Friday, February 8, 2013

Is Empathy In Decline?

A recent review of empathy by University of Michigan researchers, show some alarming trends.  They reviewed 72 studies of 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009.  Their findings showed that students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them.   That’s a huge drop.  While there might be methodological flaws to the study, if accurate it indicates a big shift in our ability to see the world from another’s point of view.    

Empathy is essential to our sense of connectedness to others.   It is what promotes pro social behavior and concern for others.    Without empathy we become less kind and instead, but instead more selfish and competitive. When empathy is not nurtured we are more likely to develop simplistic views that divide the world into opposing categories of good v. bad or haves v. have nots.  The lack of empathy limits our ability to see life’s complexity, to accept differences or to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole.   The proverbial saying,  “ There but for the grace of God, go I” reminds us that back luck and hard times can happen to anyone.   No one is excluded, which suggests we might be wise to exercise more compassion as we interact with the world.    Compassion and empathy are what unite us and are at the root of morality.

While there might be many reasons for this decrease in empathic responding it does result in less kindness and more callous behavior.    An example is given by government executive John K. Mullen.    Mullen tells the story of a wealth management firm that fired a number of young, bright employees because of their inability to communicate empathetically with clients who had lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis.   The company then hired older employees who could sit down face to face with these clients and discuss their situation with compassion.

Mullen suggests in a Harvard Business Review blog that young people today may be under-stimulating the neural pathways that hone social skills.   That means diminishing ability to develop empathy, to engage successfully in interpersonal relations or to decode non verbal communication.  How disturbing it is to think that, if this new trend continues, we might be losing a vital part of what makes us uniquely human.

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