Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 25, 2010 · 55 comments

in Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, Relationships & Family

“Fellow-feeling. . .is the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life. Neither our national nor our local civic life can be what it should be unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object. A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises either from sheer misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity.” -Theodore Roosevelt

While I have an affinity for the past and believe that nostalgia can be a positive thing, I’m not someone who thinks that everything is worse than it used to be in the “good old days” or that the world is currently going to hell in a handbasket.

Many aspects of our world have gotten better and better, and I wouldn’t wish to be born in any other time in history.

That being said, as in every period of time, while some things get better, some things get worse.

And one thing that is getting worse is indeed cause for concern.

According to studies that have been tracking this since 1979, college students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. 40%.

Empathy is not a subject we often associate with manliness; we usually think of it as more of a feminine trait. But even if, as we will soon discuss, men typically do have less empathy than women, it’s a trait absolutely vital to both genders, the glue that holds civilized society together and allows us to experience healthy, satisfying, long-lasting relationships. And if we as men naturally struggle with it to begin with, perhaps it’s even more important that we understand how to hold onto that portion we are capable of cultivating.

What Is Empathy?

Since 1873, when German philosopher Robert Vischer coined the German word Einfühlung (which would later be translated into “empathy” in English) to mean “in-feeling” or “feeling-into,” the definition of empathy has constantly evolved and been argued over.

Empathy is generally conceived as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand their feelings and feel them yourself. But of particular debate is whether empathy is the product of a cognitive process-we think about what it would be like to be the other person and then experience similar feelings ourselves, or, more of an involuntary, automatic response.

Recent research has lent much evidence to the latter view. Especially interesting is the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the brains of humans and some other animals. When I am performing a task or feeling an emotion, and you are observing me do so, the same neurons that are being lit up in my brain by actually having the experience, are the ones that light up in your brain just from watching me. That’s why you double-over in pain when you see a fellow man take a hit in the nuts. The empathetic response is automatic and immediate. It’s not a matter of having to imagine what other people are experiencing-they simply effect us.

This doesn’t mean that imagining and thinking about what someone else is experiencing doesn’t lead to greater empathy on our part-it does. But much of empathy is indeed “involuntary” (although we can shut it on and off, the way breathing is automatic but we can hold our breath).

When you feel bad for the victims of a natural disaster and donate money for relief, you’re likely feeling sympathy, not empathy. Sympathy is not an automatic response; we imagine what someone else is feeling and this leads to a desire for action, a desire to alleviate their suffering. With empathy we feel with a person, with sympathy we feel for them. As much as we may have felt sympathy for the victims of the Haitian earthquake, few of us really felt and experienced and understood what a Haitian was feeling and experiencing during that disaster.

Men and Empathy

As mentioned in the introduction, we don’t often associate empathy with manliness. Women are popularly thought to be the more empathetic gender, and studies do at least somewhat bear this belief out.

In the Age of Empathy, biologist Dr. Frans De Waal sums up what we know about the difference between men and women as it concerns empathy:

“Since men are the more territorial gender, and overall more confrontational and violent than women, one would expect them to have the more effective turn-off switch [for their empathy]. They clearly do have empathy, but perhaps apply it more selectively. Cross-cultural studies confirm that women everywhere are considered more emphatic than men, so much so that the claim has been made that the female (but not the male) brain is hardwired for empathy. I doubt the difference is that absolute, but it’s true that at birth girl babies look longer at faces than boy babies, who look longer at suspended mechanical mobiles. Growing up, girls are more prosocial than boys, better readers of emotional expressions, more attuned to voices, more remorseful after having hurt someone, and better at taking another’s perspective. When Carolyn Zahn-Waxler measured reactions to distressed family members, she found girls looking more at the other’s face, providing more physical comfort, and more often expressing concern, such as asking “Are you okay?” Boys are less attentive to the feelings of others, more action-and object-oriented, rougher in their play, and less inclined to social fantasy games. They prefer collective action, such as building something together.”

The differences between males and females seem to manifest themselves before socialization becomes a factor; girl babies are more likely to cry when they hear another baby cry than boy babies are, and two year old girls exhibit more concern for those who are distressed than two year old boys do.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that in studies on the aforementioned “mirror neurons,” women tended to have stronger motor responses when watching others than men did. One experiment involved men and women playing games with a partner who was really a lab assistant. In one group, the men and women enjoyed working together and playing a game with their partner. Then, while the subjects looked on, their partners were seemingly subjected to pain. The pain areas in both the male and female subjects’ brains lit up as they watched their partners in pain. But in the next group, the partners cheated during the game with the subjects and played unfairly. This time when the subjects watched theirs partner in pain, the pain areas of the women’s brains still lit up in empathy. But in the men’s brains, it wasn’t the pain areas that lit up, it was the pleasure areas. The men got a kick out of seeing the cheater get their comeuppance. The men seemed to be more focused on fairness and justice. Again this is not likely a matter of socialization; the same result has even been found in similar studies with male mice.

These differences are thought to be rooted in the fact that for millenia women have had to be very in tune with the feelings and needs of their offspring. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more aggressive and competitive, and more apt to see others as rivals. They are thus more likely to see empathy as a weakness, as something that gets in the way of climbing to the top and achieving success.

It is also interesting to note that autism and psychopathy, two disorders that affect a highly disproportionate amount of males over females, are both often marked by the inability to experience empathy.

Yet I do not want to overstate the male/female differences with empathy. As with most gender disparities, the differences amount to a bell curve, meaning that there are plenty of men who are more empathetic than the average woman, and plenty of women who are less empathetic than the average man. And as men and women get older, the gaps narrows further.

So what we can say is that women are generally more empathetic than men. But I don’t think this means that men should not be concerned about empathy and developing it. A National League baseball pitcher is there mostly to pitch, but he shouldn’t neglect his hitting all together. It may not be one of our main skills, but we can’t afford to let it go slack either.

Physical Bodies, Technology and the Decline of Empathy

Now that we have provided an overview of empathy, let us return to the study cited in the introduction that college students are 40% less empathetic than they were a couple of decades ago. What could be the cause?

Now there are bound to numerous theories, and I’ll humbly offer mine.

What sticks out to me is that the authors of the study “found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000.”

This is also the year that the internet took off and began to greatly alter our lives, diminishing our face-to-face, physical interactions with others and replacing them with conversations conducted as disembodied versions of ourselves. What does this have to do with empathy? A whole heck of a lot.

The amount of communication that takes place between our physical bodies is amazing. We pick up the mood and mirror the body language of others nearby. Studies have shown that couples start to look like each other over time, and the couples that looked most alike after 25 years of marriage were also the happiest (the study controlled for couples that simply looked alike to begin with).  A couple of decades of face-to-face communication had physically transformed the couples’ visages.

Empathy derives from the powerful synchrony that exists between our physical bodies. When others laugh, we laugh; when they yawn, we yawn. The smiles and frowns of others cause our mouths to droop or rise in turn. Think of the difference between listening to your favorite band at home and being at a concert where a whole mass of people is connected by the same emotion and moving the same way.

Empathy is communicated between bodies; we do almost literally step into another’s shoes. We map another person’s body onto our own. Our thinking causes our bodies to act, and our bodies cause our brains to think.

Dr. De Waal argues:

“We’re beginning to realize how much human and animal cognition runs via the body. Instead of our brain being like a little computer that orders the body around, the body-brain relation is a two-way street. The body produces internal sensations and communicates with other bodies, out of which we construct social connections and an appreciation of the surrounding reality. Bodies insert themselves into everything we perceive or think….the field of “embodied” cognition is still very much in its infancy but has profound implications for how we look at human relations. We involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own. This is what allows us, or other primates, to re-create what we have seen others do. Body-mapping is mostly hidden and unconscious but sometimes it “slips out,” such as when parents make chewing mouth movements while feeding their baby. They can’t help but act the way they feel their baby ought to.”

The Decline of Empathy and the Rise of Anger and Loneliness

People whose facial muscles become paralyzed often become depressed, lonely and even suicidal. They cannot express themselves fully, but even worse, people tend to avoid them. In a Parkinson’s support group, the mediator noticed that those with facial rigidity were avoided by the other participants. We feed off the transferring of emotions that happens in our face-to-face interactions; these interactions feel empty when we don’t see our emotions reflected back in the other person, and we struggle to empathize with what they’re feeling.

Isn’t so much of how we communicate now done with “paralyzed faces,” with immovable avatars that show no facial expressions, no body language? Is it any wonder that many of us are feeling empty and depressed?

Before I got a “real” job, there was a period where I was working on the website full-time. This seems to be many a man’s dream, and certainly it is nice to “go to work” in your pajamas. But it’s also incredibly lonely. Your day is devoid of human interactions. While I love to interact with AoM’s readers online, I missed empathetic, physical interactions. It was really kind of depressing.

And it’s not just loneliness that our disembodied lives have created, but a culture of acrimony.

Have you ever been incredibly angry at another person, stewing and brooding about it all day? But then when you finally met up with the person face-to-face and talked to them, the anger just melted away? In the presence of their physical self, those puppy dog eyes, your empathy kicked in. In the absence of these real encounters, minor slights can multiply themselves many times over. One of the reasons long-distance relationships rarely work out.

Yet our internet-saturated lives are now filled with “long-distance relationships.” I read pretty much every comment made on this site, and what often strikes me is how angry some people are. Even if it’s just disagreeing with the inclusion of one movie over another, the commenter seems to be fairly frothing out the mouth. It’s not that I don’t understand; having to spend so much time online has most definitely made me less patient, crankier, and a lot more cynical. The temptation to lash out is ever present. And it comes down to the decline in empathy. Hunched over our computers, communicating as disembodied blobs, we’re suffering a dearth of empathy transference. We’re little islands of one, free from the experience of stepping into another’s shoes, truly feeling what they’re feeling, and understanding where they’re coming from.

Final Thoughts

Whenever I do a post that in any way criticizes modern technology, some inevitably take this to mean I’m a Luddite who wishes he could be cruising along in a horse and buggy. Not so. Come on, you’re reading this on a blog! (See how angry I get?) Clearly I’m a full supporter of taking advantage of modern advances; I love computers and I love the internet. I’m simply an advocate for using technology responsibly and finding balance in our lives.

I’ve been actively trying to find ways to get out and interact with people physically, body-to-body, face-to-face. I want to experience and strengthen my empathy, to understand others, and I know that can’t be done entirely from behind a computer screen. I would encourage others to get out and experience the physical, emphatic side of humanity as well.

Source: The Age of Empathy by Dr. Frans De Waal

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gerard July 25, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Fantastic article, Brett! One of your most insightful and well written yet!

2 Michael July 25, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Dammit, Brett, I have somewhere to be and this article was so engrossing I had to stay and read it AND respond! The one answer I don’t see here (I’m sure if I read more background I can find it) is whether the decline is accrued (whether spending more time online lowers your empathy) or generational (it’s a trait that’s simply not acquired).

I would suspect the latter, because empathy seems to require personal contact to develop. But I fear that the former could also be true – I know that some interpersonal skills become “rusty” when not practiced (like the new divorcé who doesn’t remember how to flirt). Much of my “internet connectedness” supports my physical friendships, and I work hard to actually see people as often as possible. I would hate to see myself or others slip into grumpy-old-manhood as they spend more time with online friends and less with physical ones.

3 Rizzeh July 25, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Well said, Sir! I have noticed this alarming phenomena in people younger than me (30), but I think I just chalked it up to something like hedonistic parenting methods, or a general lack of character-building hardship. Hey, comparatively, kids are spoiled these days. I really never thought that empathy would be something that you’d have to exercise. Very interesting…

4 Matt July 25, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Excellent article. The internet has had the effect of creating a lot of isolation and anger, while simultaneously increasing the number of “friends” that many have.

5 David July 25, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Wow, Brett, fantastic work. Well researched, clearly expressed, honest…well done, good sir.

My model for empathy is Atticus Finch. And he didn’t have a computer :)

6 Nick July 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Excellent read Brett; explains a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about lately.


7 Karl A. Gregoire July 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I think another example of a decline in empathy between people is a rise in the displeasure people experience in discussing politics and religion. These two subjects are basically taboo today and I think it’s at least in part because to talk about them means we have to empathize with others; we have to be willing to entertain an opinion that is different than our own, and people seem unwilling to do that.
Is this a cause or an effect? Probably both because people are a lot lazier these days, given the general entitlement mentality that is gripping our nation. Laziness simply causes people not to care about someone else, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of that during my lifetime. It makes me wonder about people who prefer to text rather than speak over the phone, which is a far easier task, especially while driving!

8 Margie July 26, 2010 at 12:12 am

Another excellent article Brett and Kate! This is a very important topic in today’s fast-paced, and increasingly isolating, world. In the book ‘Building Moral Intelligence’, the author points to seven essential virtues that kids need; the very first virtue stated is ‘empathy’ and it is described as:

“The core moral emotion that allows your child to understand how other people feel (and)… be more likely to help those who are hurt or troubled, and treat others more compassionately. It is also the powerful moral emotion that urges your child to do what is right because he can recognize the impact of emotional pain on others, stopping him from acting cruelly.”

Personally, I see empathy as a sign of maturity, for both men and women, but, unfortunately, it does seem to be on the decline. I am especially concerned for kids today who don’t seem to understand the consequences of their online activities; how it affects others and quite possibly even their own futures.

And by the way, great picture!

9 Philip July 26, 2010 at 1:16 am

Cracked did an article a while back about mental disorders caused or made worse by the internet. Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which is basically the angry people yelling in the forums, is a case Brett mentioned.


10 Jimmy July 26, 2010 at 5:33 am

Thank you for an enjoyable and enlightening article!!

11 Dave July 26, 2010 at 5:39 am

I agree that the advent of the Internet may be a contributing factor to the decline of empathy. I also agree that parenting has become more and more permissive over the generations. We continue to teach children to be babies. Babies aren’t empathetic. They’re selfish. Babies don’t care how much you hurt or what you have to go through to provide them with what they need. This doesn’t make them good or bad, but they don’t know any better. It’s up to parents to actively teach our children to be mindful of what others feel.

12 ramón July 26, 2010 at 7:05 am

GREAT article. I love this site. I thought I was the only one(especially at 21) that realized these social plights (and I still do) but the fact that this exists and seeing others respond, and positively, gives me a little glimmer of hope that we might be able to turn it around.

13 Jonathan July 26, 2010 at 7:57 am

Im 25 and have been reading this website for a while and this Article goes beyond manliness to addressing one of the biggest challenges of our age. I myself have a seen an increase in this problem in myself.

Even writing blogs can and our ability to engage in lengthy conversations have been shortened by quick assimulation into the world of quick greetings on facebook and short text messages that give an allusion of connection and intimicy, yet without any depth.

Thanks for your controbutions.

14 gorgo July 26, 2010 at 8:58 am

I’m unconvinced the Net has caused a decline in empathy, any more than violent TV causes violence in children. Instead, a medium (net, TV, movies, comics, whatever) gives warped justification for antisocial behavior to those who’d enjoy engaging in it in meatspace but are afraid to due to consequences. The Net seems to make it worse only because of the anonimity factor, but the Net itself – like other media – doesn’t *cause* anyone to do anything they aren’t already bent toward doing. It just facilitates it.

15 Tilly July 26, 2010 at 9:22 am

I love the way you write. I enjoyed the attention given to this topic. Thanks for including a variety in your posts.

16 Thomas July 26, 2010 at 9:45 am

I’ve worked for 30 years as a collegiate fraternity advisor and in various roles in Freemasonry. Hence, I’ve experienced this derth (lack) of empathy first hand. Psychologists tell us of an epidemic of narcisissm that has grown while empathy has decreased. The factors cited by Brett and Kate may indeed be the drivers here.

Yet I also wonder if one of the causes of this is the reduction in family size, and the incidence of single child families. Does an ‘only child’ have as strong an opportunity to learn empathy? To have his or her desires and wants molded in such a way that they are balanced with the needs and wants of others? Not all single child families turn out selfish egoists, but I sure would like to see the data points and see if there is a trend here.

17 Grant Cooper July 26, 2010 at 10:07 am

Very well written article and very insightful. If you ever visit New Orleans, get in touch!

18 JR July 26, 2010 at 10:37 am

Nicely done. it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how this empathy demise has worked it’s way into our current “political” discourse (or lack thereof)

19 Chuck July 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

Wow. This couldn’t have been more timely. We live in GA, and my parents have been visiting from Texas. Multiple times I saw them both this past week sitting on the sofa and playing with their iPhones for hours while the grandchildren that they never see played in the same room. I never before in my life wanted to destroy 2 pieces of technology more than that. Tech is supposed to enhance your life, not erode it.

Tech has also eroded patience in general. People seem unable to wait for anything any more. Especially in the entertainment arena. Music, movies, etc. especially. My four year old seems unable to understand the concept of not being able to skip a song in the car, as she’s grown up with music from an mp3 player.

It’s my job to help teach my children these things, but it will be a long road. Thanks for the reminder to focus more on some of these things.

20 Hans Hageman July 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

I hadn’t considered this before but I think you’re correct. This is particularly dangerous for males as they have a harder time with face-to-face, caring communications and emotional intelligence in general. Ironically, the skills that are eroding as a result of our remoteness and increased digital connections are the skills that we will need to operate in international markets and 21st Century business models.

21 William July 26, 2010 at 11:49 am

I wonder if some of the loss of empathy is from children not being allowed to play outside with other children. Many parents are so afraid of something happening to their children, that they won’t let play outside. Perhaps this over-protectiveness is a contributing factor.

22 Rick July 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Brett: Great post. I agree with most of what you say. However, I would mention that a minority of us really *do* find the solitary life preferable to “going out and experiencing people.” My dream job *is* spending my time working alone and socializing with my select group of friends–and I mean select. I and people like me aren’t necessarily afraid of meeting new people, we’re not agoraphobic, we’re just selective on whom we let into our inner circle, and don’t have time for “casual acquaintances.” For us, the Internet is a godsend. For more information, check out Anneli Rufus’ “Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto.” She paints an accurate picture of how we see things and why. I would note that what she’s talking about is a spectrum, and some of what she discusses are what I’d call the “fringe” or extremes of our way of thinking, and by definition, most of us don’t fall into those areas.

Just trying to point out that one size doesn’t fit all, though I do understand that you’re writing for the majority here, so your points are valid.

Thanks again for a great post,

23 Brucifer July 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Excellent article!

What we also see a lot of now is what I will characterized as “Superficial Empathy,” essentially a *smile for the cameras”* type of thing. A SHOW of empathy because we are supposed to. Society as the uber-parent prompting the child to “What do we say? Say thank you!” when the self-centered kid could really care less. “Caring deeply” about the environment or the earthquake victims …. manifest by quickly texting-in a five-buck, feel-good donation.

This then spawns the current “Cult of Apology” wherein criminals are now expected to do the “Say you’re sorry” thing to their victims. Or, miscreant politicians cry crocodile tears for the cameras.

24 James July 26, 2010 at 1:49 pm

There is a book by Aldous Huxley called A Brave New World which has this as the underlining moral/plot element. Its a good but very depressing book when you think about it.

25 Peter O'Reilly July 26, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Articles like this are the reason I keep coming back to AOM. That and the great community we have.

26 kristy July 26, 2010 at 8:55 pm

No social capital, no empathy. We have to be socially connected (not just digitally) before we can feel anything.

27 Gevin Shaw July 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

Though the Internet may contribute to modern indifference, slavery, Jim Crow, and imperial exploitation are just some of the examples of widespread, institutionalized, historic failures of empathy.

28 Chris July 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

Great article. I agree that, like so many things, empathy is something that takes effort to develop and maintain. Technology has made so many skills unecessary. How is your handwriting? How are your basic math skills? Mine are not as good as they were before I had near constant access to computers.You don’t have to call the phone company when you have a question about your bill. Look it up online. You don’t have to interact with people directly to keep up with them. Look them up online. This is obviously going to affect social skills and empathy. Just like inactivity caused by sitting in a cubicle all day is unhealthy so is this lack of direct interaction.

29 Dallas Gaytheist July 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Some of you may be interested in more info I found online.

Podcast from PRI’s The World | Seeking the Roots of Kindness: The Life & Work of George Price

If nature is “red in tooth and claw,” then how did kindness evolve? I’m devoting the entire podcast to one man’s search for the answer to that question. George Price was an eccentric American scientist who developed an equation to explain how natural selection can favor altruism. His life and work are the subject of the new book The Price of Altruism. Listen to my interview with author Oren Harman. Bring your own thoughts and questions for Harman. He’s our guest in the latest Science Forum discussion. (Oh, and if you’re a U.S. resident, you can now connect with us through text messages. Details in the podcast.)

The Price of Altruism: Oren Harman’s new book is about George Price, who solved the mystery of the origins of kindness. Price’s realization that altruism arises from selfish roots so depressed him that he set out to disprove his own theory and became an evangelical Christian. Oren Harman is taking your questions about George Price and the evolution of altruism in our online Science Forum. So don’t forget to stop by with your thoughts and questions.

Guest: Oren Harman, chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Bar Ilan University, Israel.

Listen to the podcast (23 min) at http://www.world-science.org/podcast/george-price-oren-harman-kindness-altruism-sacrifice-evolution/

And here is a short film from The Leakey Foundation:

The Bi-Polar Ape: Torn between love and war

In this short film sponsored by the Leakey Foundation, psychologist Steven Pinker and primatologists Frans de Waal and Richard Wrangham grapple with human nature. Are we essentially peace-loving, like bonobos, or doomed to continual violent conflict, like chimpanzees?

Watch here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2010/jul/13/bi-polar-ape-love-war

30 mattie July 27, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Excellent article Mr. and Mrs. McKay,
I think this is one of the most profound and poignant articles to be found on the site. I, myself, have thought a lot about this very topic, it is nice to hear your take on it.

31 robert July 27, 2010 at 10:21 pm

The answer to why there is a lack of empathy is not because youth are selfish or more materialistic. The answer was clearly expressed by Robert Putnam, a researcher from Harvard University who studied this exact question for 5 years. The answer for why there is less empathy is simply because our country and neighborhoods have changed due to immigration from third world countries. Here is the conclusion of Robert’s study: “His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities.” You can look up Robert Putnam on the internet and you’ll see that the whole effort to promote diversity has completely broken up our communities and neighborhoods and took away people’s empathy.

32 HaikuForBros.com July 28, 2010 at 1:26 am

I’m empathetic in my own way. I drink my sorrows away as well as yours! Ha.

33 Scarlson July 28, 2010 at 2:33 am

Empathy is inert and does not inspire active response. I would argue that compassion inspires action and is, thus, more “manly.” It’s the difference between thinking you can feel someone’s pain, and supporting someone in order for them to seek balance.

34 Kate L July 28, 2010 at 5:51 am


‘Yet I also wonder if one of the causes of this is the reduction in family size, and the incidence of single child families. Does an ‘only child’ have as strong an opportunity to learn empathy? To have his or her desires and wants molded in such a way that they are balanced with the needs and wants of others? Not all single child families turn out selfish egoists, but I sure would like to see the data points and see if there is a trend here.’

Well, I’d say no – admittedly, I’m an English Lit student, not Psychology, and I read this article (see below for reference) because it analyses a text I’m working on, not because I’m a Psych student – but I think the point is that psychologically, it can be the opposite. Having siblings makes the older child is displaced, and therefore ‘confronts previously nonexistent questions: Who am I? What am I? Where do I belong… Lateral fantasy springs from the discovery that a new baby can come along and take the place I thought was mine alone. It can signal terror and annihilation, and at its most insistent it spurs frantic self-assertion or anxious self-effacement.’ Ref: The Bright Forms Shining in the Dark: Juliet Mitchell’s Theory of Sibling Dynamics as Illustrated in A.S. Byatt’s “The Chinese Lobster”‘, Vivian Dent, Psychoanalytic Dialogues.

However, on the other hand, perhaps this is the most extreme cases, and eqaully, no siblings to force the crisis at an early age could lead to mother-separation issues…. perhaps….

Like I said, not a Psych student, just somewhat interdisciplinary!

Great article, found it really interesting :)

35 Anon July 28, 2010 at 11:02 am

To feel nothing is death. Thus, to feel less is less of life.

36 Jason Chamberlain July 28, 2010 at 1:07 pm

I would submit that if there is indeed a correllation between the rise of the internet and the decline of empathy it is at least partly due to men’s consumption of online pornography. There is no doubt that pornography causes men to withdraw into themselves. People and women in particular become objects rather than people. It is difficult to empathize with an object.

I am writing as someone who was enslaved to pornography and has since found lasting freedom from it. I have also worked with hundreds of men who were in bondage to it. That’s my two cents on the matter. I am prepared to be shouted down, particularly by those who claim to enjoy the use of online pornography.

37 Matt July 28, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Great article. Women are far better at giving compliments and genuinely saying, whether in the workplace or in the personal realm, that I understand your frustrations/how you feel. I think most men know when they SHOULD day such things but find it very hard to say such things. Men have a lot to learn. These skills are powerful.

38 Maru July 28, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Well, Brett, you can put me down for being a Luddite, or at least being a man with a lot of empathy (!) for Luddites, who often feels as they do and thinks about things in the same fashion. I have felt for some time, and reading your work has made me even surer, that I was born in the wrong decade. Sometimes I feel as though I was born in the wrong century. There are, of course, a great many things about this age that I appreciate deeply, and ultimately I would not want to give them up. But at the same time I miss many of the features of society that went out of vogue decades before I was born, like pulp magazines, big band music, large numbers of social organizations, and actual formal dancing (I have a small degree of contempt for what passes for dancing today, for while I can certainly understand the appeal of it, it lacks artistry and elegance).

However, I digress. For my own part, I have a decided lack of empathy. I am not sure why this is. Some of it, of course, can be laid at the feet of technology, but in my case at least I think it goes deeper than that. I had no siblings, and no close friendships at all when I was young. There were no neighborhood kids to play with and scrape my knees up with. Despite all of that, I am resolved to grow some empathy for myself (not having it has gotten me into a great deal of trouble over the years). If you have any suggestions on how to develop empathy, I would be happy to hear them.

39 Martin July 29, 2010 at 12:06 am

I work from home, and the last few months have been crazy busy. I spent most of the day in front of the computer, much more so than the normal 8 hours. Lately, I have been allowing myself to get outside, see real-live people, interact with folks outside of email, and my mood has improved tremendously.

40 Mitch July 29, 2010 at 10:05 am

Here here! I’ve long held the opinion that Facebook, Twitter, and social networking in general has actually diminished our capacity to communicate with one another. Rather than having real, nuanced interactions, everything has become a series of trite facsimiles of actual relationships. I just had a birthday, and I got probably 40 well-wishes on Facebook, yet not a single person called in real life to say hi (and I say that not out of bitterness, but to illustrate a point). So, it does the opposite of what it’s intended to do. I think the internet is a marvelous thing, but when people start to think of themselves as unaccountable, kind of ethereal online presences, it brings out the worst in human nature. Strange world we live in.

41 Michael July 30, 2010 at 12:42 am

Regardless of the cause, the result of our loss of empathy for one another is, I agree, an explosion of endless anger, directed at anyone and anything which will accept it.

42 Cyler July 30, 2010 at 3:22 am

I strongly encourage watching this short animation and speech by Jeremy Rifkin, it is called The Empathic Civilization. I saw it the day before you posted this and was blown away by the subject and its effects on humanity as a whole. It mentions some stuff you already said but really ties it all together nicely. Enjoy! And thanks for the blog post.


43 Gilles July 30, 2010 at 5:18 am

I have just finished reading a book from Leonard Shlain, “The alphabet versus the Goddess”, and it does confirm your point quite well. To sum up a bit his theory, when a civilisation have its litteracy rate increasing, people starts to rely increasingly more on abstraction and on left brain thinking, and a lot less on their empathic right brain which is more stimulated by pictures, and concrete human relationships. Their empathy will start to decline, and they will grow more violent, more misogynistic. Leonard Shlain was expressing a quite utopian idea at the end of his book : according to him the “Internet revolution”, with its reliance on pictures, and right brain skills, could foster people to go back to their lost right brain models. Obviously, it is not that simple, and anyone who has used internet fora for quite a time will testify how those areas are often litterally polluted by people completely lacking in empathy, spilling their venom on anyone unlucky to cross their paths, often with the complicity of the moderators. If one day a better human being emerges on this earth, he will not appear on the Internet.

44 Jim July 30, 2010 at 9:52 am

Haven’t read all of the comments but I’ve noticed a big jump in popularity of “cruel humor” in advertising. I see people getting put down, embarrassed, and physically injured, as a form of comedy and catchiness in order to sell products. I’m turned off by this kind of advertising and make a mental note to avoid purchasing any products from the companies that engage in this sort of selling tactic. I do attribute that style of advertising to the over drop in empathy we’ve seen this last decade. People are evolving, or, devolving for whatever reasons, including the ones Brett outlined above.

Good luck out there. It’s a mean world we’re heading into; it’s up to us to change course.

45 Bob Giraldi July 30, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Brett, this is an excellent article and I applaud you for tackling this subject. I also agree with many of the comments and find it encouraging that so many people are concerned about this.


46 Joe July 30, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Excellent thought provoking article. I’m also impressed with the quality and content of the responses. I will definitely be recommending this article to my friends and acquaintances.

If anyone doubts that there is a decline in empathy, look no further than the rampant bullying in our schools. Look at how much of what passes for “entertainment” on TV consists of laughing at the misfortunes of others, from tone deaf people thinking they can sing to countless hours of video footage of males getting hit in the groin. Obviously, people who enjoy these kinds of things don’t ask “how would I feel it this were me being bullied or laughed at?” Instead, they’re thinking “better them than me.”

I’ve seen people lash out on internet forums because someone expressed a contrary opinion about an athlete or sports team. I’ve even seen people upset over things as trivial as which is the best roller coaster. Does the anonymity of the internet contribute to this anger? Would people have the same reaction if they were told the same thing face to face?

A decline of empathy has troubling implications. How could we maintain civil discourse, or operate our government if opposing opinions are not only considered wrong, but the people who hold those opinions are evil? If people are unable or unwilling to empathize with others, whatever the cause, individuals and society as a whole will continue to suffer.

47 Mike August 4, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Excellent article. Our culture is becoming much more narcissistic and “me-oriented.” If you want proof, look no further than the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, etc. There’s no need to broadcast the mundane, boring details of your life to the world, yet millions of people do it every day.

48 Allyssa August 10, 2010 at 1:26 am

Because I have been exposed to other cultures aside from that of American culture, I have observed that in contrast to collectivist cultures, there is less empathy in the American culture due to the values of capitalism and individualism.

49 Nataraj Hauser August 10, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Those of us who practice contact improv(isational) dance know this, observe it, and see the obvious disconnect that comes from an extreme lack of routine physical contact. Contact among adults is pretty tightly bound into a little box that permits sex, handshakes, and sports. Pretty much anything else is off limits for most adults. Men hugging men? Unlikely in America. Women hugging women? More, but their feet are two feet apart and they lean in so that only their shoulders touch. Contact improv BLOWS past all those limits and reconnects the dancers to their body and to the body(ies) of their partner(s). Empathy is a natural consequence. Very few social a-holes last in contact improv.

Allyssa (#49) also makes an interesting point. Surely there are more than a single cause, but I see individualism (magnified by the isolation and relative anonymity of the Internet), and lack of common interpersonal physical contact as significant contributing factors. Of course, the 2000′s also witnessed a massive schism between political factions here that created an Us vrs. Them mentality. For some, that Them list is getting pretty damn long.

50 Steven Kippel August 10, 2010 at 7:58 pm

I have started a “gentlemen’s club” just to get a bunch of guys together once a month for a cheap, manly activity. It’s great.

51 Bill August 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

…and yet our President was lambasted by the right for daring to think that a Supreme Court Justice should have empathy.

Atticus Finch likley rolled over in his fictional grave.

The Right attempted to portray empathy as far less than “manly”; they tried to protray it as Unamerican.

A sad, sad time.

52 Pete Hamilton August 12, 2010 at 7:15 pm

This is a fantastic article, and I say that as one who lived it first hand. In my first years of high school I lived on AIM and online games. I had little social life and I was awkward in face-to-face situations. Thankfully I had some good friends who started inviting me out and broke me from my shell. I quickly realized what I had been missing. To this day, however, I have some minor trouble dealing with difficult situations. My empathy is sometimes forced and stiff. This could, however, be attributed to the opposite. Since graduating high school, I’ve spent 5 years in the military and being crammed into a ship for any extended period of time with people can wear at the most patient man’s empathy. It’s interesting to look at it from both view points.

I’m seeking balance now. With good friends in several states and countries, it’s difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. Technology is allowing me to stay in contact and find opportunities for more meaningful encounters. There’s nothing better than meeting up in some unknown wilderness and exploring it with a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. You learn a lot more than just the lay of the land. Again, great article, and I look forward to reading through the rest of this site. (I just found it this evening.)

53 Jeremy July 24, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Mr. McKay,

Thank you for bringing a voice of reason to a very hot and common topic. You present an extremely well-thought out approach. Thank you for taking your time writing this excellent piece!

54 Aaron December 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm

This is a great article. Not enough empathy in the world.

Makes me think of this: http://failblog.cheezburger.com/share/56915969

55 Zachary Wheeler March 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Sometimes I just wonder how people would be affected if the internet was shut off for like a week. I myself have spent an exorbitant amount of time on the internet and honestly have spent much of it reading about politics and such and many times it increases my anger and decreases my happiness. People really need to try do an internet fast for like a day or two, maybe even for a week and see how their lives would be affected. I wouldn’t doubt that their happiness would improve and their outlook on life would improve as well.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter