I’ve written a great deal about what it means to be an empath, and luckily for all of us, empathy is a big topic right now.
I just discovered a study that seems to measure empathy. The study is in the news right now because the researchers have concluded that students today are 40% less empathetic than they were in the 1970s. Hmmmmmm.
I’ve got a problem with the study because it’s based on self-responses to written questions, and those tend to follow trends in how people want to be seen, rather than telling the truth about how people actually behave. You can take the test here and see what I mean.
A real test of empathy would involve testing behavior in people who don’t realize they’re being tested (knowing that you’re being tested changes your behavior significantly). For instance, there’s a great deal of testing being done on infants and primates, and this helps us understand the roots of empathy in what we might call “naive” test subjects. A baby and a chimp are not really aware of the social advantages of pretending to be more or less empathetic than they are, so they’re good subjects.
As it turns out, empathy is a natural primate behavior, and it is present in even very young human infants. It’s a part of our heritage to understand others, empathize with their situation, and attempt to help them. You can’t have a healthy primate or human society if you don’t have empathy.
So this idea, that youth are less empathetic? I’m not seeing it in the young people I know. This is of course a self-selected and unscientific statement, but I’m still rooting for our youth. Maybe they’re struggling as we all are, to balance taking care of themselves while people around them are troubled. Say, I know a great book they could read if they want to learn how to work with their emotions!
I’m reading a wonderful book right now by primatologist Frans de Waal, and if you’re interested in empathy, you need to read it. de Wall is a wonderful writer and researcher who is at the cutting edge of animal research. It’s a great time for animal researchers, because it used to be unacceptable in scientific circles to assume that animals had emotions, empathy, or altruism, so researchers sort of kept their stories about empathetic and altruistic animals to themselves.
Now, that human-centric prejudice is being seen for what it is, and researchers are more free to explore empathy, emotion, altruism, and other allegedly human abilities in animals. The Age of Empathy focuses on primate research, but also refers to research done with birds and dogs. It’s a wonderful read, and a wonderful subject.
As I read, I was continually having conversations with de Waal in my head. I think I’ll send him a copy of The Language of Emotions so that he’ll know that the age of empathy has a vocabulary primer!
After you take the empathy test, come back and post your score. I got a 57 out of 70 because I waffled about how much I think about the problems of other people. I just got yelled at about it, so I was pretending to be less caring than I am. Do you see what I mean about self-report studies? They’re kind of lame! But they’re still fun.