The Survival of Empathy

Two children walking with their arms around each other.

Written by: Laohnorian Madani, third-year Integrated Science Student
Photo credit: Unsplash by Annie Spratt

One of the most revealing representations of human nature I have ever encountered arose from a rather unexpected source; namely, an encyclopedia on human development showing a picture of two crying infants. As it turned out, one of the infants had lost a toy at the beach and began crying, and their distress was sufficient for the other to not only cry alongside them, but also quickly scrounge around for an adequate toy to calm their acquaintance.

I have reflected on this image for years, as it overtly displays the innate nature of unconditional empathy. These children appeared barely able to walk, yet were capable of discerning that someone else was in distress, and simultaneously improvise a means of alleviating said distress. The encyclopedia entry confirmed they were not related to one another, yet were still able to partake in the fundamentally human experience of assisting and comforting the distressed.

While the innocence they represent brings happiness, it is also tempered with sadness when I think of the plethora of adults who are seemingly incapable of replicating such a simple, yet mutually fulfilling, emotion in the public sphere. Although its inherently sensationalist nature perhaps applies a negative bias, the public reaction (or lack thereof) to countless accidents, tragedies, and iniquities indicates the presence of a significant empathy problem, which defies expectations when considering how important empathy is viewed as being.

Following an altercation on the sidewalks of a Canadian city, a middle-aged man was fatally stabbed, and the resultant surveillance camera footage displays a downright damning apathy from those surrounding the dying individual. Upon witnessing a murder in front of one’s eyes, many viable responses can be imagined, such as revulsion, fear, or concern, as well as actions, such as calling for emergency services, attempting CPR, or another suitable life-saving intervention.

A response one might not anticipate, however, is complete indifference. The security footage that day caught one individual idly looking away from the scene, too absorbed in the contents of their phone to assist, or for that matter, express any of the emotions so intimately associated with unjustified loss of life. A second individual, meanwhile, proactively whipped out their phone, not to dial 911 but to record the man slowly fading away in his last moments. The next day, this individual returned, recording themselves at the site of the attack, almost proud at having shared a fellow citizen’s end for posterity. They were later interviewed by local news networks as a witness.

The utter lack of empathy this tragic case displays should revolt all those who possess any defining moral code. What does it say about some that the literal death of another human being is viewed either as unimportant or an opportunity for temporary fame? This mindset is scarcely unique to these circumstances: a cursory glance at the news is all that is necessary to notice this disturbing antipathy creeping up seemingly everywhere.

Curious about the potential ramifications of such actions, I couldn’t help but reflect on explaining these trends’ increasing prevalence nowadays by understanding our social world as a reflection of an increasingly fragmented society, where self-absorption seemingly prevails at the expense of collective well-being.

More than anything, the root of the empathy problem, as with a plethora of others, tends to lie within the bounds of the family. Manifold evidence suggests that the individuals one spends the most time with, typically consisting of some mixture of family and friends, strongly influences one’s personality, morality, and future decisions.

Furthermore, indirect exposure to various ideas, stereotypes, and role models via popular media, school, and other simulating experiences outside one’s doorstep also tend to sometimes gear the mind away from the natural, unconditional empathy we are all born with, as a meta-analysis of 72 scholarly articles in the Personality and Social Psychology Review suggests, in fact concluding that empathy among American college students, a demographic with almost universal social media usage, had fallen by 40% from 1979 to 2009, a process they attributed to the initial rise of social media during the late 2000s. Of course, social media is just a reflection of prevailing trends in popular media, meaning the increase in violent content in popular media is immediately broadcasted to the young through social media.

Regrettably, many of the current stories children and teenagers are exposed to tend to idolize a certain degree of indifference to the fates of others, as in the endless action films featuring heroes vaporizing hordes of enemies, following trends perceived as ‘cool’,  or video compilations of various accidents and mishaps, potentially leading to injurious consequences for those involved, but are presented as comedy. One might consider violent video games and completely stoic coverage of heinous crimes as other representations of the empathy problem.

As attested to by considerable anecdotal evidence, young people are increasingly overloaded by such content, and subsequently desensitized to notions of violence, sympathy, or respect for life. It is no coincidence that many of the world’s infamous criminals were either exposed to violence, abuse, or both from a young age (as academically supported in recent years by, among others, the National Institute of Justice and the University of Edinburgh), which gradually filtered into their developing brains, culminating in utter disregard for the dignities of others.

As more graphic stories are filtered into the public sphere, inspired by popular content that indirectly encourages the normalization of violence and finding humor in the misfortunes of others, I’m concerned that the empathy problem will only worsen over time. Some time after that man was stabbed on a Canadian sidewalk, his parents were interviewed by national television, and shared how their grief was compounded by the viral conversation topic their son’s final moments became.

Ultimately, I express considerable concern about how content promoting indifference to suffering, spread through many facets of popular media, is contributing to an environment increasingly lacking in empathy.

However, as with most issues meriting critical discussion, gray areas nonetheless exist, and my concerns regarding a general, societal lack of empathy do not necessarily extrapolate to every person or situation, and it is this reason that leads me to believe this problem is not irreversible. If one carefully sifts through the sands of troubled conversation, light can be found, even in seemingly suffocating darkness.

It makes me proud to observe the growth of a new generation of journalists, influencers, and other public commentators, who are attempting to spread their brand not through negativity and violence, but rather through wholesome moments reflective of the beauty of the human spirit. Regardless of what personal motives they may hold, these figures nonetheless draw attention to a painfully obvious conclusion: empathy is concomitant with being human, and indifference to suffering does not represent strength, personal collection, or spiritual ideals, it is ignorance, plain and simple.

The empathy problem is very different from traditional social problems, in the sense that while external changes can mitigate it, solving it can only be done internally, one person at a time. Breaking out of the glass cage such content presents is no easy task, but we are naturally well-equipped to display empathy in our own manners. Moreover, many social problems indirectly arise from aspects of the empathy problem, meaning that the promotion of empathy in our conduct, as well as in our public discourse, could prove an invaluable asset in rectifying a plethora of issues.

I cannot help but think how those infants whose picture inspired these words are doing now. Have they still maintained the innocence and unconditional empathy they embodied, or have a combination of external and internal stimuli stripped them of it? For that matter, who would you prefer to be in this context: the infants on the beach or the man recording a murder?

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