The Sunday Magazine

Empathy makes us human, but research suggests it may be on the decline

Research suggests empathy may be losing ground in the West. Michael Enright speaks with experts Sara Konrath and Fritz Breithaupt about what it could mean for society.
A passerby assists a homeless man as he makes his bed for the night in Washington, D.C., on April 22. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Empathy is considered such a core part of what it means to be a feeling, engaged human that people who lack empathy are thought to be lacking in humanity.

Some would go so far as to say that empathy — the emotional and moral imagination that allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people — is what makes us human.

But research suggests that empathy may be in decline in the West.

Sara Konrath is a Canadian social psychologist and the director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at Indiana University. Her 2010 study found that younger generations in particular are less empathetic and more narcissistic. 

Another study from the U.K. suggested British citizens feel empathy is taking a downward turn. Meanwhile, stories of increasing political polarization, the demonizing of refugees or desperate migrants from other parts of the world, and hate crimes would seem to point to the empathic impulse being overwhelmed by anger, anxiety, suspicion and prejudice.

People are burned out

While it's tempting to put the blame squarely on technology and social media, she believes a lot of factors come into play, from a long-term trend in Western societies becoming more individualistic, to something as basic as mental fatigue.

"I see these changes not just in empathy, but in social interaction and social connection ... and a lot of them are coming at the same time as we have increasing pressures, increasing competition, increasing desire for success, and increasing inequality," Konrath told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright, adding that she believes people are burned out.

"Even for people with really high empathy, they can go in ebbs and flows in their empathy. And I think it depends a lot on their energy levels. Did they sleep enough? Are they hungry? But I think for people who are higher in empathy, it's because they practice it regularly and it matters to them, and that means it's probably less draining for them."

Fritz Breithaupt, who also teaches at Indiana University and is the author of The Dark Sides of Empathy, says looser social ties, smaller families, greater time constraints and a preponderance of public figures who project self-absorption could also be eroding empathy.

The empathy paradox

But he argues there's a paradox at work — people seem to be increasingly selective about who they feel is worthy of empathy.

"We have certain triggers and blocks of empathy, and one of the strongest triggers of empathy is some dynamic of taking sides when we observe a conflict," Breithaupt said.

"It can be as harmless as a sports game, but it can also be an argument we witnessed or even political tensions. We tend to take a side very quickly, and then once we take a side, we take their perspective. We start to share their feelings and start to demonize the other side.

"So there's a dynamic where our selective mechanism that lets us feel empathy for some and not for others can have real political consequences and can exclude others."

The consequences of a continued decline in empathy — or a continued increase in selective empathy — could be profound and troubling, with real implications for the global community's ability to tackle such daunting challenges as climate change, inequality and mass human migration.

"Some self-interest is important," said Breithaupt. "But of course [if] it gets out of hand, then the super-rich become even more hyper-rich, and the poor would be forgotten ... So the negative scenario would be a brutal world full of competition."