The Lost Art of Empathy

Empathy has been declining worldwide. How can we bring it back to society?

COMMENTARY

Originating from the Greek word empatheia (em, in; pathos, feeling), empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is a virtue that we try to instill in our young ones, and it is considered a good trait. Lately, however, researchers have observed a sort of decline in this trait, identifying some patterns and other interesting observations. Here, I discuss the current pattern and the possible reasons for the decline of this beautiful quality in our society.

The Change in Empathy

Empathy is a mold that shapes the kindness in society. It helps individuals connect beyond their age, religion, culture, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds. About 55% of those in the global population live in urban areas at present.1 The urban population in India has raised from 11.4% in 1901 to 34% in 2017, according to World Bank data.2 One-person households have become common and are increasing in number all over the world—from 153 million in the 1990s to 277 million in 2011. Opting for a solo lifestyle has become the new norm among young adults, with increased prevalence in China, India, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Industrialization, urbanization, higher education, and increased competition to survive and excel in life are few of the factors that may be influencing the change in preferences and lifestyle choices.3

Technology is easily accessible, and almost everything is managed via smart phones these days. There were as many as 560 million Indian internet subscribers in 2018, who downloaded 12.3 billion apps and spent more time on social media (17 hours per week) than individuals in China and the United States.4 Social events that put us in regular contact—like religious places, cultural events, and other festivities—have almost become negligible, as everything can now be done on social media, from the comfort of your home. We Google new individuals we hear about and often get to know them through social media only. In plenty of cases, individual differences are made apparent before individuals even get to know each other because of the different perspectives and ideologies they post on social media. COVID-19 has also brought about a different spin on social interactions in the form of lockdowns, with seclusion becoming the new norm.

Cybercrime is on the rise globally, increasing 121% over a period of 2 years in India, according to National Crime Records Bureau data from 2018.5 Individuals have grown ruthless and callous in their language and comments on social media, resulting in the recent trend of internet trolling. Animal cruelty cases have also been on the rise at 493,910 in India, according to the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations and All Creatures Great and Small.6 In India—a country whose religious beliefs associate various animals with different forms of deities—this comes as a surprise and a shock.

Wittingly or unwittingly, we have formed a society that has stopped using the empathy bone in the infrastructure of our being. In past 4 decades, researchers have concluded that empathy has eroded around us overall, with the average person in 2009 being less empathic than 75% of individuals in 1979.7

How Can We Bring Empathy Back?

Any change in society starts at the individual level; therefore, first and foremost, we need to understand that this change is needed. We should be motivated to bring this change and train our minds to become more loving and caring. There has been evidence in literature showing that individuals have become more empathic and caring after trial periods of such practices. Evidently, the brain structures that are involved in the process of empathy itself grew in volume, suggesting the possibility of neural modulation toward increasing empathy.8

We also need to stop thinking of those around us as “them” and practice “walking in their shoes” more often, thus diluting the barrier between us and them—terms more suggestive of a defensive stance. Empathy has been labelled as having a certain fluidity to it, thus making humans prone to either enhance it or kill it. Each of us must make our choice.

Dr Kaur is a consultant neuropsychiatrist at Max Superspeciality Hospital in Mohali, 160055, Punjab, India.

References

1. World urbanization prospects, 2018. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2018. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://population.un.org/wup/

2. Urban population (% of the total population) – India. The World Bank. 2018. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS?locations=IN

3. Dommaraju P. One person households in India. Demogr Res. 2015;32(45):1239-1266.

4. Kaka N, Madgavkar A, Kshirsagar A, et al. Digital India: technology to transform a connected nation. McKinsey Global Institute. 2019. Accessed January 10, 2022.

5. Narnolia N. Cyber crime in India: an overview. Legal Service India. Accessed January 10, 2022.

6. Rana R. The horrors of animal cruelty. The Logical Indian. July 3, 2021. Accessed January 10, 2022.

7. Konrath SH, O’Brien EH, Hsing C. Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysisPers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011;15(2):180-198.

8. Klimecki OM, Leiberg S, Lamm C, et al. Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion trainingCereb Cortex. 2013;23(7):1552-1561.