We are getting ever less empathetic and ever more selfish

In a society so technologically advanced, one might expect it to be the same from the human perspective. However, we can perceive a sort of indifference towards others, and then we invariably complain that people around us are all assholes, selfish and heedless of what we feel.

The truth is that we are constantly bombarded, due to technology, and specifically by social media, with messages that push us to achieve certain goals for which we should raise the bar higher and higher and push ourselves to achieve them faster and faster (see the various marketing gurus who push us to change our lives by showing us money, cars and luxurious places). Having perfect bodies, having a lot of money, power, owning always and in any case beautiful things, but you never see messages that incite to be beautiful people and the resulting advantages in surrounding ourselves with good people and establish good relationships. ‘To have’ has therefore become the synonym for ‘to be’, consequently people matter less than the things you own. We end up surrounding ourselves with people who revolve around us because they envy us, they are useful to us, they share the same places we go to, but if we actually look at these relationships, we discover that as soon as there is a problem with one of the group, the others rarely know how to put themselves in someone’s shoes and understand his situation or give up on something to share time and/or help the person to solve his problems: these people are more likely to be directly excluded. The classic example: we all go out together, but as soon as one of us has financial difficulties, rather than reorganize to help this person or do less expensive things to spend time together, it is easier the person in question is no longer called.

Relationships seem to matter until a problem forces you to prove it, and that’s when the truth comes out.

It doesn’t matter at the expense of who and what, but we all just want to reach only our goals rather than live the situations. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to pursue a goal, but when it is done by overriding others or at the expense of others, it assumes a different meaning. So we forget to put emotions into the things we do and especially towards the people around us. It takes a while to realize this as long as you are surrounded by the usual daily routines. And especially when your friends are also aiming solely and exclusively at those goals, eventually you realize that you hang out with some just because you do something rather than for the pleasure of doing it together. It happens, however, that by chance you meet a friend who is a bit out of the picture, who still appreciates talking, laughing, and joking just for the pleasure of doing it with you; and you realize that was the difference you couldn’t see because you were immersed in a sea of emotionless zombies.

This lack of emotions has been lost especially when it comes to recognizing other people’s emotions and the emotional state of those in front of us to act accordingly: we prefer to pretend they don’t exist, we turn away, or we don’t pay attention at all.

It may seem like an impression, but this lack of empathy has been reduced over the years with the rise of increasingly materialistic values. An old American study (published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review) showed that between 1979 and 2009, empathy declined by 48%. Other statistics (according to a study by the American Sociological Review) show that in 1985 people had about three close friends, while in 2004 the average dropped to two. If we look at the numbers of those who claim they have no close friends at all, the numbers triple over the same period. While over the age of 40, it shows that one in three people are increasingly lonely, according to a study by AARP.

But what is empathy? And why is it important?

By definition, it is the ability to perceive the emotions of others and to know how to put ourselves in others’ shoes. So when we do not know whether the person in front of us is not well, we are ignoring an important message for relationships. So we are failing in a very important aspect of ensuring the solidity and sincerity of social relationships. We rely mostly on just words to establish what the other person wants to tell us, but this is only a rational aspect that often does not fit the real feelings that the person feels. By ignoring this, we only contribute to a distorted view of relationships and misunderstandings.

An important role in the manifestation of empathy at a neuronal level is played by the so-called mirror neurons (discovered in 1992 by the Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti): a particular type of neurons, located in the areas of the brain dedicated to the movement, that are activated not only when we perform any gesture, but also when we observe someone doing it. This is why they are important for empathy, as they allow us to put ourselves in others’ shoes just by observing someone else.

So a question arises: why don’t we all manifest empathy?

According to Rizzolatti, these neurons are not always activated, because rational and/or cultural aspects could block their activation, especially if we do not recognize ourselves in the other person. This would explain why it is easier to empathize with those who are more similar to us or with those who have closer relationships as friends and/or relatives, even if this does not always happen.

However, empathy does not have only one aspect, we can indeed distinguish 3 typologies: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

  1. Cognitive empathy allows us to understand the other person’s state of mind and put ourselves in their shoes without necessarily feeling the same emotions. It is the same type of empathy manifested by politicians, salespeople, advertising, etc.‚Ķ Namely: I understand how you are, but I don’t feel it;
  2. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, is at a higher level and allows us not only to put ourselves in the perspective of others and understand them but also to feel their same emotions: it is a real mirroring that is also reflected at a neuronal level;
  3. Compassionate empathy, however, can go beyond that; it is not limited to the effects of the previous two; rather, the person is also able to understand how to help the other person, to feel compassion, and then to act to help them.

However, the inability to feel empathy can also have pathological causes, and is not only related to the context and influences in which one lives, that’s the case of some personality disorders such as psychopathy, antisocial disorder, narcissism, or borderline disorder. Not to mention developmental disorders such as autism.

The worst examples, however, are the everyday ones, especially when they are voluntary or without awareness of their seriousness. It happened to me, while watching television, in one of the countless political talk shows, to witness a scenario, which appears perfectly apt as a demonstration of the lack of empathy. The host and the studio guest are in connection with the correspondent who is about to interview a boy who has to sleep in the cold because he was left homeless. The interviewer asks what happened to him, thus the political discussion with the studio guest begins. After that, the host leaves the poor boy with a “good night” and the connection ends. Here we are dealing with a blatant example of lack of empathy. Surely the economic resources of the host and the guest were way higher than the average of a normal citizen. So the effort to give help, even for one night, to that boy would have been minimal. However, as if nothing had happened, the connection was closed without even thinking about what could have happened next. The next day the boy could have been found frozen to death, but indifference took over.

Even more dramatic examples are those episodes that occurred in the South of Italy, where a person was killed by a gunshot, the body laid on the ground, and passers-by in a totally detached way, walked alongside the corpse, while some even stepped over it as if it were an object.

If it is true that empathy is becoming ever more focused on people we know best, and therefore on small groups of people (but not always). Paradoxically we could imagine our best friend in a hypothetical parallel universe in which we had never met, passing us by as if nothing had happened while we are victims of any kind of injustice in front of his eyes. All of this is to make the point that being outside the circle of the people you know can lead to a completely different outcome in a different situation. While if the empathic spectrum were wider, maybe even our best friend in the parallel universe would still help us even though he did not know us.

Nevertheless, there also exists the opposite, namely the excess of empathy and can be extremely problematic, but only for the person who feels it. Those who feel too much empathy towards others tend to absorb all their emotions to the point of ignoring their own and feeling guilty for others’. The risk, besides not being in some way empathetic with themselves, is also to become dependent on the other person and in the worst cases, a victim of manipulators and/or narcissists. In addition, you damage yourself for the constant buildup of pain that too much empathy channels, not only for being overprotective but also for being tired and angry because you are not repaid in the same way.

It’s a bit like giving all your possessions to someone who has nothing, but immediately you would be the needy one. So it would be more helpful to give your support without losing yourself, even better if everyone did their part. By doing so, the needy person could get better. And each of those who helped him wouldn’t lose their identity.

So how do you manage excessive empathy and how do you live within an environment without empathy?

In the first case, it is appropriate, if possible, to keep ourselves away from situations and/or people that overwhelm us too much with emotions or at least limit them to the extent that they are sustainable. It is necessary to try to rationalize and understand what overwhelms us so that we can better manage the situation. Another important thing is to try to change the perspective of things so that we can better understand that state of mind: where it comes from and why, but also see it as detached from ourselves. We also need to define emotional boundaries within which, we know we can manage those emotions. It is also important to take time for ourselves to cultivate our own emotions and so understand how to value them.

If, on the other hand, we are surrounded by people who are not very empathetic, we can still try to be empathetic with those we relate to and try to see if our influence can change things. Obviously, we should give the right importance to the people that are in front of us to avoid the risk of being manipulated, but it is still important to try to show interest: by listening, but also by asking how they feel, avoiding however to use the other’s state of mind to make our emotions protagonists, otherwise we would get the opposite effect.

If we can’t make the world more empathetic, we can, however, try to be empathetic to those who are less, and see if our positive influence can bring out something buried but positive in others, assuming you’re not looking at an empty vessel.

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