How Empathetic Are Americans? Gender and Generation Matter

American empathy levels vary by age and gender: Women in their 50s top the list

Posted Oct 15, 2016

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How would you respond to the statements: "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me." Research shows that your age and gender might influence your likely responses. 
Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

America ranks no. 7 globally when it comes to our empathic concern and the ability to imagine others' point of view, according to a first-of-its-kind study from Michigan State University. The October 2016 report appears in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

For this study, researchers led by MSU's William Chopic analyzed data obtained from an online empathy survey completed by 104,365 men and women around the world. Countries with sample sizes too small to be measured were excluded. Sixty three countries were ranked in the final study. 

According to the researchers, the findings of this study reveal that countries with higher levels of empathy also have higher levels of collectivism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, emotionality, subjective well-being, and prosocial behavior.

These magnanimous character traits are summed up in the Golden Rules of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself." 

Even though America made the top 10, Chopic warns that the psychological state of Americans has shifted in recent decades. There is a trend for people of younger generations to focus more on individual needs and less on our collective needs as a society; or the individual needs of another person. In a statement to MSU Chopic said, 

"People are struggling more than ever to form meaningful close relationships. So, sure, the United States is seventh on the list, but we could see that position rise or fall depending on how our society changes in the next 20-50 years."

Examining levels of empathy on a country-by-country basis using self-reported online surveys offers a cross-sectional view that could skew these findings. Chopic notes that although the study "only grabbed a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment" cultural norms and trends are rapidly changing. 

"This is particularly true of the United States, which has experienced really large changes in things like parenting practices and values," Chopik added. "People may portray the United States as this empathetic and generous giant, but that might be changing."

Courtesy of Michigan State University, used with permission
Countries in dark red have high empathy. Countries in light pink are low empathy. The countries in gray were not studied due to small sample sizes.
Source: Courtesy of Michigan State University, used with permission

Chopik hypothesizes that the drop in empathy levels is being fueled by a combination of potential factors that include: "the explosion of social media; increases in violence and bullying; changing parenting and family practices; and increasing expectations of success."

American College Students Have Become Less Empathetic in the Past 20 years

A 2010 study by researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conducted by Ed O'Brien and Sara Konrath found higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy among college-age students as compared to earlier generations of young adults.

For this study, Konrath conducted a meta-analysis of research that included results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009. 

When compared to college students of the late 1970s, O'Brien and Konrath found that college students in 2009 were less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me." 

The researchers concluded that college students of this decade—often reffered to as millenials—are not as empathic as college students of the 1980s and '90s. In a statement to University of Michigan, O’Brien said,

“The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy. The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.

Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity ‘reality shows,’ and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy

College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don't have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited."

American Women in Their 50s Tend to Be More Empathic

A subsequent study by Konrath and O'Brien along with Linda Hagen of University of Michigan and Daniel Grühn of North Carolina State University analyzed data on empathy from three separate samples that included more than 75,000 American adults. 

Analysis of the data found that women in their 50s are more empathic than men of the same age—as well as younger or older men and women. 

Interestingly, the researchers identified an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adult lifespan with middle-aged adults being most empathetic and younger and older adults reporting less empathy. 

Overall, women in their 50s scored highest for empathy. This group was more likely to react emotionally to the experiences of others. They were also more likely to practice theory of mind by putting themselves in someone else's shoes and looking at things from another person's perspective. 

According to O'Brien, this U-shaped pattern may be due to increased levels of cognitive ability and life-experience that enhance the emotional functioning that peak in middle age. Typically, cognitive declines can diminish emotional functioning and reduce empathy in the second half of our lifespan and younger people may inherently be more self-absorbed. 

The researchers acknowledge that more research is needed to understand the interplay of various factors that influence empathy. Only time will reveal the long-term impact of rapid changes in technology and social media which seem to have altered social behavior and levels of empathy among today's young adults.

Practicing Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) Increases Empathy

In closing, there is some good news. Despite these statistics—and the potentially discouraging research on generational trends of empathy—anyone can use his or her free will to consciously work towards becoming more empathetic. Empathy is not a fixed trait. Compassion is a cognitive process that can be nurtured and fortified throughout your lifespan. 

Spending just a few moments each day sending thoughts of compassion and loving-kindness systematically towards strangers, loved ones, those who have not been kind to you, and towards yourself can improve our individual and collective empathy levels. 

To practice LKM, all you need to do is systematically send compassion, forgiveness, and loving-kindness to four categories of people:

  1. Friends, family, and loved ones.
  2. Strangers around the world, locally, and nationally who are suffering.
  3. Someone you know who has hurt, betrayed, or violated you.
  4. Forgive yourself for any negativity or harm you’ve caused yourself or others.

Practicing LKM for just a few minutes every day can help rewire and restructure your brain to be more empathic. Daily LKM has the power to reverse declining trends of empathy for people from all walks of life, genders, and generations.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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