Distracted drivers, online bullying, uncaring workplaces, and disheartening disasters on the news—it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to see that we have an “empathy deficit.” Psychological studies (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011; Twenge, Campbell, &Freeman, 2012) have shown that self-reported empathy in America has declined dramatically in the past three decades.
What has caused this stunning lack of empathy and what can we do about it? Proposed causes include isolation by social class and chronic stress. A 2008 study on “Power, Distress, and Compassion” (van Kleef, Oveis, van der Löwe, LuoKogan, Goetz, and Keltner) found that people with higher socioeconomic status felt significantly less empathy for the suffering of others. And revealing the dehumanizing effects of stress, a classic study at Princeton Theological Seminary (Darley & Batson, 1973) found that ministerial students who were told to hurry because they were running late to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan rushed right by a suffering man collapsed in an alley while students who were not rushing stopped to help. The implications are especially disheartening now that one in five Americans is reported to be under extreme stress (American Institute of Stress).
What can we do about this empathy deficit? A recent Stanford University study offers a sign of hope. Researchers found that people who believed that empathy was not a fixed trait but can be developed spent more time listening to others and demonstrated a greater willingness to help (Schumann, Zaki, & Dweck, 2014).
Knowing that empathy is a strength we can develop offers us a way to build more of it, not only within us but around us. We can begin by:
If we set an intention to develop greater empathy and understanding, especially of people different from ourselves, we can cause a positive ripple effect. By cultivating greater empathy within and around us, we can begin reversing the empathy deficit, progressively building greater trust and community in our world, one mindful interaction at a time.
American Institute of Stress, http://www.stress.org/stress-is-killing-you/
Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO
Konrath, S.H., Chopik, W.J., Hsing, C. K, & O’Brien, E. (2011). Changes in adult attachment styles in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.
Schumann, K., Zaki, J., & Dweck, C. S.(2014). Addressing the empathy deficit: Beliefs about the malleability of empathy predict effortful responses when empathy is challenging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 475-493.
Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1045-1062.
Van Kleef, G. A., Oveis,C., van der Löwe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19, 1315-1322.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.