The feeling when you witness the misfortune or suffering of someone who is worse off than you.

Pity is feeling bad for someone else, because they are in an unfortunate situation, or at least, in a situation that is worse than your own1. The other person’s misfortune can be physical (e.g., a puppy with a leg injury), financial (e.g., a colleague who just lost his job), or success-related (e.g., an athlete who just lost the most important match of her life). A requirement for pity is that the person empathizes to some extent with the unfortunate person, and feels that this person did not deserve the misfortune. This makes pity an important force in altruistic behavior, such as charity donations and volunteering. However, feelings of pity can also lead to the thought that there is too much suffering in the world for one person to change, and consequently, inaction. Secondly, pity can carry a negative undertone because it involves implicit feelings of superiority: if I pity you, it means that I think you are worse off than me, and thus, I am doing better than you2. This air of superiority is a reason why some people would never want to be the object of pity.

An important factor in pity is the amount of misfortune that the person feeling pity sees in the affected person. This misfortune is not absolute, but relative to the person: for an average person, breaking one of their hands is not a disaster, but it might be for a professional piano player3. A second factor is the ‘psychological closeness’ between the pitied and the pitier. Psychological closeness depends on the relationship you have with a person (you typically feel closer to your mother than to your neighbor), proximity (you feel closer to your neighbor than to a random person in another country), and similarity in background (you generally feel closer to someone with the same level of income or professional background as you have). Thirdly, you tend to feel more pity for someone if you think their misfortune is undeserved4. This depends on how much you like a person (it is easier to pity an unfortunate saint than an unfortunate jerk), and to what extent you feel they are responsible for their own situation (you feel more pity for someone who lost his house to a hurricane than for someone who lost his house through gambling debts). Lastly, whether or not you feel pity may depend on your worldview. Some people hold that luck is blind and random, and thus feel more pity than people who hold that everyone is responsible for their own fortune.

In the comic, Murphy is at first relieved that he is not included in the round of layoffs, but then realizes that his close colleague Sarah was affected. To make matters worse, she tells him that she had just bought a house.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Aw, poor you!”

“Look at how these people have to live, someone should do something.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Pity & Sadness

Pity and sadness are both feelings about bad things that have already taken place, and may experientially feel quite similar. The most obvious difference is that pity is always about the bad things that happened to someone else, while sadness is about your own misery. Secondly, sadness is about the loss of something important, while pity is about someone’s overall bad situation. Compared to sadness, pity is thus a more global judgment about a person. This means that someone who looks at herself ‘from a distance’ and judges that she is unfortunate, will be experiencing ‘self-pity’ rather than sadness.

Pity & Guilt

Guilt and pity are both reactions to the misfortune of others, such as someone being in pain or financial problems. However, the relation you have to this misfortune is very different between the two emotions: If you experience guilt, you feel somehow responsible for the misfortune, which is not the case in the experience of pity. The confusion between these two emotions can for instance be observed if someone expresses that they are sorry for someone else’s loss, to which that person respond that it’s not their fault. The first person simply meant it as an expression of pity or sympathy, but the second mistook it for an expression of guilt.

Pity & Worry

Pity and worry have in common that they are both emotions that can be felt towards other people (always, in the case of pity, and often, in the case of worry). The difference is that worry is felt towards events that have not yet taken place (or at least that you don’t about yet), but that you worry may happen. In the case of pity, you already know that something bad has happened to them.

Sources and further reading