America is Experiencing an Empathy Crisis.

We seem to have lost a sense of care for, warmth toward, and the ability, as well as choice, to put ourselves in other’s shoes.

image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko from Unsplash.com

Empathy is considered 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.

Some examples…

Protestors marching, and the police who brutalize them. The police who do so, unable to understand (nor do they care to, and that is the key here) or even remotely consider the motivation or feelings of the protestors.

Some police officers, good ones who are trying to help and who aren’t demons, are also becoming victims of violence. One Boston police officer, who also happened to be black, had a brick intentionally thrown at him while trying to speak peacefully and even kindly with Boston protestors. Another Boston police officer witnessed it firsthand.

Our increasing levels of unnecessary noise. Gabbing on Facetime in public with the phone on loud speakerphone. Walking around with music blaring forth from our devices. Sitting on our balcony and talking with someone on Skype, with the volume on loud, no headphones used, so everyone surrounding gets to hear all the obnoxious noise. We just do not care about disturbing others anymore in the least.

We’ve become a culture of lousy listeners. Instead, most of us are concerned with me, me, me. My feelings. My opinions. My latest life happenings. My perception. My needs. My desires. My injustices. So few people today truly take the time to put themselves in the shoes and perceptions of others. So few people today actually take the time and effort to listen to others, fully and completely. To imagine how others might feel and experience the world and to then feel for them because of it.

Check out selfie culture, the litany of scantily clad self-taken photos that silently scream “look at me, notice me, think I am hot, validate me.” Our yearning to garner status and popularity, to make sure everyone online thinks we are super sexy and notices us, to show off the way cool thing we are doing today or the enviable aspects of our lives, our obsession with our physical appearance, our number of followers, money, and labels.

Half of our country’s current refusal to wear a mask, these people choosing to make it somehow “a political thing” and about “civil rights,” when in reality, it’s about deciding to want to help solve the problem of a mass pandemic, to not want to spread sickness to your fellow neighbor, and for everyone to keep an eye out for one another. It’s doing something for the greater good of, and care towards your country. Thus, the people who refuse to do this do not care about others. They only care about themselves.

Six months ago, I broke my leg in two places and tore the ligament. Surgery followed. I am just now beginning to walk again on two feet. I generally walk pretty normally, in terms of speed and gait. Occasionally, though, I walk a little slower than normal. Nothing especially glaring or noteworthy though. Twice in the last week, two different, older, white men have screamed at me out their car windows after I’ve literally, barely cleared their car in moving through the crosswalk, “thanks for walking as slow as possible, you stupid f*cking cunt,” and another one, “thanks for walking so slow, you stupid b*tch.” What is that? Are these people seriously that enraged about losing maybe three or four seconds from their life, because I am walking at a normal speed as opposed to speedwalking or sprinting across? That is way out there. It’s, frankly, psychotic and just incredibly nasty.

According to The American Psychological Association, Concern and care for others’ feelings are virtues sorely lacking in many adult Americans today. There’s even legit, scientific research to back up the notion that Americans are caring less for others and more about themselves. We are rapidly becoming a culture in love with ourselves, with little to no interest in or care toward others. And this is coming at a grave cost.

Take a look at the cultural climate around you, in America right now. It’s not great. Many might even say it’s downright bad.

The Washington Post reports that “empathy is on the decline in this country.”

David Niose on Psychology Today writes, “beware America’s shocking loss of empathy. The symptoms of a society coming unhinged.”

In his Tucson memorial speech, President Obama called on us to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” This study suggests young adults may have a lot of work to do: It finds that empathy is declining sharply among college students today. 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.

There may be several factors contributing to this, which can include: our growing obsession with our devices (the more time we spend on screens, the more our sense of empathy toward others can dampen). The hateful political climate at play right now in the U.S. (which is serving to divide our country). American’s anger (and rightfully so) for how horribly the pandemic has been handled here. Prior to the pandemic, many American’s were overworked and overstressed, this resulting in burnout, exhaustion, and thus, lesser ability to empathize. Our new cultural focus on status, success, popularity, and appearances, rather than the cultivation of inner traits and inner character (such as kindness, honesty, caring, being hard-working, intelligence, etc). All of these together can add up.

Dr. Michele Borba offers some critical insights and answers in her book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Our children became very plugged in around the year 2000,” Borda said during a podcast interview. “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.

Besides the effects of pervasive, addictive technology, Borda talked about other trends driving the Selfie Syndrome here in America, including:

  • The rise of celebrity culture
  • Hyper-competitive parenting
  • Overemphasis on testing in schools
  • An increasingly materialistic ethos
  • The disappearance of playtime

These, though, are generally relegated to children. What about adults?

Housing costs in America have doubled over the last decade, while wages have largely stagnated. Childcare costs most couple’s almost an entire salary, sometimes even more. Medical care in this country is one of the top reasons people go bankrupt here. Individuals pay, on average, one of the highest amounts in the world for out-of-pocket medical expenses (prescriptions, copays, deductibles, etc) here in the U.S., and yet, we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, we have significant rates of chronic disease (higher than many other countries), and we have higher levels of obesity. So, we pay up the wazoo for healthcare but have worse health still. And then, education. The majority of people in this country who have gone to college (aside from the very lucky ones) are saddled with a heavy debt load.

Half of students now take on loans of one kind or another to try for a higher-ed degree, and outstanding debts typically total $20,000 to $25,000, requiring monthly payments of $200 to $300 — though of course, many students owe much more. Now nearly 50 million adults are stuck working off their educational debt loads, including one in three adults in their 20s, erasing the college wealth premium for younger Americans and eroding the college earnings premium.

For more on these four affordability issues (child care, student loans, cost of medical care, and living expenses) that are crippling a majority of Americans: The Great Affordability Crisis That is Breaking America (The Atlantic).

Roughly two in five American adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency so many years after the Great Recession ended. One in five adults is unable to pay the current month’s bills in full. A surprise furnace-repair bill, parking ticket, court fee, or medical expense remains ruinous for so many American families, despite all the wealth this country has generated. Fully one in three households is classified as “ financially fragile.”

All of this is going to result in people who live their lives feeling stressed out, disheartened, and potentially, eventually bitter.

Now, consider our growing obsession and addiction to our screens, which chips away at and distracts from our real-life relationships to significant degree (check out Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle). And, the rapid diminishment of what used to be more connected senses of community here in the U.S.

And with all of that, you have a recipe for empathy taking a massive nosedive.

People are anxious. They feel disheartened, frustrated, and depressed at many facets of living here in America right now.

Coupled with our fixation on celebrities, on our looks and bodies, the steep rise this country has seen in narcissism over the last decade, our preoccupation with money and status, and our country’s highly individualistic value and way of thinking, and you’ve got a perfect storm for a country to begin losing its sense of connectedness…its sense of caring for one another…its sense of heart…its sense of, even, humanity.

Folks, we have got to do something, now, fast, today, in order to make a rapid shift in the direction this country’s heart is headed (in a dark and dangerous direction). If we do not do so, we stand to lose much. Our country, and possibly even, ourselves.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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