trek provides color and imagery to our language.

  26. The correct and proper term is ’empathic’. Titchener et al wanted to make sure that empathy was not to be confused with sympathy. It is important to keep this distinction. Empathy is an ability that we all possess to varying degrees. It is not only ’empaths’ who have it. If you are feeling what another feels you are in sympathy with them, not empathy. If you empathize with someone you understand not only what they are thinking and feeling but why, meaning their motivational state. In short empathy is understanding or knowledge.

    Empathy is the ability to understand and know (have [the] knowledge of) the Other from their perspective. (concise if inelegant)

    It is not a feeling or emotion; it is not sympathy; it is not compassion or caring; it is not intuition. It is not a shared experience. It is neither pro-social nor anti-social.

    It is a function of the imagination, and is cue and context dependent that requires the acute focus of attention.

    Suggestions of ‘clairempathy’ only serve to muddy the waters further.

  27. The word empathetic is an example of the way dictionaries often surrender to popular usage and our unfortunate need to say things in the most complicated way possible to make ourselves sound learned.

  28. Anthon – There is a good deal of merit to a lot of what you say, however I could not help myself but laugh at part of your assertion:

    “…… The use of the term ‘empathy’ to describe an extra-sensory ability is inaccurate, confusing and misleading. It is a a term that is increasingly being abused by people who have no real psychic ability. Empathy is a normal human psychological trait, and it is something all people have to some extent…”

    I disagree with your definition of “empathy” being a psychological trait simply because one is capable of such an emotion. No more than my stating my mental competitiveness allows me to be a fast runner, qualifies as a psychological trait.

    You then state, ” Yet many people go around announcing that they “have empathy”, which makes them somehow special or gifted”.

    Really? Let me ask you this. If Apes could speak, do you think they’d consider us “special” or “gifted”, as compared to them? I’d say probably so. So, on that premise, I’ll suggest to you (seemingly one who would seemingly have a greater appreciation of human evolution), that humanity has evolved tremendously and will continue to do so, albeit at a slower pace than we’d like. You can’t possibly tell me that outside of certain characteristics within humanity that have historically caused our race to be possessive and warring, that people exhibiting “empathy” is becoming much more common? Aside from your argument regarding the distinction between “feeling empathy” and being “an empath”, suggesting that empathy does NOT represent an advanced form of humanity would be the same as you standing on the moon and looking at an ant on Earth, claiming that it isn’t moving. So, it is your final statement that causes me to be conflicted regarding your definition of clairempathy and yet, to me a contradiction regarding a sense of self righteousness. Such a “trait” is not one which I would be accustomed to partially define one define the “gift” that YOU are so special to possess. Your final statement: “… I am an Empath myself, and in my experience an Empath is a person who has vivid ‘clairempathic’ experiences or abilities. This means that the Empath has a direct experience of the other person’s emotions and moods…,
    …(it is a) paranormal phenomenon and it goes beyond empathy or ‘being empathetic”.
    While I will concede that your statement is partially correct, I take issue (and frankly insulted) with your suggestion that such developed capacity, is not to be confused with (or the same) as those others who are JUST empathic. Poor ‘ol Kim (posting from above). She’s just empathic and often feels sad for others, but she doesn’t really FEEL how sad they feel, right? The human capacity to feel for someone else and yet to also “feel” what another may be feeling…., are not mutually exclusive. For one, I just find it odd that a person with such an advanced mental or emotional capacity such as yourself, would seem to come across with such a bold assertion regarding what “they them-self know” and “what everyone else thinks they know”…. and two, that while I do not doubt the evolved capacity which you possess, its almost perplexing to me that you might not have picked up on, or sensed that there are others with an even (I hate to use this term) “higher” level of evolved empathy. This, a capacity to feel “what” the other person feels AND to “feel for” the person experiencing those feelings. By the way, for whatever reason and I do not know why… this seems to apply more commonly to those hurting, feeling pain, or sadness; This, rather than quite the capacity to “sense” or feel excessive feelings of elation and love, but I digress.

    Derek – I think you are largely correct regarding your statement how one to be “empathic”, would truly require an acute focus of attention. However, I respectfully disagree with your disregard of “clairempathy” as muddying the waters. While I disagree with you acceptance of clairempathy, it is with understanding & complete sincerity that I concede that such a word could only exist (beyond that of a adjective of fictional meaning) with the acceptance of our own applied human condition. I do not see how your own empirical thinking could possibly lead you to any other conclusion.

    Now, if you don’t mind indulging a “somewhat” rhetorical question, what if such a whimsical concept of clairempathy were to actually exist as some form of future evolved human characteristic? Understandably unlikely, correct? Fascinating how the evolution of humanity, has occurred at a pace and to a level that our imagination has thus far permitted such to occur. Yet, our seemingly evolved intelligence as a species, ironically seems to make it that much harder to dispel all that we now know & consider to be “fact”. I do see your point, I mean how might such a concept of clairempathy (or E.S.P., etc) realistically exist now… or ever? It is our heightened state of intelligence, that seemingly prevents humanity from possibly accepting the concept of dueling truths or any acceptance of that which cannot be scientifically proven. If one thinks about it, “evolution is really a bitch” (she’s really slow and so unwilling to change, LOL). So, on that note… I’ll accept you’re explanation of “empathy”, and all distinction from the word “clairempathy”. Understand though, that while I accept your explanation, I believe it to be incorrect. You know what though? I feel you, man….. no really, I truly do 😉

  29. I think I’m leaning towards @Bart Grossman – I agree that the use is empathic but in a meeting I was called to account and over-ruled for it to be empathetic.
    Empathic it is.

  30. I have to agree: when I use empathic (and just as I typed this, the word appeared as a typo) when referring to the traits of an empath.
    An empath is empathic.
    A person who displays empathy towards someone is empathetic.

    I’m on the New Age spectrum and this is exactly where my mind goes.

    I was at a job interview today and I used empathetic, where the other person used empathic. I thought, “Is she referring to me being an empath?”

    Just my view.

  31. Empathic rules the day for me. Empathetic really winds me up for some reason, especially when they use it on the news. Grrr!

  32. Why am I getting these pages? I strongly believe that I’m intelligent enough to comprehend the difference between words and cóme very close in proximity of the use of such terminology or phraseology. However, I will coñtend with this matter upon a much later moment.

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