Sympathy May Be Part of a More General “Meta-Emotion”

Feelings of sympathy and compassion – what psychologists call empathic concern – may be part of a larger “communal emotion,” according to new work by researchers in Norway, Portugal and the United States.

Psychologists have traditionally thought of empathic concern as its own construct, with some people more prone to feeling sympathy and compassion than others. But a group of researchers is now proposing that empathic concern may be part of an overarching emotion that involves being sensitive to shared communal feelings.

The researchers called this overarching emotion kama muta, and defined it informally as a “tendency to respond … to all kinds of situations that afford closeness, such as reunions, kindness and expressions of love.” They pointed out that it corresponds to what we often call being “moved,” being “touched,” or finding something “heartwarming” in everyday life.

In their analysis, the researchers discovered a correlation between the experience of “being moved” and people’s tendency to have feelings of empathic concern like empathy, compassion and caring. They also found that people more prone to empathic concern were more likely to experience the sensation of chills (“goosebumps”), bodily warmth and weeping.

This latter finding is significant because in a previous study, the researchers tied these three sensations to the broader communal emotion of “kama muta.” Which, if you think about it, fits with our intuition that we might cry or feel goosebumps when we’re “moved” or “heartwarmed.”

There are still plenty questions for psychologists to answer. What is the exact relationship between sympathy (or, in research speak, “empathic concern”) on one hand, and the more general ability to experience shared communal feelings of closeness? To what extent is sympathy its own emotion, and to what extent is it part of this larger “meta-emotion”?

What we do know, though, is people who have a tendency to feel one kind of emotion are more likely to have a tendency to feel the other – there’s a relationship between the two feelings, we just don’t know precisely what it is yet.

Image: Flickr/Government of Prince Edward Island