Why the US is Facing an Empathy Deficit And What We Can Do About It

Oct 29, 2020 | 0 comments

In this article, we’re continuing the series exploring the resources I came across while writing Mean People Suck. Today I want to discuss an article that explored the findings of a study that focused on empathy among college students.

The study, by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students at the time of the study were 40% less empathetic than they were in 1979, and the steepest decline in empathy took place over the last decade.

The author dubbed this trend the “empathy deficit”, noting that young people are caring less about others despite technology allowing them to become increasingly more connected with their peers.

This research is now almost ten years old, but if it was repeated today, I doubt we’d see a huge turnaround in the trend. In fact, the reasons behind this lack of empathy are even more present in today’s world. So let’s take a deeper dive into what this really means for our society and personal and working relationships as these young people grow up and start careers.

Quick Takeaways

  • Our society as a whole is becoming less empathic. This could have huge ramifications for our personal and social relationships and how we do business.
  • Empathy at work means more positive workplace culture, more engaged employees, happier customers, and ultimately a more successful business.

What is Empathy?

We can’t really have a discussion about empathy without defining what we’re talking about, so let’s start there.

The experts can’t fully agree on one true definition, but The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Empathy goes beyond sympathy, which is understanding how someone else feels. Empathy enables us to actually experience those feelings for ourselves. Just like the little girl crying in the viral video below, we feel the emotional pain of others as if it was our own.

Empathy is a bit of an abstract concept, and it can be hard to measure, but the worlds of psychology and science have been interested in empathy for many years. Just take a look at Nature’s list of recent studies into empathy and you’ll see that this is a subject the scientific community thinks is worth studying.

While some people may find empathy comes more naturally than others, empathy isn’t something you’re born with. Rather, it’s a skill that you can develop.

Young children quickly learn empathy through interactions with their parents and early caregivers, but this empathy sometimes seems to dissipate during the teenage years when young people become more self-centered and care less about how their actions affect others.

By the time we’re adults, our level of empathy may have been affected by a number of different factors. Most research seems to agree that empathy is a choice – we can learn to be more empathetic but only if we want to.

Why is Empathy Important?

Empathy is vital for the running of a civilized society. Empathy is important for developing social relationships and being able to live with others.

We can consider narcissism to be the opposite of empathy. Narcissists are focused mainly on their own wants and needs rather than on other people. A certain amount of narcissism is healthy as it promotes confidence and healthy competition. But a world of narcissists where everyone is out for themselves is a bleak prospect indeed.

Professor of psychology, W. Keith Campbell, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, pointed out in the report that narcissists always do well. Putting your own short term gains ahead of the long term prospects of others may well lead to personal success. But this will be at a detriment to your peers, workplace, or the society in which you live as a whole.

What’s the Reason for the Empathy Deficit?

So why are we experiencing this downward trend in empathy levels in young people? There aren’t any clear answers in this research, but many experts are suggesting technology may be largely to blame.

The teenagers and college students of the 70s and 80s didn’t have Facebook and Snapchat. They most likely didn’t even have the internet at home. They certainly didn’t have smartphones that enabled them to see what their friends were doing and communicate with them at every minute of the day.

While this pervasive technology may make communication easier and more frequent, it promotes only superficial connections rather than the deeper connections you can only get in person. As Dr. Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, puts it: “It’s very hard to be empathetic and feel for another human being if you can’t read another person’s emotions. You don’t learn emotional literacy facing a screen. You don’t learn emotional literacy with emojis.”

Empathy in the Business World

It’s not just young people who are glued to their phones, of course. We can also draw parallels with the world of work, where we’re more likely to send an email than walk across the office to talk to someone, and tools like Slack have replaced team meetings. We may be more productive, but at what cost?

As I write in Mean People Suck, “We have more ways to communicate than ever before. But as connected as we all are, basic human interaction takes a backseat and empathy has become a crucial variable that often gets overlooked or dismissed.”

While most of us can admit to a time when we were less than empathetic at work and put our own needs over that of others, it’s important to understand that empathy can actually be an important tool for getting what we want.

Image Source

Beyond its overall impact on society, empathy is a vital skill for the workplace that can help you to negotiate better, work well in a team, improve your sales skills, and provide better customer service.

By building your workplace culture around empathy, you get happier, more engaged employees, better coworker relationships, more effective leadership, and improved customer experiences.

This is the premise on which I based the entire book, and it’s my vision that we can all work together to build a more empathetic, more understanding world, and be more successful in business as a result:

“I believe that if companies valued empathy, even stated it publicly and documented it as a core value, we could start to turn the tide. If companies were to treat employees with a little more respect and if managers gave employees a little more room to serve customers’ needs, then we could create better, more positive experiences for customers. Those customers would spend more money with our companies and stay longer. Then our companies would grow and hire more happy employees, and the virtuous cycle could begin again.”

So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy!


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