The Crash of Empathy

Campus Change Report
Emphathetic actions make us feel good and are one of the most valuable skills for employment, yet empathy is decreasing fast.

According to a long term study about youth in the United States, today's youth is 40% less empathic than their counterparts of 1976. Based on annual interviews with University students, the research revealed that empathy skills more or less remained the same up until the millennium. Then a deep downhill began, which is still continuing today. According to the study results, less and less young people describe themselves as good hearted or caring.

Neuroscientists are worried about this. “Mankind wouldn’t exist without the ability to empathize,” tells a neuroscientist Katri Saarikivi from the Cognitive Brain Research Unit of Helsinki University. “A human has always needed another human in order to survive”.

Even though the research was made in the US and there is no solid proof of this anywhere else, this subject occupies the minds of neuroscientists and psychologists alike.

Empathy is relating and reacting

As a word, “empathy” is rather young. It was spotted for the first time in 1909 during a lecture of the psychologist Edward B Titchener. The word comes from the German “Einfuhlung” “to feel from inside”. Titchener was comparing empathy to the experience of art: a bodily identification in the viewer. As a concept, empathy has been acknowledged as far back as ancient Indian veda-books.

Since the millennium, academic research has been more and more interested in emotions and their significance. This is called “affective turn”; there's interest in researching emotions and we know more and more about them.

There are two kinds of empathy, and their formation has been localised in two different parts of our brain. Cognitive empathy is the ability to experience another's feelings and thoughts. Affective empathy is when we feel another's suffering and feel the need to answer to it in a correct way. Researchers all agree on the fact that the ability to empathise varies individually. Childhood experiences and biology both affect our ability.

For example, psychopaths, 1% of our population, are able to feel cognitive empathy but not affective empathy. They can imagine how others feel, but it doesn't give them any emotion or urge to react. Autistic people have difficulty imagining how others feel, but they experience their feelings very strongly and become confused by them.

On a basic scale, it's the feeling of relating to other people. Researchers have noticed that the same parts of our brain are active when we see others suffering and when we feel suffering ourselves. We can relate to each other's feelings most when we experience them close by. That is why a tragic movie makes us tear up, but a news article about a catastrophe on the other side of the planet won't create a big emotional reaction.

When empathy leads to actions and we feel suffering in another person, oxytocin is released in our brain. That is why helping makes us feel good.

Empathy is unequal

Empathy has its nasty features as well. It's not an equal emotion. The homeless from Romania aren't getting the same empathy from us as Cecil the Lion who was brutally shot down. Empathy is reserved for the familiars and the cute ones. According to research, good looking people receive the most empathy.

It is hard for us to feel empathy towards someone we can't relate to, or who is somewhat unknown. The masses do not get our empathy in the same way as individuals we know by name. Empathy means feeling ourselves in someone else, and as the saying goes, you only feel someone's suffering once you have lived through it yourself.

Why is empathy important?

Lately, empathy has found its way into working life. Stressful jobs, high expectations and anxious environments are too familiars for many of us. For a long time work has been attached to a vocabulary of tough values, strong arming tactics and testing our limits. It is too often forgotten in this tough working life, that all the work we do is based on answering one´s needs, to make our lives easier and helping others. Even though emotional intelligence has turned into consulting jargon, empathy is still a newcomer to the the working world.

The more an employer understands other people´s needs, the better he or she can answer to them. The better a designer is at relating to his target market, the better services and products he can offer. The more a director can put himself in the shoes of his employees, the more he can understand how to inspire them.

As for Saarikivi, the interest in empathy comes from three things:

– Machines will be taking care of more and more technical jobs in the future, leaving people with analyzing tasks and missions involving emotions.

– The importance of empathy is highlighted in the era of artificial intelligence and digitalisation. A machine is easy for rational and logistical tasks. A human though is not always logical and rational, but are often very irrational. Humanity is being emphasised while machines are increasingly taking over business.

– Empathic people are more successful than others. Empathy studies have identified empathy genes, which would point to evolution favouring empathic individuals. By the words of Social Work Professor Brene Brown, who has widely researched shame and vulnerability, we have been programmed to be empathic, and we would rather help those who seem to be empathic in turn. Few successful people can say they made it without anyone´s help.

“Without empathy there are no conversations in work-life, only monologs”, says Saarikivi on the IBM blog. “Without empathy we will have products that no one needs, tacky service, and bad leadership. Empathy skills are at the heart of valuable work. Improving it is the most efficient way of doing things better, now and in the future.”

What is threatening it?

No unambiguous explanation as to why empathy is decreasing so fast has been found.

Instead, there are a lot of theories and guesses. As society is increasingly focused on internet, social media and individual accomplishment, there is a huge hunger for emotions in our society. You can easily see that in the news articles and in our need of using happy emojies. A message that ends just with a dot feels rude. A thought that´s often been discussed is that social media is fabricating relationships and making them superficial. Perhaps it doesn´t satisfy our need for something more real after all.

Pulitzer-nominated writer Nicholas Carrin says that the satisfaction created by social media is the result of evolution. Since the prehistoric era, constant observing of our surroundings has been vital for our survival. The more we knew what was happening around us, the smaller the risk was of getting eaten by a beast of prey. According to Carrin, active monitoring of our surrounding produces dopamine, the feeling of satisfaction, in our brains. It´s our reward for paying attention, and it has kept us alive. The internet offers us a constant target of observation, replacing the beasts in the forrest. Versatile irritants, sound, picture, videos and text are leading to obsessive use of smartphones and emails. We might get fast satisfaction from it, but something deeper is missing.

According to Carrin, constant observation of our surroundings, meaning surfing online 24/7, makes us superficial thinkers. It prevents real learning, because our brain needs time to move the new information from short term memory to the long lasting memory. When this important process is constantly being interrupted, there is no time for the real understanding and “seeing the bigger picture” to develop. In addition to empathy, critical, constructive and creative thinking are in danger.

What can we learn from it?

One way of developing empathy is to read books, especially novels. In a study carried out by the New School, during the research period those who read Alice Munron's books, showed high activity in the part of their brain that is related to language and visualising events. Compared to entertainment literature or reading the news those who read high literature got better points in tests where empathy, ability to socially observe and emotional intelligence were tested. At it's best literature reveals something about being a human, and when we are relating to it we realise that we are not alone with our strange emotions.

According to Saarikivi, some of the most important skills in interaction is the ability to recognise our own and other´s feelings, and the urge to see situations through other people´s eyes.

This could be improved by creating more interactive situations and discussion in schools. There could be conversations about books, discussions of the actions and thoughts of the characters. Discussing together is one of the most important things that a student can learn at school. When students are having a conversation they give something of themselves to the group. This is challenging, because the hierarchy in a classroom is formed during the first days, so in order for the quiet ones to develop the courage to speak out without the fear of judgement the group needs to have an empathic and respectful environment. Achieving that environment is much more important than learning things by rote.

While machines are busy taking over the mechanical work in the future, our task will be humanity; creative thinking and interaction. Empathy lies at the heart of it. It has been our survival code before and it will be again in the future.


Push: Empathy is the ability to listen to other people and consider how our own actions affect others.

Social Media Push: Future workers' most important skill will humanity. Emphathetic people are better leaders and workers. #worklife #future #empathy

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