Tag Archives: empathy

The Empathy Gap (and can we address it?)

Steven Volk, March 8, 2015

Some years ago (April 25, 2011) I wrote an “Article of the Week” on empathy in response to the research findings of Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing suggesting that college students are becoming less empathic, and significantly so. [“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 15.2 (2011): 180-198] In a meta-analysis of 72 samples of American college students, the researchers studied four aspects of “interpersonal sensitivity” including empathic concern (EC), or sympathy, over the misfortunes of others and perspective taking (PT), the capacity to imagine other people’s points of view. (The other two aspects were the tendency to identify imaginatively with fictional characters in books or movies and personal distress, the anguish one feels during others’ misfortunes.) The study found that EC scores declined by 48% when comparing students from the late 1970s/early 1980s and those in 2009; PT scores went down by 34%. For both, the sharpest decline came after 2000.
EC-scorePT-scoreFirst, what are these characteristics and why should these declines be concerning? Psychologists debate exactly what “empathy” is. Some argue that it is a cognitive mechanism by which we can imagine the internal state of others. Other contend that it is an affective construct and question whether people’s emotions are matched directly to another’s affective state, whether empathy is primarily a manifestation of sympathy, or whether people empathize to reduce their own stress about another person’s situation, i.e., more about self-concern than other-concern.

Primatologists and neuroscientists have also entered the discussion, speculating (to on-going challengers) that mirror neurons may be partially responsible for the ability to understand the behaviors and feelings of other people. In other words, our neurons can actually help us experience what another is feeling without language. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s research suggests that primates are biologically driven to behave in ways similar to those nearby (a kind of “contagion” effect) whether they think about it or not. (Here’s an example: take a look at the picture below and tell me what it makes you do.) But, simply put, when researchers talk of “dispositional empathy” they are talking about the tendency to react to other people’s observed experiences.

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

People who have higher “EC” scores tend to exhibit more prosocial behaviors, including volunteering, letting people into line ahead of them, donating to charities, etc. (Other factors are also involved. Paul Piff, a psychologist at Berkeley, recently reported on a series of studies that found that people driving luxury cars like BMW’s and Audi’s were 3- to 4-times less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks than those driving less expensive cars. Just saying.) Similarly, higher Perspective Taking scores are related to prosocial outcomes including low social dysfunction (e.g. social anxiety, boasting, verbal aggression), and more other-oriented sensitivity.

So, when the research suggests a highly significant decline in EC and PT scores between 1979 and 2009, and a sharp fall after 200, there is reason to be concerned.

 What does this have to do with us?

I know I’m not alone in observing student behavior (both at Oberlin and elsewhere) and wondering: seriously? They can seem so fine tuned, so hyper-sensitive to the (very-often-only-imagined) concerns of others that they will carry out public acts of self-flagellation and self-shaming. At the same time they can also be utterly ruthless as they take down, call out, and verbally eviscerate others whom they accuse of similar (?) acts of insensitivity or perhaps have actually made a mistake. No mercy will be shown. What is notable, at least for me, is the lack of carry over between admitting one’s own short-comings (even if they are imagined) and skewering others for theirs. It’s enough to remind me of “Bye Bye Birdie” where the parents lament, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way. What’s the matter with kids today?” Is this the empathy-gap that the research has disclosed?

Before we go too much farther, we should probably remind ourselves that, at one level, we weren’t any different. Our students are late adolescents and as many developmental psychologists remind us, their concepts of moral reasoning are still emerging. I can’t adequately represent this argument here (and I’m not a psychologist), but from the perspective of moral cognition, college students are moving from a dualistic worldview that sees absolute right and wrong, toward a recognition of multiple and potentially valid perspectives, and, ultimately, to a contextually relative approach to judging the adequacy of moral stances. If we accept the moral cognition approach, we must also accept that one of our primary tasks as teachers is not just developing our students’ content mastery, but engaging our students with content in meaningful ways that facilitates their ability to make complex moral judgments. In other words, rather than looking the other way when we see examples of moral reasoning (and ethical behavior) that make us want to hold our heads and cry, we want to be thinking of how to address these issues in class or with students outside of class.

way-too-many-f-sBut if we return to the research, maybe we are correct in saying that today’s students are different. Affective theorists say that emotions, rather than cognition, are at the base of moral development. Martin Hoffman, for example, argues that empathy is the primary moral emotion, and that empathic capacities – “psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own” (30) are at the base of developmental change. Thus we are back to considering the impact of the three-decade drop in students’ empathic concern and perspective taking – and we’re also back to considering the importance for late adolescents of college as a place where such developments can occur… or not.

Why now?

I’m even less competent to throw out sociological answers for why this decline is happening than I am in understanding the psychological factors that determine moral and ethical development. But, if it hasn’t stopped me before, why should it now?

We can look at a number of factors, none of which you will find too surprising. Personal behaviors mirror societal behaviors, and we (and our students) ping-pong back and forth between righteous fury and faux indignation, between Ferguson and “Viet Cong.” As Julia Turner’s “Outrage Project” in Slate put it, “Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics, and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us.” We move from outrage to outrage, and can often hardly recall what it was that produced so much stomach acid just last week.

Beyond a doubt, social media has had a dramatic and negative impact on empathic concern. Not only has it led to the development of a “call-out” culture, but its echo-chamber tendencies takes what might have been resolved, or at least defused, by a face-to-face chat and amplifies them into an example of moral outrage that requires that everyone chimes in and spills a bit of their own bile.

I’m also quite sure (although I lack the research evidence) that the replacement of actual political organizing – door-to-door canvassing, workplace organizing, street-corner leafleting – by on-line petitions has had a strong impact on the decline of our students’ (and our own) empathic concern. Those “older” forms of organizing require you to actually speak with people with whom you might disagree, and therefore teach you to do so in a way that can be heard.

Nor is it just about outrage. Surveys of in-coming first year students at colleges and universities report an increasing percentage of those whose “most important goal” is getting rich, and a declining percentage who would chose “helping others in time of need” as an important goal. Which takes us back to BMW’s in the crosswalks.

And what about us at liberal arts colleges?

The world of higher education is now deeply immersed in conversations about the benefits to be gained through a greater use of online resources in teaching and learning, or of a fully online education. Strong advocates of online learning point to the “student-centric” value of instruction that can be highly tailored to individual learning needs or to the fact that online learning can be more engaging than sitting in a lecture hall with 600 other students listening to a professor drone on in a barely incomprehensible manner. My concern here, however, is not the larger discussion of online vs face-to-face education (other than to observe that negative learning experiences can come in many different modes). Rather what does the research on empathy suggest about online learning?

In a recent article in Liberal Education, William Major suggests that the classroom is an extremely important social experience in which empathy can develop, something that cannot not happen online in the same fashion, and something that might help explain why empathic concern has been declining among college students. “Just as irony is virtually impossible over e-mail,” he writes, “the technological interface is the receding horizon of empathic learning.” Referencing the work of de Waal and others, Major suggests that face-to-face contacts trigger neuronal mirroring that is a fundamental part of learning and empathy, something that cannot happen when looking at others on a screen.

Neuron Fractal 1 - amattox mattox (cc)

Neuron Fractal 1 – amattox mattox (cc)

“Remembering, for instance, that mirror neurons are for sharing—transforming private action into ‘social experience to be shared with our fellow humans through language,’ according to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni [Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others], we can think of the classroom as a system in which each student and instructor has the capacity to alter the whole at the neuronal level.” He suggests that we can liken the classroom to the “brain-as-web” in that it constantly reorganizes itself to create new pathways for learning. “Our ability to learn from each other… creates an infinite number of pathways when we are present to each other.” He suggests that when a class is really working – with everyone contributing, listening, engaging – what might actually be happening is a “curious intersection of biology and learning,” where students are in a sense nourishing each other. (Of course, the same thing can happen in reverse when things go badly.)

I really liked that image. When classes are going well, something happens that allows what we’ve always tended to call “its chemistry” to work. Maybe we were just looking in the wrong discipline – we should be thinking as neuroscientists instead! The bottom line here is that it is in these face-to-face, highly interactional moments that our students are not just learning about French or calculus or philosophy; they are developing their capacity for empathic concern. And that’s a concern for us all. Our question should be how we use all the advantages we have at a liberal arts college to help our students become more empathic, more morally engaged. (And when they’re not looking, we can also put our heads in our hands while we hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Birdie.”)

One Big Motrin

We have been going through a difficult time. One of the signposts of that difficulty, for me at least, came when I hesitated after writing the very first word of this posting: we. I wasn’t about to put it in quotes, but I have been realizing just how tenuous that “we” has become.  I know I don’t speak for a “we,” nor can I say what that “we” is feeling. Neither am I willing to abandon the hope embodied in the we.

As an intellectual, one who works with words and ideas and attempts to make them relevant in an environment in which learning occurs, I turned to literature as offering a way into this conversation (and I hope it is a conversation). To Virginia Woolf, in particular, whose 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book,” I was recently reminded of in a lovely blog entry by Maria Popova.

“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading,” Woolf writes, “is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” [The essay is in the public domain .]

With Woolf’s advice in mind, and with Oberlin’s turmoil in mind rather than the challenges of reading, I start again:  We have been going through a difficult time, both individually and collectively. I know there are many of us in the Oberlin community thinking hard and talking constantly about the road ahead. My intent here is to add to those conversations.

Over the past week, I’ve been nursing a muscle I pulled in my leg when I slipped on the ice. I asked one of the coaches what I should do and when I could start to exercise again. He recommended ice and ibuprofen, so the damaged tissue could quiet down from its inflamed state before attempting any exercises designed to strengthen it. I dislike organic metaphors, but it seems to me that we desperately need a healthy dose of Motrin in order to rest our jangled nerves before moving on to strengthening our community. Understanding that pulled muscles impact people differently, that those who are more conditioned can come back faster than others…still, we need an ice pack.

It’s what Woolf recommends as “letting the dust settle” after reading a book before passing judgment on it. “We must pass judgment upon those multitudinous impressions [received in reading]; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep.” I can only hope that we are in the process of letting the dust from the recent weeks settle before passing “hard and lasting” judgment. Again, each of us will have different ways to do that, but just as it is hard to run with a pulled muscle, to deliver informed judgments the moment we put a book down, so it may not yet be time to know exactly what is the best way forward.

I have no doubt that students, faculty, staff and administrators all have a number of concrete steps that can and should be taken to move us from this place while addressing the shortcomings we have identified. I have only one suggestion, and it’s not as easily achieved as implementing a new curriculum, hiring new staff, or deploying more security personnel. It is about what we do here every day. It’s about teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition (whose definition I borrow from a statement that some colleagues and I are working on). If done well, study in the liberal arts instills in students a capacity and a passion for inquiry, for critical thinking and analysis, for clear and original expression of ideas.  Liberal arts learning values self-reflection and the ability to understand and accept differences in others.  Liberal arts education seeks to foster an openness to, and engagement with, new ideas; it assigns central importance to the asking of questions as a mode of learning; it affirms habits of inquiry that regard our search for values and the ability to live an ethical life as the keystone that holds our learning in place. Finally, I would argue that empathy is central to this; that it is critical to the process of engagement with others and a commitment to the cause of social justice.

Some mistake empathy for sympathy, and it may produce just that. But empathy is the capacity for imaginative attribution, and psychologists consider it a critical foundation for promoting cooperative, pro-social and satisfying relationships. The (by now clichéd) Cherokee saying “Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes,” is about empathy, as is Atticus Finch’s observation in To Kill A Mockingbird, that, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Some would say that you shouldn’t do that (asserting a tribalist perspective), or that you can’t do that (suggesting that we can never leave our own social formation). It seems to me that both literature and social justice activism (among other things) would suffer without the capacity for empathic imagination.

Empathetic engagement is not about abandoning one’s principles or an appeal to the sad cry: “can’t we all just get along.” Sometimes we can’t. It is about listening…no, it’s about trying to hear what someone you disagree with has to say. At the end of the day, maybe you and your interlocutor will still be miles apart; I seriously doubt that you’ll be best friends. But something will have changed for the listening and hearing.

I wonder if you’ll bear with me for a story which seems a good illustration of this (rather than an assertion that I have any idea about how to deal with radical differences). A few years back, the town and college were shaken by a series of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids on a restaurant in town. Five undocumented workers were hauled away and, before we could even locate them, they had been deported. Three of us (a student, a town resident, and myself) decided to bring a resolution to City Council to provide those who live and work in our town with a modicum of protection and support. We worked hard on the resolution, consulted with officials, police, activists, and others, and finally brought it to Council, where it had to pass three separate readings before final approval.

Tensions were high at these meetings as news of the resolution had spread to other Ohio towns and anti-immigration activists from places like Painesville and Grafton made up the majority in the hearing room. We received threats on our lives, and for the first time ever, City Council brought in a metal detector through which audience members passed. The meetings themselves were pocked with invective from many of the out-of-towners (“America was built by the white people!”), but the resolutions passed with strong support.

Shortly after the last meeting, I received an email from an unknown sender who criticized me for having called her a “bigamist” in the course of the hearings. Since I didn’t know her, much less her personal life, I had no idea what she was talking about, but assumed that she had meant “bigot,” and, indeed, in my own remarks to City Council I had characterized some of the opposition to the bill as arising from bigotry. I wrote her back, trying to clarify my comments, but I also realized that I hardly ever talk to people with whom I fundamentally disagree, and this might be an opportunity. So I suggested we talk. Since I was leaving to teach on the London semester two days later, time didn’t permit an in-person meeting, but we did spend about three hours on the phone.

I thought about what I wanted to achieve in that conversation: I wasn’t going to change her mind, nor she mine. But I did hope that she could perhaps hear something she hadn’t heard before. (Tellingly, I wasn’t so empathetic as to imagine that I could hear something as well.) I also decided that there were certain limits and bounds to such a conversation and, once reached, I wouldn’t spend any more time at it. For me, unless she was willing to see undocumented migrants (“illegal aliens” in her terms) as human and therefore deserving some dignity, I couldn’t see much purpose in the conversation. Lacking that, game over.

So we talked. I pulled out my most obvious empathetic moves: what if you were a Mexican mother who had to feed her children, etc, etc. Nope. I kept moving back, hoping that we would find the one point we could agree on before we hit the ultimate boundary. Finally, more than two hours into the conversation, I realized I knew nothing about her, her family, its history, or what she cared about (other than making sure that undocumented workers weren’t working in Oberlin’s restaurants). So I asked her. Her family had been in Ohio for a long time. Not surprisingly, they had been farmers, but no longer were. “Was it hard for your family to give up its land,” I asked? Yes, it had been. Very hard. After a few more minutes, I asked her why she thought that a family from, say, southern Mexico, which had been on the same plot of land for maybe 500 years, maybe much longer, would give up that land so they could wash dishes in a restaurant in northeastern Ohio. And for the first time she paused and said, “I don’t know.” We talked some more, I told her a bit about NAFTA and what it had done to many Mexican farmers…the details at this point don’t matter. The conversation ended shortly after. We didn’t (figuratively) give each other a hug; I still have my very strong beliefs about immigration, and she most likely has hers. But we each heard, of that I’m convinced, and we each were changed.

Listening is not easy; hearing is even harder because it means that you have to think about your own positions as well as those of the other party.  And that is particularly difficult when one’s ears are filled with shouts of approval from one’s supporters (or one’s hearing is hardened by disapproving voices from one’s detractors). But hearing is essential if we are to move ahead, particularly when the differences that divide us are much narrower than those expressed in the City Council’s chambers.

What can we, as teachers, do to help this process of listening and hearing? Where can we best intervene? How can we model empathetic hearing and liberal arts values? I trust that we will find the answers.

Steve Volk, March 10, 2013