Americans’ Sad Lack of Empathy
Something's missing from society these days — and it's worth correcting
The venom and vitriol of our current political season is a symptom of a larger psychological illness in our society, according to new research from Michigan State University.
Empathy is the compassionate quality among people that allows them to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. It is, as psychologist William Chopik at MSU says, “the tendency to be psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives.”
We now rank No. 7 in the world for empathy, behind countries like United Arab Emirates, Denmark, and Ecuador.
The debate over how to measure empathy continues among psychologists — but generally, these professionals agree that it involves an emotional or acted response to other people’s experiences.
This can take many forms.
For example, if you identify with the following statements crafted by psychologist Sara H. Konrath at Indiana University, you probably have some degree of empathy:
- “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
- “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”
- “When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I feel distressed and want to help.”
- “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.”
Women generally score slightly higher than men on the empathy scale, but it’s an attribute that allows all people to form and maintain close relationships. Empathy also contributes to what researchers call “prosocial behavior,” such as volunteering for charities and helping a neighbor in need.
However, the research from MSU shows that empathy among Americans is in decline. We now rank No. 7 in the world for empathy, behind countries like United Arab Emirates, Denmark, and Ecuador (which was the most empathetic).
This was the first study to look at empathy in comparison to different countries. Researchers analyzed data from 104,000 people in 63 countries and found that even war-torn countries such as Saudi Arabia ranked higher in empathy than America.
The number of young Americans who will never marry is higher than it has ever been. Volunteering has also hit its lowest rate since 2002.
“These changes might ultimately cause us to leave our close relationships behind,” Chopik said in a media release. “People are struggling more than ever to form meaningful close relationships. So, sure, the United States is seventh on the list, but we could see that position rise or fall depending on how our society changes in the next 20 to 50 years.”
We’re already seeing the effects. The number of young Americans who will never marry is higher than it has ever been, according to a 2014 report from Pew Research. Some young adults don’t feel financially stable or haven’t found the right person, but many of them regard marriage as passé in favor of cohabitation. Volunteering has also hit its lowest rate since the Labor Department began measuring it in 2002.
While some of these positive behaviors have decreased, negative behaviors have increased. More than 30 percent of school-aged children report that they have been bullied, a 24-percent increase in the last 10 years. Negative political campaigning has also taken off in recent years, and voters report high levels of dissatisfaction with the negativity of the current election cycle. Both sides paint the other as being unintelligent or even malicious.
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Chopik has studied the effect of empathy on our politics and found that people tend to migrate to those areas where others share their ideologies. “Living around people you disagree with politically can affect your close relationships,” Chopik told LifeZette. “It makes people feel left out, like they don’t belong, and they want to leave those places. Empathy could go a long way, but researchers have struggled with coming up with ways to enhance empathy between people.”
However, when we only live around those people who share our opinions — we tend to develop what psychologists call “false consensus effect,” which is the mistaken belief more people share our beliefs than they actually do. It’s the bias that our perspectives are “normal” and everyone else sees things the same way. Since we primarily interact with family or friends with similar belief systems, we overestimate how widely these views are shared. It’s also a self-esteem boost when others validate our belief systems by agreeing with us.
But if we want to foster a political system rooted in positivity, if we want to build strong relationships with our family and friends, and if we want to tackle the rise in bullying, we need to address our lack of empathy for others.
Behavioral scientists recommend some ways to do this. Taking time to recognize the needs of people in our community could be a good place to start. Scientists call this the “identifiable victim effect” — the tendency to respond compassionately to a recognizable victim instead of a group of faraway people in need. Instead of donating a few bucks to the Red Cross automatically from your bank account each month, take time to serve in a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
Psychologists also recommend simpler methods for increasing empathy — methods that look a lot like good listening skills. Giving friends and family members your undivided attention when they speak — putting away electronic devices — can go a long way to create empathetic feelings.
Fostering curiosity about the lives of strangers in your neighborhood can also help you to step outside yourself periodically.
It may take a while for American empathy to change direction. “Cultural change happens pretty slowly,” Chopik said, “and takes decades to really manifest itself.” But small and positive changes can go a long way.