America’s Declining Empathy Is Eroding Our Democracy

In the last 25 years, there's been a steep decline in average empathy among Americans. Why?
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump scream and gesture at members of the media in a press area at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., October 13, 2016. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump scream and gesture at members of the media in a press area at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., October 13, 2016. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

When many of us were growing up, we were told to be prepared to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, to at least try to understand how people came to the point where they are in their lives. We may even be wired for it, according to many neurobiologists. Our brains have neurons that will fire both when observing others performing an action and doing it ourselves, which is how we’re supposedly able to learn from example or why we react so viscerally when we see others and animals getting hurt. While the debate is still out on the specifics, scientists are pretty sure that our ability to feel empathy is a powerful social glue that holds societies together, and that muting our empathetic urges with obscene power and wealth comes with serious and painful consequences to those societies.

But today, while wealth may not be trickling down, an increasing lack of empathy for others is. According to a survey of 72 studies, which looked at answers to standardized questionnaires for measuring empathetic traits in nearly 14,000 college students, found a 40% decline since the mid-1990s. While there haven’t been follow-up studies on today’s attitudes, there’s no indication they’ll be much better because the factors cited by the study’s authors have only gotten worse. Financial problems and frustrations, fewer friends and more isolation, too much impersonal communication through social media, text, and email, all played their role. Younger generations are emotionally estranged from others, and their tough financial situations are leaving them emotionally and mentally drained.

In this context, surveys showing that millennials want to get material wealth and donate less to charity, despite saying volunteerism and charity are important, seem to indicate that they want to be wealthy so they can afford to donate their time and money to charity, and have the mental bandwidth to make more friends and help others. It’s also impossible to ignore that they were raised in a culture that prizes individual wealth and power while merely playing lip service to charity, and in fact, often promotes downright Dickensian and punitive attitudes towards those who are less well off. In other words, we berate younger generations for wanting wealth and hoping to do some charity later in between telling them that wealth and power are what matters and that the less fortunate are simply lazy wretches looking for easy handouts.

Obviously, these messages are toxic and we know it because we all remember adults who kept an eye on us in kindergarten trying to teach us to share and be nice, and because humans seem to be born with a general sense of right and wrong, ready to cooperate with others. But we’re interacting with fewer and fewer flesh and blood people, making it harder to dispel prevailing narratives because we lack real-life examples of where they’re wrong. And that chronic isolation comes with its own host of problems beyond sapping our ability to relate to others. It can quite literally scramble our brains, something we know full well from studying what happens to those who end up in prisons and are put in what’s colloquially known as “the hole” for years on end.

Humans are obviously social creatures and one of the worst things you can do to us is leave us in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. According to psychologists, long stretches of social and sensory deprivation severely, if not irreversibly, damage our ability to interact with others and structure our lives, according to studies following prisoners who spent a long time in solitary, and on primates who grew catatonic, lethargic, depressed, and borderline suicidal in a similar environment. And this confinement doesn’t necessarily have to be punitive. Sometimes, it’s entirely self-selective. One of the most troubled nations in this regard is Japan, where more than 541,000 men chose to become shut-ins known as “hikikomori” and refuse all social interactions, becoming prisoners in their own dwellings.

But physical isolation is just one way to cut your ties with the world around you. Social media and the grinding, unhealthy workaholism in which work isn’t a means to an end, but the end in and of itself, encourage trolling and negativity, which tends to leave people feeling depressed and isolated, drawing them into negative feedback loops. Trolling is generally associated with people feeling angry and frustrated, often after work. With so many people stuck in place both financially and in terms of social power and agency, they can be easily primed for trollish behavior by seeing others lash out at something they also don’t like and join the fray to vent at the random avatars and screen names on the other side of the debate.

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How Social Media Contributes To America’s Lack Of Empathy

Artwork By Rantt Media’s Madison Anderson

Artwork By Rantt Media’s Madison Anderson

As the internet descends into flame wars, and so much of viral content consists of outrage fuel, social media platforms we use to catch up on news and talk to each other are just making us angrier and more isolated. And every day, we start the cycle anew. This is true for pretty much every age group. People have fewer close friends and report being more isolated, depressed, and frustrated, turning to social media to fill the void. Yes, the same all too often angry, buzzing social media that makes them feel even more isolated when hostility rears its ugly head, where you don’t need to think at who you’re addressing your anger and where it’s easy to sort others into your tribe and not your tribe. This may be why conflicts that start online can easily migrate offline and turn into real life confrontations.

Consider friends and relatives who self-radicalized on social media, falling for the siren song of those who hijacked online communities to justify their worst beliefs, and the promises of those who exploit fear and unfocused rage for power. As they rage on and on about imaginary slights and enemies conspiring in the shadows to destroy them for the sake of destroying them, how empathetic do they sound? Do they seem like they’ve imagined someone screaming at them, accusing them of being responsible for all the world’s ills, and threatening retribution for their audacity to participate in those conspiracies by merely existing? Do you think they’ll return to their social media enclaves to regale their online friends with tales of their temper tantrum and be told that they went too far and have misled themselves?

And there’s another important feedback loop happening. As today’s angry and self-radicalized groups demand empathy, they’re less likely to get it because their demands are based on vast conspiracy theories in which they accuse the very people whose empathy they want of a long-running campaign against them, often with vicious insults and invective. In asking us to walk a mile in their shoes, they tend to indulge in showing just how twisted and hostile their views about their own country, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens are, eagerly rage-vomiting as many of them as possible at us. Hell, they’ll even complain that their appointed saviors aren’t hurting the people they don’t like enough out loud to the media. And while you will want to try and understand them and why they made the choices they did, at some point, your bandwidth for empathy towards them is simply sapped.

We know that under the Hollywood-built facade of small town, down home wisdom inspired by the countless movies in which arrogant workaholic city slickers learn what’s really important in life after finding themselves in the middle of nowhere, lay something far less wholesome. As we saw from the tidal wave of coverage, small town Rust Belt America is less Norman Rockwell and more H.P. Lovecraft. Its culture of fear, fury, and paranoia slithered into urban suburbs thanks to a thriving industry of peddling manufactured outrage, Bircherite hysteria, and fake news to conservatives and the far right across the West, while patting them on the back to reassure them that they’re exactly the ubermensch they think they are and their many troubles are the result of others cheating rather than their own complacency.

After buying into supply-side voodoo economics and steadily helping turn over 92% of wealth in America to the top quintile with their votes, they’re doubling down on their grotesquely mutated John Birch Society screeds, embrace bigotry, racism, and conspiracy theories about a globalist Satanic pedophile New World Order out to undermine them for shits and giggles instead of reevaluating their actions and asking themselves why they voted the way they did and what would serve them better. Instead of wondering why old approaches haven’t worked for nearly four decades, they’ll happily believe anything that makes their country sound like it’s on the verge of an apocalypse and they have the justification to tear down anything that catches their ire and start anew, even if that something was a group of very real people.

So, when they tell you with a straight face that elections in America should never be decided by popular vote because “then the trash in California gets to pick the president,” the absolute last impulse that comes to mind is to sit these people down and ask why they’re so upset about the state of California, then try to engage them in a polite discussion on the subject. Mustering up the energy to be empathetic to someone who is simply rapid-firing insults takes the patience of a saint, and, let’s be honest, not all of us have that sort of patience or goodwill towards others, especially when they come at us in howling with rage, both middle fingers flying high.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This is perhaps one of the harshest lessons we learned in 2016, that a whole lot of people we thought were productive members of society better than conspiracy theories, fake news, and xenophobia, and who can understand that the world is changing, are actually malignant bigots who were just waiting for permission to unload on us. The catch about empathy is that for it to work and hold society together, it can’t be one-sided. It has to be reciprocated in some way, shape, or form. If the other side wants obedience instead of a dialogue, if it rejects governance by those with different views as illegitimate by nature of it being based on a different worldview, and if it operates solely by disdain and grievance, with what exactly are we to empathize?

Today, we’re looking at a perfect storm of financial uncertainty, runaway income and power inequalities that are so often a key feature of sci-fi dystopias, technology that made it trivial to turn ourselves against each other, and negative feedback loops that make it difficult to offer empathy for long. We’re at each other’s throats over legitimate problems, but our reactions to them have been counterproductive, resulting in increasing frustration, entrenchment, and a whole lot of anger, while our media encourages us to embrace some of the things driving us apart and politicians exploit our divisions to win office by any means necessary. Something’s going to have to give sooner rather than later.

But what? Well, the one positive here is that we know this is a cycle, so interrupting one part greatly reduces the effect of the others. We can do our best to spend less time on social media, creating a collection of favorite sites for news and entertainment, and using them instead of killing time on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We could also accelerate the current trends in the social media world, make our accounts private, and cut out echo chamber-creating recommendation algorithms. At this point, a critic is bound to protest, saying that this will make social media less profitable, which it will. But why must this be our problem? Bars profit from alcoholics, but that doesn’t mean it’s our duty to go on benders for the sake of their balance sheets.

Of all the things we need to worry about protecting, the multi-billion-dollar fortunes of Bay Area douche-bros happy to peddle fake news and conspiracies as long as an army of angry users is clicking and commenting, shouldn’t even be on the radar. Instead, we should be focused on teaching critical thinking to flag conspiracy theories which exist to pit us against convenient imaginary villains for the theorists’ profit. And we need to push our vapid mass media to debunk histrionic claims of politicians looking to divide and conquer, setting the bar for themselves so low, they can drunkenly trip over it while trying to pretend that the last few years didn’t expose them as indolent, spineless, greedy cowards with no vision and no clue.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to focus on planning for a future, not relitigate and romanticize the worst parts of the last century, looking for magic solutions like MLM recruits trying to luck their way into a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not going to happen, and we’re not going to get anywhere plotting each other’s’ demise and wallowing in pointless nostalgia. Yes, there are many who are too far gone to take any of this advice, refusing to deal with real people instead of screaming at screen names and family members they know won’t push back out of politeness, even though they should. But we don’t need everyone to buy into breaking the cycle of misery in which we’ve contorted ourselves.

We just need enough people sick and tired of running on the wheel of anger and frustration to change their habits and demand more than empty platitudes and scapegoating. And above all, we need enough people to rebel against the new normal: lazy, spineless grifters worming their way into positions of power, unable to stand up to certifiable lunatics riding waves of populist and bigoted rage fueled by the very cycle we need to break to lead entire countries. It’s said that people get the government they deserve. Do we really think we don’t deserve any better than the incompetent, clueless, almost cartoonishly corrupt messes we have now? And do we really think they should be allowed to get away with encouraging us to fight each other while they loot everything that isn’t nailed down for themselves and their patrons?

[ This article originally appeared on World of Weird Things ]

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Politech // Decency / Empathy / Psychology