Sunday, October 17, 2010

The empathy deficit

The Boston Globe reports:
Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections ...

But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.

According to the findings, today’s students are generally less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends’ whereabouts, but all that connectedness doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.

“To me, that’s the basic glue,” said Sara Konrath, a research assistant professor and the lead author of the study on empathy. “It’s so rewarding to connect with human beings. It’s so good for our bodies to do this. Everything we know as psychologists tells us it’s the most wonderful thing. So if we’re losing that, I think that is distressing.”
There is now a consensus that Pres. Obama lacks empathy, even he himself has a record of blabbering about empathy. Obama has complained that terrorists lack empathy and judges lack empathy.

There seems to be a lot of confusing about what empathy means. It does not mean soft-hearted. It is a form of mindreading. Merriam-Webster defines:
Definition of EMPATHY
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
The Boston article recognizes confusion about what the word means:
Empathy might seem like a hard-to-define, touchy-feely idea, ...

Empathy is such a basic ingredient of the human experience that even babies exhibit it, crying when other children cry or reacting to the facial expressions of adults and parents. Yet the word itself is relatively new: It didn’t enter the English lexicon until the early 1900s, derived from the German word einf├╝hlung, according to Daniel Batson, a researcher of empathy and professor emeritus at Kansas University. And psychologists studying empathy still disagree on some basic questions about how it should be defined: Is it feeling for others? Feeling as others feel? Understanding how others feel? Or some combination of the above?

“It’s all over the place,” Batson said. “There’s no agreed-upon definition.”

But at the most basic level, most concur that empathy is some sort of emotional response to another person’s plight, pain, state, or suffering.
Yes, but empathy does not necessarily have anything to do with genuine concern for the world.


Edwin Rutsch said...

Roger, here's some more resources about empathy. The Culture of Empathy website is a growing portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contain articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

you may find this video of interest.
Building a Culture of Empathy with the SF Tea Party

Roger said...

At about 20:00 of the video in the above link, a guy talks about empathy in terms of using Apple products instead of Microsoft products, because Bill Gates is a capitalist. At the end, Obama complains about an empathy deficit. He says that everyone else has an empathy deficit, while everyone else says that he has an empathy deficit.