Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Factors Reduce Empathy?

Childhood is where we first experience empathy.  As parents, we play a critical role in how well our children develop empathy with other people.  Parents who are empathetic toward others will provide a template for how their children will respond to others.    Parents who are inattentive, insensitive or harsh will create a different template for their children; these children will relate to others with less empathy, and will also be prone to more aggressive or acting out behavior.  Children who learn to be empathetic are more likely to have better social skills and get along better with other children. 

In their new book, Born for Love :Why Empathyis Essential-and Endangered, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D.,Ph.D. propound a theory that empathy is a necessary ingredient for becoming a healthy adult.   They outline a number of factors that might be putting empathy at risk.  One of these factors is how children are spending their time.  In a Psychology Today blog they discuss this issue and how it might relate to the drop in college student’s scores on empathy.  They say:
 “Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don't get to know each other very well. And you can't learn to connect and care if you don't practice these things.  Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003--right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.

Worse, much of the time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now spent in front of screens. Television, obviously cannot teach empathy. Even nonviolent kids' TV, research finds, is filled with indirect aggression and linked to increased real-world bullying. Though social media is an improvement on passive TV viewing and can sometimes aid real friendships, it is still less rich than face to face interaction. This is especially important for the youngest children whose brains are absorbing social information that will shape the way they connect for the rest of their lives.”

Szalavitz and Perry’s book encourages us to look closely at the threats to the development of empathy and to consider finding a better balance between enjoying the benefits of social media while also seeing their limitations.  They support providing our children with more actual rather than virtual involvement with others.  Free time and  face to face interactions give children the  opportunity to learn  nuanced social cues and develop sensitivity to others which lead to empathy.

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.