Hardwired for Empathy

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?


3 replies »

  1. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! So soon after we gain a piece of knowledge do we find the negative aspects related to it. Step out of the box. As in every society that has taken to the intellectual high ground we have seen exactly the same crisis. Lack of empathy. Rome, Greece, Babylon, Egypt have all had their climb up the ladder of success to a point of commanding respect for their knowledge of the sciences, of the arts of technology. Isn’t it interesting that at their peak the crash happened. Loss of empathy? Of course it was! Why the loss then? USE it or LOSE it. If you ask any politician you will find that on their way up the most important part of the campaign is understanding people. They work that part of the brain that gives them that information and some are great at it. Once they have made it to the top there is no longer a need to exercise that particular brain function to the extent previously required. Empathy eventually falls by the wayside and the ability to call it up again just isn’t there. It can be if they work at it, however, by the time that muscle responds again it’s usually too late.
    As for hiring a new employee, look them in the eye, use your intuition and trust it. Beats the hell out of any test.
    Simple approach perhaps, and maybe, for a change, that’s all that’s needed.

  2. Jeremy Rifkin in his new book ‘The Empathic Civilization’ has a new and interesting take on the role of empathy in society historically. Certainly as Skotia says, empathy seems to fall off at a certain point in empire building, a very different phase than civilization building. But the role of conflict as a driver may well have been overstated by historians employed to reflect the prevailing bias of the empire builders.

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