Here is a fascinating presentation (16 minutes) by MIT researcher Rebecca Saxe about how we develop empathy.
I’ve posted about emotional intelligence in the past. A key part of emotional intelligence is the development of empathy, understanding the feelings of others. I’ve also posted about the reported decline in empathy among US university students. So if we’re wired for empathy, as Rebecca Saxe’s research would suggest, why are we noticing a marked decline in empathy?
We should be worried. Without empathy we lose the social lubricant that makes it possible to operate in a large, complex society. Lack of empathy for others results in increased crime, and increased cheating, on everything from tests to taxes. The more others get away with cheating, the more likely we are to want to follow the cheaters. After all, not cheating puts us at a disadvantage. However, mass cheating puts society at risk. If everyone cheats, no one can trust anyone, and you end up with an unstable, violent society.
If we raise a generation of people who are self-focused, performance oriented and externally motivated, they will lack empathy for others. If we hire recent graduates based on their university grades, we’re going to get university students who will do anything to get better grades and to hell if I didn’t earn my place, preventing some one who did from getting a seat at the table. And here’s the funny thing. According to the organization that administers the GMAT, undergraduate grades predict only 25% of the variance in performance in an MBA program. So we’re using a bad predictor of performance to hire people because it’s easier than any other selection tool we have. The result, less empathy and more negative behaviours, such as cheating.
We know that declining empathy is a problem. The question is, what is causing the decline? And, more importantly, how do we fix it?