Jo a mother, has just looked at a photo of a young child similar to her own crying calling for his mother on TV, his little face is filled with anguish. Jo wince’s and feels the child’s anguish. This is an empathic response.
Lara a mother has also just looked at a photo of a young child similar to her own crying calling for his mother on TV, his little face is filled with anguish. Lara doesn’t share the child’s anguish rather she thinks, poor little thing. This is a sympathetic response.
What’s the difference?
When you empathise with the plight of others whether they are friends or distant strangers, unlike sympathy you are more likely to act.
Both Jo and Lara have just seen another photo on the TV of a starving African child his eyes also filled with anguish. Neither wince nor say poor little thing.
It is a child in even more desperate circumstances. Why not the same reaction? The answer is simple. For many of us, empathy has boundaries and as a species, we are more likely to relate to people who share our own life experience and who we perceive have a connection to us.
What is not simple is why as humans we are becoming less empathetic as the world becomes more connected. Obama in his 2006 speech said America was experiencing an empathy deficit which was supported by a University of Michigan empathy research study. It said in the last three decades empathy in American college students has dropped 48% with the steepest decline in the last ten years.
There are many theories why empathy is in decline which may include:
The rise of hyper-individualism propaganda which believes the best way to live life is to look after yourself first. It is about “me” not “we” This is a myth of course as humans are wired for social interaction as well and can’t live on “me” alone.
People are only connecting with people who hold the same views. This has been enabled in part by the rise of social media and polarised news reporting. As a result, there is little opportunity to share opposing views and creates and an “us and them” culture with little room to connect.
Social mobility is on the decline. In the past with the advent of free education people were more able to move and marry between the classes. Today this trend is reversing. As a consequence, we are living our lives in class bubbles with little appreciation of others’ lives. People, however, are interested in the lives of others and is one of the reasons for the growth of reality TV.
The decline in volunteerism where people get to experience the plight of others often less fortunate than themselves.
Rapidly changing social structures, values and traditions which don’t require people to connect face to face. Today people on average only spend around thirty minutes of the day connecting face to face with family and friends.
If we believe as the Dali Lama does, that empathy is the key to human happiness or at the very least is important, what actions can society take to at least start reversing our empathy deficit?
The good news is empathy is innate in humans and is a skill that can be developed with appreciation and practice. It is not an academic exercise. To be empathetic we have to see the world from another’s perspective; metaphorically being able to walk in another man’s shoes.
These are some examples of actions being taken to help us re-engage with our empathetic selves:
Using the arts helps create experiences that help generate empathy. In WA there is an Empathy Museum which has thousands of shoes and for each pair of shoes, there is an auditory story from the owner of those shoes. When you visit the museum, you put on someone else’s shoes and listen to their story. Another is Dialogue in the Dark which is an experience where blind people help sighted people experience blindness by spending an hour in a completely darkened room doing everyday activities guided by a blind person.
Many of the fortune five hundred companies and others pay for the time employees participate in volunteering activities. There is a belief that volunteering helps develop empathy.
Encouraging school children to experience ground-breaking empathy programs like Roots of Empathy where primary school children adopt a baby for a year and learn important interactions that can translate to other appreciations of empathy.
School excursions that get children to experience other cultures often less fortunate than their own.
Reconnecting children in the playground by locking mobile phones up during school.
Leadership programs that have an emphasis on empathetic listening and building rapport with people outside their normal sphere of influence.
As with any rapid social and technological changes, there is often an auto-correction when the pendulum swings too far in one direction. You or I or people like Lara or Jo don’t want to be considered unempathetic towards others. That is not who we are. What is important is that the growing awareness of what is causing an empathy deficient is spurring many to take action. Let’s hope that empathy continues to regain its place on the social agenda.