Social Question

philosopher's avatar

Why do so many people in our society lack empathy for others?

Asked by philosopher (9165points) August 29th, 2010

Is this getting worse?
It seems to me that people only empathize with things their families have experienced.
I think that is why American Politicians don’t understand what American’s problems are.

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44 Answers

Mom2BDec2010's avatar

I would say its getting worse. Some people are just selfish and close minded I guess. I guess some people find it as its not their problem and they don’t have to deal with it.

Akua's avatar

I think it’s because we are desensitized by media (tv and movies). We lost the ability to be shocked at the pain and frailties of others’ because we see it constantly. I see this a lot in children especially.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Overstimulation. So much exposure via media drives people to take solace and regain control by closing off, turning away and shortening their focus to whatever they deem manageable around them. I know if I lived in a place where I saw beggars, sick & suffering people all around me every day of my life then I probably wouldn’t be as shocked or feel what I feel now if I see it.

Neutral's avatar

Simple, the proximity entailed by empathy increases the potential vulnerability of either party.

Akua's avatar

This question made me think of an ex-friend. Years ago I was watching the film “Forest Gump” with her and I began to cry at the way others picked on him and when I turned to look at her, she was laughing hysterically. She thought it was funny that he was too weak to defend himself. Now granted it was just a movie but you know what they say… art imitates life. She isn’t a friend anymore because the behavior she exhibited that day was a true reflection of who she really was.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I think it has to do with how they themselves are treated. People are like dogs in many ways. If you lock them in a cage with inadequate space, abuse them regularly and throw a piece of meat into it at feeding time and let them have at it, they will go after each other and cower when you enter.

With few exceptions in history, University greeks, military personnel, corporate underlings, & etc, will espouse long and hard about unjust treatment and the need for change while they are on the bottom of the pecking order, but once in the position of authority, will rarely effect change.

Sociologists have written volumes on the brutality of the lower classes for the past 200 years; Malthus, Godwin, etc. I believe that their lives are more brutal for lack of resources and they behave accordingly. This is reflected in all classes to the degree proportionate to their deprivations, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional torment, perceived or real. Witness the brutality of the ghetto.

Even in the upper classes, literature is rife with examples of a noted lack of emotional support by parents, cohorts and the institutions they attend. This is reflected as a lack of compassion among their own. And pity those of classes outside one’s own, for they deserve even less.

On a grander scale, look at countries that experience a lack of basice resources such as potable water delivery systems and adequate food. You will never find the luxury of democracy in these social environments. Like Ghana, it is the man with the most guns who rules.

Take a hostile corporate office envirnment. All the cubicle denizens working diligently yet desperately, cowering to tyranical bosses, uncompassionate to their cohorts, afraid for their jobs as most are encumbered with enormous debt according to statistics.

The maxim is this: If you want people to act less like “animals,” treat them less like animals. This is an argument for good government and just and egalitarian judicial system.

Be the change you want to see in others. Be the exception.

cowboy's avatar

I dont think its good to think like that!
Be positive! no matter what you see or hear
( its how you take things and see life ) not about trying to get

philosopher's avatar

Thank you all because you made me feel that we still have some people left who have feelings.

iamthemob's avatar


I wouldn’t blaim the media at all – there’s been a lot of violent media/violent behavior research and I believe that on the balance you can’t isolate programming as a causal variable. Anecdotally, I love horror films, I love film violence – every time I see real violence I still shudder.

I think you may be able to factor media into it by collapsing it into Neizvestnaya’s overstimulation argument (combination of media-related and real-life suffering can desensitize you). So much of the turn to apathy might then be attributed to the fact that it appears so overwhelming – the thought process is less “I don’t want to do anything about that” than “What can I possibly do to deal with all that?”. Assuming that’s at least part of the case, change can be effected by an approach taking into account breaking the problem into manageable parts where gain can be observably made (this, in essence, is the philosophy behind the “think globally, act locally” movement).

Media then becomes part of the solution – and I think this forum is evidence (not proof) that it may be getting better in fact. The more information about how to approach the problem, on average the better solutions we can come up with.

Akua's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus I like your reply and the quote from the Mahatma.

Akua's avatar

@iamthemob well I did mention desensitation. Whether it be media or whatever, this is the cause of many (not all) peoples inability to empathize with others who suffer.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I think in general there are a lot of people that don’t care about others, but I know a lot of people that do care. Perhaps it’s because of the community I live in, but people around here tend to pull together really well to help each other out in a time of need. I try to focus on the people that do care because I’d rather think good things about people in general. I’d hate to have someone judge us all by the people that don’t care.

iamthemob's avatar

I don’t know…I feel like the desensitization approach is circular…tautological even. Broken down, it becomes “Why don’t we react and change the negative around us?” “Because we are desensitized to it.” “Why don’t we stop being desensitized then?” “Because there’s so much negative surrounding us.” “Then why don’t we just react and change the negative around us.” Etc. ad infinitum.

I address this because I think that the way we frame the problem influences the answers or solutions we (at least first) seek. Most clear examples are when a question is phrased to provoke the answer the speaker wants: “You wouldn’t want to pay twice as much for a loaf of bread right? I mean, you gotta feed your family…so why do you think some farmer in another part of the world deserves some increase in his pay, where it’s not gonna help because they don’t even have real health care anyway.” Here, claiming we’re desensitized begs “How do we RE-sensitize.” The first logical solution I think of then is to reduce exposure to what’s going wrong. This will both lead to both good and poor actions, but I think that the poor reactions would be more common (e.g., we’re exposed to a lot of media, that’s where we see a lot of this violence, let’s censor the media so that there’s less exposure). In the end, that leads to less information – we’re more sensitive to the harshness of life, but in many cases it’s because we don’t know what’s going on.

I think that framing it more as an “overwhelmed” argument leads to more solutions styled breaking down the issues into real, digestible, manageable solutions. We suffer from information overload so there’s an inclination to give up. Instead, process it so it’s accessible. Again, I feel like what something like this forum can assist in doing.

iamthemob's avatar


By that approach, though, aren’t you only interacting with people that are already okay? How does that help address the people that, arguably, need to be “fixed”?

Seaofclouds's avatar

@iamthemob I didn’t mean I only focus on helping people that care. I will help anyone that I can, wether they care about other people or not. I meant that I focus on them as in think about them as the majority because I like to think positively about people in general. I will focus on stories about people helping each other out and doing what they can instead of stories about greed and hate as much as possible.

Blackberry's avatar

Sometimes it’s just hard to care about people you don’t know, although I start caring about a person right after exchanging a few words with them. We all have our own problems and waking up wanting to help everyone else when you are struggling as well isn’t realistic. You still have to look out for yourself first; that is why you never see homeless people out helping everyone.

iamthemob's avatar


Hmm – the last statement sort of implies that they don’t do it because we don’t see it happen. I wonder if this is the case – are there any studies that show a comparison of the percentage of victimized or disenfranchized populations who work for the benefit of the community to the general population?

CyanoticWasp's avatar

The best answer you got to this question in Answerology also applies here:

Empathy goes both ways. People who lived their lives in certain ways to lead them down dead-end roads while others were sacrificing “good times” and “easy living” to work, save and plan ahead do not automatically have a claim on those who DID work hard, save and plan ahead.

I have a lot of empathy—and assistance—for people who have tried to live in ‘right ways’ and still find themselves holding the short end of the stick. I don’t automatically rush to the aid of those who have continually made poor choices and now want me to pick up the slack for them.

Blackberry's avatar

@iamthemob I agree that it’s easier to not care when you don’t see it.

iamthemob's avatar


Are you saying this is the best answer people who aren’t generally empathetic would give or the best answer as to why many people aren’t empathetic?

Austinlad's avatar

This, from President Obama…

“We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.”


philosopher's avatar

I see a lack of empathy for situations that happen to people which are not really anyones fault.
Our society judges autistic people harshly because they are unique.
Autism is a spectrum.
My son is mid functioning but I have friends that are brilliant on some levels.
Some people feel the need to judge anyone who does not conform to their perceived norm.


@Akua I couldn’t agree more. So many movies and television shows these days are made with little moral consciousness. Gratuitious violence, merely to entertain, and an overload of it, has negatively impacted the minds of our youth within the past 40 years. I am a pessimist. I don’t see it getting any better. There are so many people out there today with little consideration for their fellow man. It all starts in the home, when children are still young and impressionable. Parents need to teach their kids, and provide through example, good manners and compassion for others. Unfortunately these days, I see many parents acting like rude, uncultivated children themselves. It’s basically children raising children. Couple that with the mindless violence and stupidity in films and t.v., and what do you get? Mean-spirited people.

iamthemob's avatar


It’s just as likely, though, that the “bad media” your talking about is more a symptom of the cause of a lack of empathy rather than part of the cause itself. One could readily point to a culture of consumerism that pushes goods generally on the population that are geared toward the lowest common denominator…

…I also don’t know if there was a “good old time” when people ACTUALLY had more empathy.

laureth's avatar

I think it’s part monkeysphere, combined with the intense partisanship (not just political, but religious, status, etc.) that make it so very easy to demonize the outgroup.

Austinlad's avatar

@iamthemob, the crassing up and dumbing down of our society and the loss of empathy so many of us display is not the fault of the media, or parents, or TV, or the Internet, or the economy, or whatever; it is all that, plus a hundred other reasons. It is you and me.

I know the world is filled with wonderful people who spend their lives and treasures trying to help others. But I fear for future generations.

iamthemob's avatar

@Austinlad :

What’s the use of worry without action? I think if more people started really voting with their dollar, we’d get rid of a lot of what we find so offensive.

Berserker's avatar

I would say it was much worse before, but then I wasn’t around when slavery was legal or when women were good for nothing but cooking and producing offspring, so I can’t really say. And that just incorporates the Western hemisphere and Europe. And Australia.
For all you nitpickers out there who thrive on correcting everyone or pointing out mundane details.
Be that as it may, we live in a fast paced and hectic society based around consumerism, and I personally don’t believe that it allows much room for empathy. I could be wrong though, of course, and I don’t use this as justification for my own black, frozen heart, but I’m firmly set in my belief that mankind thrives on savagery and greed.


@iamthemob I think it’s a vicious circle. Bad people nowadays make bad “entertainment” which in turn make bad people, and so-on and so-on. Sigh.

My parents, along with many other elderly adults who I know, were young adults in the 50s and early 1960s, and they have told me that in general, people were more mannerful and respectful of others in those days. Families rarely locked the doors to their houses when they were home, and people helped one another more than today. My parents used to own a small grocery store in the city, and in 1963, they didn’t own a car yet and usually walked home, which was miles away. Even though they weren’t white, they were treated kindly by the city white folk, who knew they were immigrants and understood the hardships, because they too were immigrants to Canada. Many times after a long day at work, in the middle of winter, bus drivers used to wait for my Mom and Dad to lock shop so they could give my parents a free ride back home. I can’t see that happening in today’s world. These days, the bus drivers I know are rude and snarly. But you can see how times have changed. :(

philosopher's avatar

I know you are an empathic person my friend.
You have always showed consideration of others in your post on various sites.


@philosopher Thank you my friend! ;)

iamthemob's avatar


I completely understand what you’re saying…but I’m always concerned when there’s an association of manners and respect with a more empathic society (or a generally better one). Both of those qualities (which I’m a fan of generally) require a certain amount of holding one’s tongue. There’s a concern with what’s proper. A lot of the time that can get in the way of what’s helpful. In so many ways, I feel like the “golden times” of the 1950s and 1960s may have been comparably messed up, but no one knew, knows, or has records about a lot of it because it was just something decent people didn’t talk about. I firmly believe this about family life at the time, in fact.

It sounds like your parents had a wonderful experience. I’m betting Canada in a lot of ways is a better experience generally in terms of feeling secure (still love my U.S.A.!). But on another note…I also wonder how much this may have been shaped by a more “you do with what you have” mentality. I generally admire those who soldier through…but people who do may take a more “It could be worse” approach than is beneficial. Sometimes we do need to say “This should be better!”

skfinkel's avatar

I wonder if a lack of empathy comes from children not being taken care of by their parents—or caring adults. They haven’t had their needs met, and have not been dealt with by others with empathy, so it is hard for them to know what it is or act that way themselves. I am concerned actually that more and more people are like this.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@iamthemob what I meant was that too many think empathy means “feeling sorry for those who have less”, and that it stops there. Not that rich or comfortable people need others to “feel sorry” for them, but it would be helpful sometimes if “those who have less” (for one example) would consider that those who are better off did not always (did not “usually”, in fact) get that way by luck, family connections or any other way that didn’t involve a lot of sacrifice, hard work, care and attention over a long time.

What I have I have earned, and I don’t owe to anyone else. Likewise, my time is my life, and I don’t “owe” that to anyone else, either. When I give as I choose, I give freely and often; when my time and money are coerced from me by others who think they know better, then it’s taken at the point of a gun… and I don’t feel empathy then.

iamthemob's avatar


Of course. I don’t think that, objectively, anyone can say that I “owe” charity to anyone, or that I must empathize with someone who’s wronged me. But I think that the question is directed at why there is a general lack of understanding regarding poverty stricken, or jobless, or homeless etc. Americans. That it seems like people are looking around at their situation and thinking, “Well, I did it…so it seems to work out fine.”

I think that your statement that those who are better off did not usually get there by luck, family connections etc. is actually part of that issue (no accusations, mind you – all for the sake of discussion). You know you got there because you worked hard and performed to the standard required to do so. While not taking that away from the successful generally, I feel like there’s a lot of luck, family connections, etc. with being able to do that in the first place. I can’t take credit for the fact that I was born in a developed nation with a great deal of opportunity…that I was born into a family that could both financially and emotionally support me…that they incentivized me to perform well in school…that they could afford to send me to a distinguished private grade school…and a top boarding school after that…and an Ivy League university after that. Nothing I did in my life made that happen. But I worked hard and took advantage of the resources available to me at each step. And I was lucky that nothing happened at any point to derail me.

I feel like what we should be doing more is not about giving or doing, but being able to look at a person who’s messed up or in trouble and ask what could have happened in your life to make you end up exactly the same way.

Jabe73's avatar

People are too worried about themselves. Everyone wants the ultimate “good time” or to be “cool”. What is very frightening to me is when people can enjoy themselves when others right around them (in plain view) are suffering. Another frightening occurence is how people actually get joy and pleasure after knowingly hurting someone (physically, mentally or both). Yes people are too cool to be empathetic today.

@skfinkel Personally kids have it easier today, they do not have to work for their possessions as much. I do not think this fast electronic age today has helped too much either. I think it is very true that when someone did not have to go through what someone else has they will not truely relate to that person’s problems. They will assume that because it didn’t happen to them than that person must have done something wrong to deserve it. Being bullied is a great example of this, kids that are not bullied (or at least as much) will usually always assume that it must be something that kid did to “deserve” it. Until it happens to them. This is the same on many other issues as well.

philosopher's avatar

We have a wealthy family member that calls us to vent.
We are Middle Class people with an autistic young adult son.
Our family member worked hard for the money. They were not always wealthy but they seem to have forgotten their past.
It is their venting to us that is disconcerting.
I think of all I could do for people like my son if I were wealthy. I know I would.
This relative is miserable despite all his money and healthy family. We care but I wonder if they have a clue what we endure.. They are so out of touch with what most people deal with daily.
This is what I think is wrong with our society. People are unaware of people who have special needs and unwilling to help provide a means to include them. Most autistic people can work and contribute in a structured environment.
They can do jobs we would find boring and be very content.
The problem is not every community is willing to help create these jobs and programs. Young adults lose skills after they graduate because they have no help maintaining them.
Politicians talk about change but little change actually happens.
This is why I asked this question.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

You’re illustrating one of my points, @philosopher: You don’t seem to have much empathy for your wealthy relative’s misery. Do you think that because he has some money and his family is healthy that happiness should be automatic?

philosopher's avatar

Actually nothing makes him happy.
He is happiest when people say how wonderful he is.
I am not insecure. I do not give a dam what most people think.
It is foolish to allow people that do not know you to matter.
He needs to be admired. I do not.
I need my husband and son.
All friendships are transitory. I have accepted this.
He was a VP and now he is Semi retired. He is bored.
I don’t have time to complain. Too much to do.

iamthemob's avatar


Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with having much empathy for his wealthy relative’s misery. The explanation did not comment on @philosopher‘s ability to share the emotional reaction of the relative.

It has to do with sympathy for the relative. Sympathy implies support and understanding about a person’s situation, and is often related to your own situation.

Empathy can easily run both ways without sympathy coming into play. I can feel for you, but I don’t have to simultaneously be sorry for you. It is appropriate for empathy to go both ways – however, sympathy should run down hill more than uphill. To expect that someone who is homeless have as much sympathy for me as I should for him or her is, I think, an utterly selfish emotional need. And to have that sympathy translate into action (e.g., helping me out if I help him or her out) is even more selfish.

This is the problem with your argument, I think.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Whoa there, @iamthemob. I said nothing about “sympathy”. But if @philosopher has a relative—no matter how well off or apparently smug in circumstances—and that person is “miserable”, then empathy may be called for… and apparently not forthcoming from either of you.

Listen to Richard Cory by Simon and Garfunkel (or read the poem it’s based on, by Edward Arlington Robinson), and countless other variations on the theme. Here see S&G from 1966… that’s worth a click, anyway.

iamthemob's avatar


He said that he cared indeed. And empathy is an ability to feel what the other is…he didn’t say (assuming gender here for no reason…sorry all) that he had no understanding what was felt by the other person.

It also indicates that he demonstrated sympathy by listening to the complaints regardless of how he felt about the relative’s situation.

Empathy is just the ability to feel and understand another’s position. It needn’t be demonstrated outwardly. I can say I empathize with your position entirely…but that doesn’t mean I should demonstrate sympathy to your position, does it?

If it does, then you are claiming others should show sympathy were you are of the position that it’s insulting for someone to mandate you yourself show sympathy.

Empathy is an ability…it’s in many ways the opposite of apathy (simply not caring). Neither require action, but both can be shown to be the underlying causes of action or inaction.

I know what it’s like to feel like people are demanding you understand them and yet that person doesn’t care to understand you. But you’re assuming a lack of empathy without evidence of it.

philosopher's avatar

LOL my relative does not seek empathy he seeks attention.
He wants to here what a wonderful person he is.
My immediate family tries to be helpful but the complaining (venting) is a daily thing. He lives in another town. He choose to move there and build his mansion.
We are involved in caring for our autistic son, working and providing for him.
We can not dedicate our life’s to this relative. He needs to find people that respect him where he lives or works.
We wish him the best for him but our life is overwhelming. Few people empathize with our life long crisis.
I doubt that most people have a clue how difficult my life is or care. My relative has no comprehension what we endure.

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