The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We are suffering from an empathy gap, but we can fix it

After a 12-hour shift on Dec. 10, 2020, Noah Zinn, RN, hugs nurse Pricilla Carillo at the St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif. (Muichael S. Williamson/ the Washington Post)
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The evidence that Americans are suffering is enough to make you cry.

A new Centers for Disease Control study finds that nearly 60 percent of female students and nearly 70 percent of LGBQ+ students experience “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Ten percent of female students and more than 20 percent of LGBQ+ students have attempted suicide. Yet state after state is passing legislation to ostracize or stigmatize LGBQ+ students.

We are awash in gun violence and mass shootings, but we are told the right to own weapons of war is sacrosanct.

Meanwhile, antisemitism has skyrocketed, as a study from the American Jewish Committee shows. Some 89 percent of Jews think it is a serious problem or somewhat of a problem and 82 percent think it has increased a lot or somewhat. Ninety percent of Jews understand that “Jews control the media” is antisemitic, but only 66 percent of the general public does. And 57 percent of Jews see antisemitic content online, and nearly one-fourth of Jews have avoided wearing or displaying things that would identify them as Jewish. Yet, online platforms refuse to police their sites.

If only to ourselves, many of us ask: What is wrong with people? One can certainly identify specific collective failures (e.g., the gun lobby has outsize influence, social media companies need to be regulated). But taking a broader view, it’s fair to conclude we have a serious empathy deficit — a collective inability (or refusal) to see the world from others’ perspectives, to understand people’s fears and hopes and our shared humanity.

That’s not just me talking. Extensive research on empathy has measured its decline. A landmark study in 2010 found that Americans were less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years earlier:

The authors examined the responses of nearly 14,000 students who had completed a questionnaire measuring different types of empathy. The results show that the average level of “empathic concern,” meaning people’s feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others, declined by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009; the average level of “perspective taking,” people’s tendencies to imagine others’ points of view, declined by 34 percent over the same period. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009.

Everyone has a theory for why this happened. Too many people live alone, cut off from others. Social media isolates and objectifies people. And people’s capacity for empathy decreases as their stress intensifies.

Even the deluge of negative news can make us less empathetic. Helen Riess, a top expert on the subject, explained that when people are “bombarded with catastrophic news day after day, night after night with people drowning in floods, burning up in fires, and suffering all kinds of pain and cruelty in difficult circumstances in other countries, we can get overloaded.” Then, “we end up focusing on ourselves rather than others.”

Certain religious associations might also diminish empathy. In a fascinating study, “The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors,” John Compton looked at the decline of mainline Protestant churches that played a role in critical social justice movements and the rise of congregations of self-selected, homogenous people more concerned with maintaining power in a changing world than with traditional values (e.g., attending to the poor).

“The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches,” wrote Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum and a Christian evangelical. “When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized.”

The empathy decline has manifested itself in an erosion of civility, decency and compassion in our society and our politics. But there is good news: Empathy can be taught and cultivated.

Intervention programs with middle school students, college students and doctors have had remarkable results. As Riess explained, there is evidence that doctors and nurses can improve their empathy as measured by patients. This is done, first, by demonstrating with hard data that doctors who display empathy get better patient results and, second, by teaching communication skills, reflective writing, video-based learning and experiential learning. Riess has adopted a seven-part module to teach empathy skills to doctors.

In a middle school setting, teachers who adopted an empathetic mindset (listening to students’ concerns, fostering trust, adapting the school environment) had fewer students who required detention than did teachers who used a traditional disciplinary approach.

If it is possible to improve how everyone from preteens to doctors treats their fellow human beings, perhaps there is hope that schools, workplaces, civic organizations and religious institutions can begin to shrink the empathy deficit.