Google says empathy is "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another". I am looking for a word that means "understanding BUT NOT sharing the feelings of another".

If a lion in pursuit were to be kicked in the face by a gazelle, the lion would understand that if he were in the gazelle's situation he would done the same. The lion continues to try to eat the gazelle. The lion understands the gazelle's fear, but doesn't care to feel the fear. He continues to subdue and consume the gazelle.

  • Could you use your own word, understanding? I do not think that empathy means agreement of any kind, only the skill to see 'it' from the other's perspective, as though to feel it IF you were in that position. May 22, 2017 at 17:53
  • Yes I suppose the lion is an "understanding adversary". "Empathetic adversary" seemed too emotional.
    – colorlace
    May 22, 2017 at 18:09
  • 1
    Insight may be useful here: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/insight
    – Bookeater
    May 22, 2017 at 18:30
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    Sounds like a Vulcan to me. Intellectual understanding, but, except in mind-meld, no emotional understanding.
    – ab2
    May 22, 2017 at 20:47
  • What happened to sympathy?
    – Xanne
    May 22, 2017 at 22:12

4 Answers 4


In your example, the closest idea of someone who may feel empathy, but may behave in an emotionally detached manner is a medical doctor or an emergency worker or another who must manage feelings and keep their focus on making good decisions. Some people call this detached concern. I would have said this isn't empathy and that cold empathy is an oxymoron. I just wrote an answer to that effect, but then looked a bit further.

More relevant to your question, however, is psychologist Daniel Goleman's article on social intelligence. What you call "cold empathy" Goleman calls cognitive empathy. He contrasts this term with compassionate empathy that involves understanding another in a more positive, engaged way. He also mentions emotional empathy in which feelings dominate and may cause overload and burnout.

The first [type of empathy] is “cognitive empathy,simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.

But there can be a dark side to this sort of empathy – in fact, those who fall within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths (see Chapter 8 in Social Intelligence) – can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims. As Paul told me, a torturer needs this ability, if only to better calibrate his cruelty – and talented political operatives no doubt have this ability in abundance.

  • To the person who upvoted this before I edited, you can find my original response as a separate answer. I do realized this is 180 degrees from what you upvoted.
    – user227547
    May 22, 2017 at 21:24
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    I REALLY APPRECIATE the fact that after writing one answer 'there is no such thing as cold empathy', which is an easy conclusion I also came to, you were actually motivated enough to learn more and compose an entirely different, very good and illuminating answer! Thus you have made OP's interesting question into an excellent question. 3 cheers and 1 upvote! May 23, 2017 at 4:06

Here's my first answer that said cold empathy is not possible.


No, there is no such thing as cold empathy. This is an oxymoron, as the two concepts are contradictory and incongruous. Coldness implies detachment from feelings of others. Empathy implies responsiveness to feelings of others. Grudging respect is possible. Respect i based on cognitive judgment rather than feelings.

Definition of empathy from Oxford Dictionaries online:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Definition #5 of cold from Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary:

not friendly or emotional,not friendly or emotional, lacking emotional warmth

Why is he so cold and distant toward me?

Example sentences:

She gave me a cold stare and turned away.

I got a cold reception when I came home.


"callous" comes close...

It's definitions seem to mean that the person will not feel something that exists and should be felt, and in common usage I believe it suggests a more purposeful dismissive attitude towards feelings.

I would note the words "cruel" in the definition below, which requires some malice .. malice requires intention.

and particularly "disregard" -- to disregard, you first regard then dismiss ? Or to make it more clear, perhaps the two words together as in the second example sentence: "callous disregard"

callous from Oxford Living Dictionaries ADJECTIVE

Showing or having an insensitive and cruel disregard for others.

‘his callous comments about the murder made me shiver’

‘But despite the ineluctable force of modernization it's surprising how strongly and deeply rooted this callous disregard for women is.’

I would note the words "without sympathy" below, which, to me at least, implies some degree of understanding what they were being unsympathetic about.

callous at Cambridge English Dictionary adjective US ​ ​

without sympathy or feeling for other people:

As callous as it may sound, trying to help some students is a waste of time.

  • The trouble with callous is that it suggests 'insensitive and indifferent' whereas OP seems to be looking for 'understanding but unemotional'? May 23, 2017 at 4:12
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    @EnglishStudent I am reading "understanding" as "comprehending" .. like a sadistic murderor understands that they are causing suffering but does it anyway.. perhaps to elicit pleasure on their part. It's not sadistic because of pleasure the feeling is neutrality despite knowing they are causing an emotion
    – Tom22
    May 23, 2017 at 4:18

You can perceive your opponent's condition without empathizing.

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