The decline of empathy
From an article by Jamil Zaki, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.
Jamil's research examines social cognition and behaviour, especially how people understand and respond to each other’s emotions. In addition to studying the mechanics of empathy, his work focuses on helping people empathize better.
Empathy is our ability to share and understand one another’s feelings—a psychological “superglue” that connects people and undergirds co-operation and kindness.
The modern world has made kindness harder. In 2007, humanity crossed a remarkable line: For the first time, more people lived in cities than outside of them. By 2050, two-thirds of our species will be urban. Yet we are increasingly isolated. In 1911, about 5 percent of British citizens lived alone; a century later that number was 31 percent. Solo living has risen most among young people—in the United States, ten times as many 18- to 34-year-olds live alone now than in 1950—and in urban centers. More than half of Paris’s and Stockholm’s residents live alone, and in parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles that number is north of 90 percent.
As cities grow and households shrink, we see more people than ever before, but know fewer of them. Rituals that bring us into regular contact—attending church, participating in team sports, even grocery shopping—have given way to solitary pursuits, often carried out over the Internet. At a corner store, two strangers might make small talk about basketball, school systems, or video games, getting to know all sorts of details about each other. Online, the first thing we encounter about a person is often the thing we’d like least about them, such as an ideology we despise. They are enemies before they have a chance to be people.
If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created. And in some ways, empathy has broken. Many scientists believe it’s eroding over time. For the past four decades, psychologists have measured empathy. The news is not good. Empathy has dwindled steadily, especially in the 21st century. The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of people in 1979.
What can we do to increase empathy?
The first step is to understand that we can increase our empathy. Our brains are plastic, and change in response to experiences, habits and practices. The same goes for empathy. For instance, in a landmark study published two years ago, neuroscientists trained people in “loving kindness” meditation, a contemplative practice focusing on building people’s care for others. After several months of this practice, people reported greater empathy, understood others’ feelings more precisely and acted more generously to strangers. But even more strikingly, parts of their brain associated with empathy grew in volume, underscoring not only how we can increase empathy, but that we can.
One of our most powerful psychological instincts is to divide people into categories; for every “us” there is a “them.” This turns pernicious when mixed with competition, conflict and fear. Under these circumstances, empathy evaporates or even reverses into schadenfreude, or enjoyment of the other side’s suffering.
Counteracting these trends means putting people in the position to replace “us and them” with “you and I”, as well as the incentives to see outsiders as people, rather than mere symbols of their group. One reliable way to do this is to bring people from different groups together under egalitarian circumstances and with shared goals. Another way is to encourage people to understand how empathy is helpful, not just to the people around us, but to ourselves as well. Empathic individuals finish first: experiencing greater happiness, less stress and greater professional success. Poetically, one of the best ways we can help ourselves starts with caring for each other.
Contact can build empathy even in the toughest settings. After sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants dehumanized each other, but they did so less if they had friends on the other side of the conflict. Empathy promotes solidarity. After the conflict in Ireland, people who felt empathy toward outsiders were more willing to forgive them.
Watch this 13 min TEDx talk:
Read Jamil's book - The War for Kindness - Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Available here and from other booksellers.
See also an article on this site for church training for Building the Common Good in your community.
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