"Why Should I Care?"

Looking at the state of empathy today.

"Why Should I Care?"
A mass of bees working together for a shared goal

Every so often, I come across a topic that simply stuns me. While looking into self-determination theory and relatability, I have been beating around the concept of empathy, especially as it deals with relatability. Now, without context, I want you to look at the chart below (apologies for the grainy quality).

College students’ Empathic Concern scores by period Note: Capped vertical bars denote 1 SE. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Changes-in-Dispositional-Empathy-in-American-Over-A-Konrath-O'Brien/e6110444b492accc811291c8954b1f4cf5d349d9/figure/0

This is a timeline of Empathic Concern Scores as part of a 2011 study titled Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis.[1] I'm not the only one that found this years later- a 2019 NPR report titled The End of Empathy cites this research by Sara Konrath, a professor who led the original study, and goes further to trace this rise and fall of empathy in our society.[2] One of the most interesting conclusions concerns relatability.

The new rule for empathy seems to be: reserve it, not for your "enemies," but for the people you believe are hurt, or you have decided need it the most. Empathy, but just for your own team. And empathizing with the other team? That's practically a taboo.[3]

The research appeared to show that, when given conflict between two "teams," empathy can be magnified, but typically it results in polarization for the side to which someone is allied. Given a conflict, "people get into automatic empathy overdrive, with their own team."[4] When revisiting the Good Samaritan, I noted how the main message was to train people in doing something for others not a part of their traditional group. The current state of empathy seems to indicate that's a lesson we still need to work on.

The NPR report cites another researcher, Fritz Breithaupt, who wrote a book titled The Dark Sides of Empathy. This type of selective empathy ends civil society, and would likely create an impossible barrier for true altruistic bystander CPR between two parties.[5]

Breithaupt's solution, according to the article, is to abandon the idea of empathy as altruism and embrace it as a self-improvement tool of the imagination, almost selfish-empathy. Empathy exists mainly to help ourselves. I think it's an interesting idea and something for all of us to keep in mind as we try to train others to step in and help during an emergency.

Civic Engagement And Empathy

It's hard not for me to draw a conclusion between declining empathy and declining civic engagement. In another commentary on Professor Konrath's research, it cited the rise of screens, economic inequality, and reduced social contact as possible causes of this reduction.[6] As we identify more online, we not only suffer the effects of poor civic engagement, but our "empathy muscles" are atrophying too. Online politics has replaced social interaction as the main driver of our identity, and it's likely we're seeing that cascade into declines in volunteerism and more.

One of the most interesting theories, however, is that our own drive for self-esteem and independence is what's causing this problem, particularly in America. As we strive to "better ourselves" and reduce "co-dependence" we weaken the communal bonds that produced strong empathy among unlike people.

The myth of the self-made millionaire may also be contributing to this, instead of recognizing the million little parts that often go into someone else's economic successes.[7] We're not truly on our own, we do all need someone else to survive. I have no idea how to run the nearby nuclear power plant, or exactly what my local pizzeria does that makes my daughter like their pizza vs. a homemade version. It's my interdependence on them, and specifically my understanding that their well-being matters to my own, that helps with my desire that they, too, are well.

Training Empathy

Thankfully, all is not lost. Even if the tide never turns on screen time or political identity, empathy can be taught.[8] One of the most prominent studies, from the British Medical Journal, found that just by having an emergency medical physician assess the emotions of a patient produced a noticeable change in how empathetic that patient thought they were being.[9] While connections may be diminished due to technology and politics, they can be made surprisingly quick. The challenge, in that patient/provider moment, is to boost empathy by making the injury, illness, or disease the enemy, not the caregiver or the person in need of care.

Imagine, if you will, if we added to our CPR courses not only the previous discussions about how CPR relates to your own well-being, but also about the emotions of other bystanders there. Take 5 minutes in a class with a snapshot of a scene. Have them read faces, and share what they think is going on. Ask them, "who is more likely to help?" or simply ask what they notice.

I'd be curious if such a study would show an increased or reduced willingness to help based on what the scene shows. What would be even better is to see a blinded study that measured a student's willingness to respond before and after an empathy module was added to CPR instruction. If we can take simple steps to anticipate the empathy challenge before an emergency, we can perhaps mitigate its impact when it matters the most.


  1. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Changes-in-Dispositional-Empathy-in-American-Over-A-Konrath-O'Brien/e6110444b492accc811291c8954b1f4cf5d349d9 ↩︎

  2. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/15/712249664/the-end-of-empathy ↩︎

  3. Ibid. ↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

  5. Ibid ↩︎

  6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/born-love/201005/shocker-empathy-dropped-40-in-college-students-2000 ↩︎

  7. Ibid ↩︎

  8. https://www.mentalhealthweek.ca/empathy-a-skill-you-can-learn/ ↩︎

  9. https://emj.bmj.com/content/39/6/418 ↩︎