America’s empathy problem — and what to do about it

by Herb Cromwell

A dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s not the same as sympathy. As memoirist Rebecca O’Donnell puts it, “Empathy is walking a mile in somebody else’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt.”

If Americans seem less empathetic than they used to be, the scientific community says that feeling has validity. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that college students then were 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 1980s and 90s, as measured by standardized tests of this personality trait. And it seems to have only gotten worse since then.

In 2011, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked presidential candidate Ron Paul what should happen to a 30-year old man who chose not to buy health insurance and then became seriously ill. “Are you saying society should just let him die?” Blitzer asked. The debate crowd “erupted in cheers and whoops of ‘Yeah,’” Slate reported.

Roughly a decade later, in September 2020, after the shooting of two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, a crowd gathered outside the treating hospital shouting “we hope they die” as they tried to block the hospital’s emergency exits, according to the Los Angeles Times. That same month, “The U.S. has an Empathy Deficit” was the headline of an opinion piece in the September 2020 Scientific American.

In America today, immigrants are demonized. Asian Americans are assaulted. Capitol police are beaten with flagpoles. Unarmed African Americans are shot and suffocated by police. Votes are suppressed. Mass shootings take lives regularly.

Even mask wearing amid COVID-19 illustrates our empathy problem. The message “I wear a mask to protect you, you wear a mask to protect me” did not resonate with millions of Americans; neither did the social value of vaccinations. Today’s notion of individual freedom has little room for empathy.

“The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt.

So, what can we do to boost our collective empathy level? Empathy — or lack of it — is partially hardwired: A 2018 University of Cambridge study found that 10% of differences in humans’ ability to empathize can be attributed to genetic variations. But that means 90% is explained by non-genetic factors such as socialization and education. That suggests empathy can be taught.

Stanford neuroscientist Jamil Zaki confirms this in his book “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” The book shares research, including experiments from his own lab, showing that empathy can be strengthened through effort.

Author Roman Krznaric, in “Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It,” argues that empathy should be taught at a young age. He notes that half of the children who participated in Roots of Empathy, a Canadian nonprofit that teaches school-age children to empathize with each other, were less likely to fight than they were prior to the program.

Here’s one more idea: Administer an empathy test to every candidate for public office.

Prior to filing, every candidate would be required to listen to the old song “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday. They would be asked to imagine a G.I. in a foxhole dreaming about his wife or girlfriend back home, and a young woman stateside wondering if her love would make it back. If by the last line “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you” there’s not a tear in the candidate’s eye, he or she wouldn’t be allowed to run. We’d then know that our elected officials had hearts at least capable of empathy.

Henry David Thoreau may have said it best: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Steve Martin had a less noble take: “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” he reportedly said. “That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away — and have his shoes.”

But at least you will have done the walk. And the journey of a thousand miles — and to empathy — begins with a single step.

Herb Cromwell retired as executive director of the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland. This was written for the Baltimore Sun.