Concerning the capacity of humans, and, to some degree, higher apes such as chimpanzees, to exhibit sympathy, Frans de Waal writes:
“We adore such behavior…But the same capacity to understand others also makes it possible to hurt them deliberately. Both sympathy and cruelty rely on the ability to imagine how one’s behavior affects others. Small-brained animals, such as sharks, certainly can hurt others, but they do so without the slightest idea of what others may feel. The brains of apes, on the other hand, are one-third the size of ours, making them sufficiently complex for cruelty. Like boys throwing rocks at ducks in a pond, apes sometimes inflict pain for fun. In one game, juvenile lab chimpanzees enticed chickens behind a fence with bread crumbs. Each time the gullible chickens approached, the chimps hit them with a stick or poked them with a sharp piece of wire. This Tantalus game, which the chickens were stupid enough to play along with (although we can be sure it was no game to them), was invented by the chimps to fight boredom. They refined it to the point that one ape would be the baiter, another the hit man”
While empathy is equated in common parlance with ‘compassion,’ this is not necessarily the case, as Frans de Waal demonstrates. Some psychologists, particularly within the context of the study of psychopaths, distinguish between a kind of spontaneous, reflexive, affective empathy, according to which we viscerally and instinctively feel what others are feeling when we observe them, as opposed to a kind of cognitive empathy which does not necesarily automatically activate when we simply observe others, particularly as in the case of psychopaths. Psychopaths, researchers have found, are technically capable of possessing empathy, but only when asked to engage in abstract imagination of how they would feel if they were in a situation comparable to someone else.
It is quite a disturbing fact in the animal kingdom, that developing a certain level of intelligence means that we are able to transition from bare, unthinking aggression, to actual cruelty and sadism. Counterintuitive though it may seem to us, since, as mentioned before, we typically equate empathy with compassion, the ability to empathize is actually a prerequisite for cruelty. Indeed, we must be sufficiently intelligent that we are able to understand that we are causing harm to others in order to delight in that harm.
Waal, Frans de. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. Penguin Group, New York, New York, 2005.