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Can Apathy Be Good?

Good apathy redirects emotional resources to what matters most.

Key points

  • Persistent apathy that pervades much of a person's life has been associated with low energy, lack of motivation, and poorer daily functioning.
  • Apathy can be contagious, influencing others who are not highly committed to a goal to become indifferent.
  • The impact of transient apathy, understood as selective indifference, depends upon the context and the target of the apathy.
  • Selective apathy can help redirect emotional resources to meaningful concerns.
Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Apathy is considered a negative state to be avoided or overcome. In popular usage, apathy is defined as an absence of passion, emotion, or excitement, or a lack of interest or concern for things others find moving. A typical synonym for apathy is indifference. Apathy has been distinguished from other undesirable states such as depression. Depression is characterized by sadness, low mood, and helplessness, often associated with symptoms such as sleep and appetite disturbances and suicidal ideation. Apathy, by contrast, is typically distinguished by emotional indifference.

It is clear why depression is understood to be maladaptive. Depression interferes with seeking and attaining the joys and meaningfulness of a fulfilling life. The undesirability of apathy is less clear. Should we expect to be passionate or even to care about everything?

The negative view of apathy may be traced to the conceptualization of apathy in a clinical context. Understood as a lasting state that pervades much of a person’s life, pathological apathy has been found in individuals with conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. In connection with such disorders, apathy has been shown to be related to poorer daily functioning, low energy, and a lack of interest in pursuing new experiences.

But is transient apathy in ordinary life characterized by such unhealthy effects? Persistent dispositional apathy has been associated with poorer cognition in healthy older adults. One recent study found generalized apathy in 22% of a sample of university students, but apathy was not related to impaired cognitive performance in the young college students.

Reflecting on his childhood and wartime experiences, Nobel prize author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, asked, “Can one possibly view indifference as a good quality?” Wiesel explained how indifference to suffering is dangerous. Powerful emotions such as anger and hatred in the face of evil and injustice can energize a response, but indifference elicits no reaction, leaving victims feeling forgotten and without hope. Not caring can sustain the inertia that prevents extending efforts to help.

Indifference can be contagious and thereby self-perpetuating, blinding people from the suffering and needs of others. In Jay Asher’s popular novel recounting the suicide of a teenager, Thirteen Reasons Why, the main character observed, ”A lot of you cared, just not enough.” Research has found that one person’s indifference can influence others. When one person shows indifference toward achieving a goal, others who are not very committed to the goal are discouraged from pursuing it. However, another’s indifference is not as likely to discourage others who are highly committed to a goal. Surprisingly, highly committed students persisted longer in a problem-solving task when primed with indifference by others. Among healthy people, the indifference of apathy does not always interfere with motivation to achieve meaningful goals. However, people may assimilate the indifference of others when it resonates with their own doubts or lack of commitment. The indifference of others can, in effect, offer a way out for people who lack certainty or dedication to a goal.

Research suggests, then, that apathy is not inevitably counterproductive when it is specific to a task or particular goal. Might indifference be beneficial in some circumstances? The conditions under which apathy toward specific targets can be helpful rather than harmful remain largely unexplored. Immersed in sad and tragic headlines and inevitably affected by adverse experiences in our own lives, we can succumb to compassion fatigue as our emotional resources are depleted and we become desensitized to increasingly horrible events. Indifference to things that distract us from what really matters may help preserve our ability to empathize with the suffering of others and redirect our energies to lending support to others.

It is essential to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy apathy. Judging the desirability of apathy can be guided by a number of important considerations.

Consider the following when identifying apathy as problematic:

  • Has apathy become pervasive, resulting in a general lack of motivation and a loss of joy even in situations that once elicited enthusiasm?
  • Are you neglecting others, including those who depend upon you for support and assistance?
  • Have your relationships suffered because of your apathy?
  • Has apathy disrupted your job or academic performance?
  • Have you been avoiding confronting and resolving important conflicts or issues?
  • Does apathy reflect a lack of confidence in yourself or a fear of failure?

In deciding when apathy is beneficial, consider the following:

  • Is apathy protecting you from being emotionally drained by matters that don’t allow for constructive responses?
  • Does your apathy redirect you to what is most important and meaningful to you?
  • Does apathy free you from unhealthy anxiety or unhappiness?
  • Have your relationships become healthier as you focus your energy with fewer distractions?
  • Is apathy allowing you to apply more time and energy to pressing concerns and people who rely upon you?
  • Has apathy helped diminish the power of obstacles to block your wellbeing and personal growth?

Seeking professional help is warranted when apathy has become a prevailing lack of emotional responsiveness that has depleted motivation and involvement in daily life activities. Unhealthy apathy can become an obstacle to personal growth and the pursuit of aspirational goals. On the other hand, wisely shifting our emotional resources away from distractions that drain our energy in nonproductive ways and redirecting them toward concerns that deserve our efforts can enhance our lives and the lives of others.


Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. Razorbill, USA.

Batcho, K. I. (2015). Too much tragedy making you "heartworn"–weary of compassion? Psychology Today.

Fishman, K. N., & Ashbaugh, A. R. (2021). Mind the age gap: A comprehensive examination of apathy, depression, and cognition in young adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportment. Advance online publication.

Leander, N. P., Shah, J. Y., & Sanders, S. (2014). Indifferent reactions: Regulatory responses to the apathy of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 229-247.

Wiesel, E. (1999). "The perils of indifference." Famous Speeches: Elie Wiesel's "The Perils of Indifference."

More from Krystine I. Batcho Ph.D.
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