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Is Empathy Declining?

Posted Aug 06 2010 2:37pm

Empathy is defined as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand their feelings and feel them yourself, and to see the world as they do. Theodore Roosevelt said:

“A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises from sheer misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity.”

Developing the skill of empathy is a key tool for anger management , for better marriage communication, for improved family relationships, and for less conflict in the world in general. Yet, unfortunately, it is a skill that seems to be declining in our world. According to studies that have been tracking this since 1979, college students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. (This was brought to my attention in a link sent to me by a former anger management student. The link is a fascinating website called “The Art of Manliness.” which recently featured an article titled ” Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy” written by Brett and Kate Mckay.

For many people, it is amazingly difficult to be empathetic. Seems that more men fall in this category than women, but there are many, many exceptions to this statement. Some men are much more empathetic than some women, but as a group, empathy is unfortunately considered a more “feminine” than “masculine” trait. There may be a genetic basis for this gender difference, as some studies show that the differences between males and females are seen in newborn babies. Girl babies are more likely to cry when they hear another baby cry than boy babies are, and two year old girls exhibit more concern for those who are distressed than two year old boys do. Other research shows that as men and women get older, the empathy gap narrows.

Neuroscientists are even in the news recently in reference to empathy. Seems that we have something called “mirror neurons” in our brains. This means that when I am performing a task or feeling an emotion and you are observing me do so, the same neurons that are being lit up in my brain by actually having the experience, are the ones that light up in your brain just from watching me.

Wow! This may mean that physically being with someone (like your partner, or a family member) and watching them actually increases your empathy for them. Close physical proximity allows you to more easily put yourself in their shoes! Contrariwise,  it is much easier to NOT be understanding of others if they are not in front of us. The McKays give the following example:

“Have you ever been incredibly angry at another person, stewing and brooding about it all day? But then when you finally met up with the person face-to-face and talked to them, the anger just melted away? In the presence of their physical self, those puppy dog eyes, your empathy kicked in. In th absence of these real encounters, minor slights can multiply themselves many times over. One of the reasons long-distance relationships rarely work out.”

To increase empathy in our technology-driven world, we must balance our lives with real physical body-to-body, face-to-face interactions with people we care about or want to understand better. This includes marriage partners, family members, neighbors, workplace colleagues, etc. Even better, to increase empathy try changing places with them – that is, do what they have to do and see if that doesn’t change your perspective of things.

I recently had a personal example of this when I took a month vacation to South America  where I was hospitalized briefly for an intense intestinal distress. Admitted to a strange hospital in Quito, Ecuador where hardly anyone spoke English, I had to navigate the admissions process and explain to 10 doctors my symptoms and medical history in Spanish! Only problem was that my Spanish was nowhere near that level of sophistication, and besides, I was in no shape to speak even English, much less Spanish.

All I could think of were the times I had become impatient with local immigrants in Southern California who were struggling with their English, while trying to explain things the best they could. Since then, I have become much more understanding and tolerant of how difficult it is to learn another language, especially at an older age,  under stressful conditions.

To summarize,the trait of empathy is probably “hard-wired” in our brains, but we can enhance it with practice (just like breathing is hard-wired but breathing exercises make us feel better and improve performance). This “practice” involves first becoming aware of how important empathy is. Then, physically be in the presence more often of the persons you want to develop more empathy toward, and actually watch them as you interact with them. Finally, try literally putting yourself in their shoes, if you can, to develop more empathy for their lives, their outlook, or their attitudes.


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