Scared, Sad, Angry, Bitter

These four emotions: scared, sad, angry, and bitter, all suggest that one has suffered or will suffer a loss. So all of them might inspire empathy and help from others. But they don’t do so equally. Consider the selfish costs of expressing empathy for these four emotions.

While a scared person hasn’t actually suffered a loss yet, the other kinds of feelings indicate that an actual loss has been suffered. So the scared person is not yet a loser, while the others are losers. When there are costs with associating with losers, those costs are lowest for the scared. For example, if it takes real resources to help someone who has suffered a loss, the scared person is less likely to need such resources.

People who are angry or bitter blame particular other people for their loss. So by expressing empathy with or helping such people, you risk getting involved in conflicts with those other people. In contrast, helping people who are just sad less risks getting you into conflicts.

People who are angry tend to think they have a substantial chance of winning a conflict with those they blame for their loss. Anger is a more visible emotion that drives one more toward overt conflict. Angry people are visibly trying to recruit others to their fight.

In contrast, bitter people tend to think they have little chance of winning a overt conflict, at least for now. So bitter people tend to fume in private, waiting for their chance to hit back unseen. If you help a bitter person, you may get blamed when their hidden attacks are uncovered, and your support may tempt them to become angry and start an overt fight. So by helping a bitter person, you are more likely to be on the losing end of a conflict.

These considerations suggest that our cost of empathizing with and helping people with these emotions increases in this order: scared, sad, angry, and bitter. And this also seems to describe the order in which we actually feel less empathy; we feel less empathy when its costs are higher.

Note that this same order also describes who has suffered a larger loss, on average. Scared people expect to suffer the smallest loss, while bitter people suffer the largest loss. (Ask yourself which emotion you’d rather feel.) So our willingness to express empathy with those who suffer a loss is inverse to the loss they suffer. We empathize the most with those who suffer the least. Because that is cheapest.

Thanks to Carl Shulman for pointing out to me the social risks of helping bitter folk, relative to sad folk.

Added 18Feb: Interestingly, many lists of emotions don’t include bitterness or an equivalent. It is as if we’d like to pretend it just doesn’t exist.

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  • arch1

    I find the main line of argument pretty convincing, but not the fine distinctions around angry vs. bitter.

    As to which has suffered the larger loss: All else equal, the angry person seems likelier to have suffered the larger loss, because larger losses tend to make people more emotional than smaller ones.

    As to costs of helping: Many fights have two losing ends; also, people tend to overestimate their own side’s strength. So it seems that a person already intent on fighting is likelier to lose from fighting, than a person still at the grousing stage who meets with one additional supporter. Similarly for their helpers.

  • Dude Man

    I don’t think that it necessarily follows that bitter people have suffered more than angry people who have suffered more than sad people. These distinctions seem to rely more on how the suffering occurs and not what causes the suffering. The latter has a higher effect on the level of suffering than the former.

    • It also depends on personality, a concept beyond the ken of autists like Hanson.

      • Is Robin really an aspy? I wish someone who has actually met him would clear this up. [Why would an aspy attend so many conferences?]

      • brendan_r

        It’s interesting to watch a guy with a rainbow flag profile pic berate a guy for being geeky.

  • msreekan

    “we feel less empathy when its costs are higher”

    That tend to also explain political choices, the forgotten man pays for the empathy.

  • Like arch1, I found the part about anger vs bitterness less convincing than the rest. If empathy with bitter people is potentially dangerous because they might want to start a fight, then why isn’t empathy with angry people even more dangerous since they are closer to fighting?

    • Because bitter individuals are likely to lose that fight, angry ones likely to win.

    • According to Hanson’s formulation, it will only you and the bitter person, and the latter reluctantly, whereas the angry person will have a team.

      Then again, the bitter person may show up with heavy weaponry.

      It’s a mistake to take any of the nonsense in this piece seriously.

      • arch1

        Jim, you’re clearly capable of producing more objective, concise, and better-written comments, based on a more careful reading of the OP, than the sample I see here. I hope that you start doing so (see for example Stephen Diamond’s response to the same comment).

      • Stephen should see mine for an example.

      • marshall bolton

        Jim – are you aware that you are making people angry (scared/bitter and sad)? Is that what you want? This seems like high-cost behaviour – for you and everyone else. Please be pleasant – or please go away.

      • I don’t care about you or your opinion of me or of how I should be or of what I should do. Please fuck off and die

      • marshall bolton


  • FakeName

    I don’t mean this as a general observation, but I disagree most for “scared”. Since it involves future change, it can reflect hidden properties of the person most readily. An angry, bitter or sad person is likeliest to have suffered a visible and known loss. A scared person’s reasons for fear are likelier to have been previously invisible and also make it harder to calibrate response (since cost-benefit is not certain, depending on whether the loss does happen). Thus, scared people hide it more (not wanting to reveal the reasons for fear) and it becomes a more important signal when revealed, particularly if its basis is unknown. Scared people think they’re potential losers, is the feeling, whereas we can make our own judgment about angry, bitter or sad. People at work sometimes seem angry, bitter or sad, but almost never scared. People in ones personal life are much more likely to be scared, where commitments are more fixed (and so we disproportionately push the problem investments to that circle).

    My ranking would be:

    Angry, sad or bitter (hard to rank), scared

    I agree that on the cost to empathy relationship.

    • Fear is frequently a consequence of past loss; consider rape victims, for instance.

      It’s funny seeing a bunch of autistics just making shit up about emotions that they don’t have and don’t understand.

  • Lord

    It depends on what help is offered. I agree empathy may mislead and becoming embroiled a mistake, but helping them see and deal with what exists and find constructive paths around it productive.

  • Jake

    This sounds made up.

    I feel little empathy for the scared. Especially if I can see they’re scared without reason and will be fine. Under your theory that would be virtually cost-free empathy and people would be most driven towards it. But a great many people feel no empathy at all towards the unreasonably scared. “Toughen up”, “get your shit together” and all that.

    I also feel angry at a great many things and people I have no chance of affecting.

    • It’s not only made up, it’s incompetent. The author is clearly lacking in any familiarity with the massive body of work on this subject.

      • Robert Koslover

        Mr. Balter, your comment would carry massively more weight if you cited (perhaps just a link or two) some of that “massive body of work.” Now, don’t start biting at me too, since I’m just trying to offer you a helpful suggestion. Have a nice day. Really.

      • Your comment is idiotic. I didn’t make an argument that requires a citation from that work, I merely referred to its existence.

      • Robert Koslover

        Sigh. Perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently clear. I did not mean to imply you should cite any specific quotes and/or data *from* such works, but rather you should cite, or link to, the work(s) themselves (or if easier for you, any bibliographic records thereof), so as to demonstrate, via such citation, to which works you refer (or even just one or two examples, given that you say there exists a “massive body” of them). In fact, you can still do that. And surely it would be much more persuasive than merely calling my comment “idiotic,” right?

      • I don’t expect to persuade an idiot like you so I won’t waste any effort trying to do so.

    • brendan_r

      Scared hot chicks are hot. Sad ones maybe too. These are tropes.

      Bitter or angry ones, not so much.

      You guys are clueless.

  • BoyNamedSioux

    Magnitude of loss is one dimension; another one is the likelihood that suffering is self-inflicted or otherwise “deserved.” Sad or bitter, I get a lot more sympathy when I’m sick than when I have a bad hangover.
    That’s why the negative appeal of bitterness isn’t just about potential social conflict. Bitterness can be a sign of projecting your faults on others.

    • So can anger, and in fact it is more likely to be that. Just look at Republicans.

    • BoyNamedSioux

      Also, bitterness suggests entitlement. Why would you help a potential ingrate? He won’t help you back when you need it.

      • brendan_r

        Right which is why Kanye West and Kobe Bryant are so unpopular, right?

      • BoyNamedSioux

        But, to get back on topic: you seem bitter.

      • brendan_r

        True. This Jim Balter guy – with the rainbow flag who is calling people autistic – got me fired up. Sorry!

      • BoyNamedSioux

        Civility on the internet! Credit to you, sir.

        At any rate, I think that those who agree with Robin’s post and those who think it’s so wrong it’s hard to even know where to begin (to which group I belong), are talking past one another completely. Signing off.

      • Or Donald Trump. But when you consider the extremes, beware of countersignaling.

      • brendan_r

        Yeah but many commenters are confusing who they’re supposed to empathize with for who they actually do.

  • “Note that this same order also describes who has suffered a larger loss.”

    Um, no.

    I won’t bother to get into the rest of what’s wrong with this article.

    • brendan_r

      The piece is about cues about an individual’s likely prospects; their attractiveness as a partner or mate.

      You’re talking about a town – and not just that! – you’re talking about our reaction to it.

      But to get back on topic: you seem bitter and my reaction to you tracks Robin’s predictions.

      • You didn’t understand my point. And no, that’s not what the article is about.

      • brendan_r

        No I got your point – Flint is terrible, republicans too, rah gay marriage, boo autistic libertarians. You’re on team Left, I got ya.

      • That has nothing to do with what I wrote. You’re not only a sociopath but a moron too.

  • The relations between anger and fear are important in psychodynamics: one often covers for the other. In terms of the schema presented, we find it useful to be angry if we’re looking for allies in a fight; fearful if we’re looking for nonbelligerent aid. Even when the predominant emotion is one, we may present the other to others and even ourselves.

    This can be expressed in political moods. According to President Obama, American rightist populism is driven by fear. This is correct, but the cover with anger is more salient. (There’s also bitterness, which often hides under a veil of irony.)

    The contemporary Left (so-called) today reverses this pattern and represents its anger as fear. (Microaggressions, etc.) Angry blacks, like angry women, are unattractive.

  • Peter McCluskey

    Bitter seems associated with losses whose effects tend to last longer, so we may expect them to benefit less from help.

    • brendan_r

      Definitely. Bitter evokes a 60 year old unemployed machinist from the rust belt. Or a crippled Vietnam vet.

    • If the effects last longer, we can expect helping them to be more expensive.

  • chaosmosis

    Is there a difference between bitterness and jealousy? I know they are defined differently, obviously, but when I feel them the sensations seem the same in each case. Does this ring true for others as well? I’m thinking jealousy might just be a special kind of bitterness.

    • Witlimited

      I wondered the same thing and did a little reading that seemed to imply that envy and bitterness are somehow related, but it was quite a while ago. Searching for “ressentiment” and “embitterment disorder” might give you an interesting starting point though.

      Also, those schools of thought consider bitterness/envy/resentment to be almost… “complex compound” emotions? (E.g. bitter is ‘angry + helpless’) which could partly explain the relative scarcity of literature and lack of sympathy that’s been mentioned here.

  • brendan_r

    What emotion inspires most empathy? You rank scared, sad, angry, bitter.

    Might hold true for empathy towards Joe Dirt’s feelings. I’d hate to be married to a bitter, angry woman! Fear of spiders is cute though.

    But for high status people, this ranking is flipped.

    Leaders want people to empathize with them personally and with their plans. Now picture the emotions MLK, Bernie, Trump, Mandela, Hitler, etc. try to project when speaking.

    Even when trying to stoke follower fear the leader prefers to project anger and bitterness.

    You might object that what they’re aiming for isn’t empathy, it is confidence.

    But these angry, bitter guys sure do get a lot of empathy for folks who aren’t aiming for it. (And voters always talk about wanting leaders who “get them”, who are “one of us”.)

    I think the rank ordering here varies tremendously by context.

    The key thing is the extent to which anger (or something like it) is a credible signal of power.

    That’s why men can get away with anger better than women. An angry dude better be able to back it up. It’s also signals that you’re really down for the team.

    Also the more violent and anarchic and tribal the culture the more likely anger is gonna get you in a fight the more angry male leaders are empathized w/, i.e. black people empathize a lot more naturally with Jim Brown and Malcolm X than MLK and Obama. Southern whites prefer Trump to Romney.

    Your ranking applies cleanest to how men empathize with women I think, because physical power and confidence matters least here.

    (If you object that the examples are of distant rather than personal relations, it’s still puzzling then that, on facebook for example, when folks complain about something they don’t like they’re much more likely to project anger and bitterness than fear or sadness. If sadness inspires more empathy why is it only intentionally projected in very rare spots, i.e. death due to natural causes or something. And even there people are like SCREEWWW CANCER!!! FIGHT!!)

    • We don’t empathize with the powerful. When we want leaders to be “one of us,” we want assurances that they have a stake in our fights.

      • brendan_r

        Disagree. JFK death reaction. Also how personally people take it when their pol is insulted. Or fave athlete underrated. Empathize doesn’t just mean feel sorry for. You can empathize with people who are mostly fortunate.

      • Empathize doesn’t just mean feel sorry for.

        True, but empathize does not mean “identify with.”

  • brendan_r

    Robins rankings def apply cleanly to human empathy for pet animal emotions. Or old or young people even. But most definitely not plausible leading men. Anger too strong a sign of power, fear of contemptible weakness.

  • Patrick

    For the update: I don’t think this is true. I googled “list of emotions” and 3 of the first 4 that came up had “bitter” listed. This is hardly conclusive evidence either way, but I think one list on Wikipedia is pretty unconvincing evidence (and seems motivated by a desire to support the theory rather than to reflect the true state of lists of emotions).

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    I note if one wishes to apply this framework in a specific context, one would do well to specify what one means by each of the different words. There are versions of each of the four mentioned emotions which, when felt to a greater degree of severity, each seem to me to deserve more empathy than the mundane interpretations of any of these feelings. Being scared can manifest as panic. Anger can manifest as outrage or overwhelming indignation when faced with a great injustice. Sadness can manifest as depression. Bitterness can manifest as cynicism or defeatism in the face of a life full of utter suffering.

  • Vamair

    Anecdotic evidenc: I’d empathize less with angry person than a bitter one. Probably because I’m also conflict-averse and the chance of conflict is lower for a bitter person.

  • Zhanna Nakova

    “We empathize the most with those who suffer the least.”
    One of the great sentences. Even without thinking about it fully, it rings true.
    More likely we envy (and covet) those who suffer the least, and out of sheer guilt, we convert those feelings to empathy so as not to feel any sense of poverty within ourselves.

  • Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

    While this may be true for scared vs. bitter, I don’t think empathizing with those who suffer least is a universal principle. In general, I think we empathize the most with those who suffer the most. Consider people of different wealth — someone who can’t afford vacations; someone who can’t pay for their kids’ college; someone who can’t pay for all their meals; a homeless person. Here, the empathy is higher the more someone suffers.

    • Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

      I think the scared/sad/angry/bitter thing has a lot to do with age. “Bitter” is usually an old man. The ‘scared’ or ‘sad’ people who elicit people’s sympathies are either kids or attractive young women. And, yes, kids and attractive young women are more likely than anyone else to get tons of sympathy and help for their problems, for evolutionary reasons.

      • Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

        A young beautiful woman who says she is scared of lightning will have dozens of men messaging their concern during a thunderstorm, checking if she is ok. An elderly woman scared of lightning is likely to be ignored during a thunderstorm. So, I think age/sex is probably the big factor in the connection between these emotions and sympathy.

    • While this may be true for scared vs. bitter, I don’t think empathizing with those who suffer least is a universal principle.

      If it were, beggars wouldn’t try to look needy.

      (The most “cynical” view isn’t always true.)

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    > our willingness to express empathy with those who suffer a loss is inverse to the loss they suffer. We empathize the most with those who suffer the least. Because that is cheapest.

    While that makes sense to me on average I disagree that it is true in general. We most empathize with things we *can* empathize with – which in most cases are things that have happened to us before. As the loss increases so does the chance that an average modern person – especially those reading this blog – have encountered it. We can’t rule out that explanation a priori.