Empathy, that ability to imagine what someone else is going through and share in their feelings, provides the bedrock for healthy relationships between individuals and communities. If we can’t imagine someone else’s experience, we’re more likely to simply pursue our own interests at the expense of others. For the world to be a pleasant place of mutual harmony and not just a dog-eat-dog arena, we need empathy.
Empathy has been expressly valued in American culture since the mid-20th-century. After World War II, “social scientists and psychologists started more aggressively pushing the concept into the culture” as a way to avoid mutually-assured destruction by nuclear warfare, according to the NPR story “The End of Empathy.” However, social scientists have been noticing a decline in people holding empathy as a personal value starting in the 1960s. For decades, researcher Sara Koranth studied people’s agreement levels to claims like “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need my help” and “Before criticizing someone, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.” Her research found that young people today are 40% less empathetic than youngsters in the 60s (NPR). Yikes. Does that bode well for our future?
While empathy is learned from infancy, it’s not too late to develop greater empathy as an adult. “Psychology Today” author David F. Zwink offers that some “roadblocks” to empathy can be overcome. For one thing, in order to feel the pain that another person is experiencing, he says we must notice that the person is in pain (duh, right?). Turning off devices and tuning into each other may be powerful building blocks for building empathy (um, that’s a little more difficult).
What about you? Do you need remedial empathy instruction, or are you going to train the next generation? Let’s find out with this quiz!