It’s been shown time and time again that living in communities with empathetic neighbors improves quality of life. And now a new study has taken it a step further and found levels of empathy in the U.S. vary drastically from state to state.
Researchers have turned their attention to studying empathy over the last decade, largely due to a disturbing trend where compassion for our fellow humans has taken a sharp downward turn, with narcissism on the rise. Social media and financial wealth both appear to play a large part in this move toward selfishness and self-involvement.
Before underestimating the importance of compassionate communities, consider this: empathy has been shown to encourage emotional and physical healing, facilitate communication, build trust and improve every level of business, while discouraging hate crimes, aggression, violence and bullying. Most importantly, it makes us happier, which creates a positive ripple effect out into the world.
The Wealthy Are More Likely to Lie, Cheat and Steal — Not the Poor
When Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner embarked on several studies examining how social class (wealth, occupational prestige and education) influences feelings of empathy for one another, they had no idea how startling the results would prove to be.
In one study, Piff and his team covertly observed driver behavior at a hectic four-way intersection. They discovered that luxury car drivers (regardless of sex) cut off other motorists more frequently and were less likely to wait their turn at the intersection. A different study found that luxury car drivers were far more likely to “speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with the pedestrian.”
The next step was to determine if selfishness leads to wealth or vice versa. The researchers performed another study that manipulated people’s feelings about social class. Participants were asked to spend a few moments thinking about themselves compared to others who were either better or worse off financially. They were then shown a jar of candy and told they were welcome to take home as much as they wanted. Additionally, the group was informed that any leftover candy would be given to children in an adjacent laboratory. Those who contemplated how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy for themselves, while leaving less for the children.
A similar round of studies published by Keltner examined how social class impacts the ability to feel compassion for those who are suffering. One study found that less affluent people report feeling empathy for others on a regular basis, and are more likely to agree with statements such as, “I often notice people who need help” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.” The study accounted for factors like gender, ethnicity and spiritual beliefs.
A second study monitored participants heart rate while watching a video explaining how to build a patio, as well as a video which showed children suffering from cancer. People who had less income and education were more likely to report feelings of empathy while viewing the video on cancer patients — they also had slower heart rates, which is associated with paying close attention to the feelings of people around them.
The team believes that as wealth and status increases, so does the perception that we’re independent from others. When we don’t have to rely on people, we tend to care less about their feelings — which results in being more self-centered.
Technology and the Decline of Empathy
Sara Konrath, the director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research, believes that the decline in empathy has much to do with how we use technology in our lives.
“My research has found that narcissism has been increasing over the past 30 years in American culture, while empathic traits have been declining. It is easy to blame social media for such changes, since much research finds that narcissistic people use social media more frequently and for more self-promoting reasons. They constantly post “selfies,” status updates and snide remarks to a list of “friends” that could fill an opera house.”
But Konrath is quick to note that social media doesn’t always create narcissism, it’s more a tool that can encourage higher levels of narcissistic behavior. After all, “offline narcissists are also online narcissists.” It’s just that there is a built-in feedback loop when we’re interacting face-to-face with someone, which is absent in the realm of social media. We also become desensitized to the pain of others when we are continuously bombarded with news of terrorism, violence, war and aggression. Use of social media has affected interpersonal relations as well. A significant decline in the number of organizations and meetings, along with the number of average family dinners and social visits, has been seen with the rise of social media.
For those of us who would like to cultivate more compassionate understanding, it appears as if we’re swimming against a massive tide of pervasive selfishness and narcissism. However, it may not be as bleak as we might believe, at least in the US.
Empathy Around the World
In a groundbreaking study, it was found that out of 63 countries — where data was collected from 104,365 adults — the US ranked number seven in empathy. Ecuador came in as number one. Those with the lowest empathy scores include Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland and Bulgaria. The researchers classified empathy as the inclination to tune in with the perspective and feelings of another. The test also evaluated basic personality traits, sociability, self-esteem and well-being.
Similarly, this study looked at empathy throughout the US and broke it down into all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Here’s what the research team found:
“Participants were 79,563 U.S. residential adults who completed measures of cognitive and emotional empathy (i.e., perspective taking and empathic concern). Information on prosocial and antisocial behavior was retrieved from publicly available government databases. All indices of empathy were related to lower rates of violent crime, aggravated assault, and robbery. Total empathy was associated with higher well-being and higher volunteer rates. Implications for geographic variation in empathy, prosocial behavior, and antisocial behavior are discussed.”
States with the most empathetic citizens are Rhode Island, Montana, Vermont, Maine, Oregon, Illinois, North Carolina, Utah and California. Washington D.C. tied with Oregon for fifth place. The states with the lowest levels of empathy are Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Idaho, Iowa, Alaska and Pennsylvania.
Could moving to a empathetic state encourage a more compassionate orientation? The researchers believe social influence could very well play a role in cultivating empathy in ourselves. “Those living in more charitable areas may have become more empathetic after witnessing the generous behavior in that area.”
In short, empathy is contagious.