A Test to See if You Lack Empathy and How to Become More Empathetic
Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This doesn’t mean that you feel sorry for someone when something bad happens to them. Or that you cry when your favorite character on a TV show suffers a tragic accident. Those are examples of sympathy (…and some good directing).
You’re empathetic when you feel what another person is feeling. Empathy feels as though whatever someone else is experiencing, is also happening to you. Be it good, bad or tragic.
Take the Empathy Test
So how can you find out if YOU are naturally empathetic? It’s not the easiest thing to measure, but let’s give it a try.
First, watch this video to take this very simple empathy test. It is designed to test your physiological response to what someone else is going through.
So, how did you do? Did you yawn? It may have seemed a little funny (it did to me), but the video is definitely a great example that empathy affects your whole body.
Another test is to make some notes about a recent interaction you had with another person who was suffering through a difficult time. Write down how you reacted and acted. Just remember, our assessment of ourselves is often biased due to our own ego. You need to be brutally honest.
Next, as you reflect on this interaction, consider the narrative by Dr. Brené Brown in the video below. Dr. Brown is an American scholar and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She does an amazing job outlining some parameters for what empathy really is.
Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. ~ Dr Brené Brown
Does Our Society as a Whole Lack Empathy?
In today’s modern society, people seem disconnected. Especially in big metropolitan cities, people often won’t make eye contact as you pass them. As such, they will easily walk by someone suffering without even batting an eye. Many people like to live in their own bubble, divided from others by their choice in clothing, sports teams, political beliefs, career choices, etc.
From an early age, people are programmed by media outlets. They start to believe that the pretend world of privilege, perfection, wealth, violence, ruthlessness, and egoism that permeate advertising, TV and mainstream media should be the essence of our real world. Unfortunately, this is making us much less empathetic, and science now proves it.
One study out of UCLA questioned if media exposure is having an undesirable effect on people’s social skills. The researchers wanted to understand the emotional and social impact as face-to-face social interaction lessens in favor of social media, facebooking and texting, and as screen time increases. Here’s what they found:
Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs. Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills. ~ Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study
This increase in media exposure is definitely not going to cultivate empathetic citizens. In fact, a study out of Northeastern University in Boston showed that humans are more likely to empathize with struggling dogs than with a person who’s suffering. In this study, participants read a story where there was one of four victims: a child, an adult, a dog, or a puppy. A child, a dog and a puppy measured similar levels of empathy, but the human adult provoked less of a response. The researchers comment:
Respondents were significantly less distressed when adult humans were victimized, in comparison with human babies, puppies and adult dogs. Only relative to the infant victim did the adult dog receive lower scores of empathy.
Antidotes to Our Collective Lack of Empathy
Regardless of how you scored on the empathy test above, we can all benefit from being more empathetic. When you make empathy an attitude – a habitual part of your life – you will improve the lives of everyone around you.
One way to become more empathetic is to extract yourself from your life of privilege. Because, let’s be honest, most of us are privileged….especially if you live in North America. Alex Cequea goes into this a little more in the short Ted Talk below. He also makes the case that international travel can teach you the true meaning of empathy. Cequea argues that when you travel away from your typical routine and environment, you are more likely to have (and notice) an empathetic experience. This you can then integrate into your daily life.
- Cultivate curiosity about strangers
- Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
- Try another person’s life
- Listen hard—and open up
- Inspire mass action and social change
- Develop an ambitious imagination
Empathy is within each and every one of us. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives by making these habits part of our daily rhythm. It seems we need this type of personal transformation now, more than ever.
Read more articles from Anna Hunt.
About the Author
Anna Hunt is writer, yoga instructor, mother of three, and lover of healthy food. She’s the founder of Awareness Junkie, an online community paving the way for better health and personal transformation. She’s also the co-editor at Waking Times, where she writes about optimal health and wellness. Anna spent 6 years in Costa Rica as a teacher of Hatha and therapeutic yoga. She now teaches at Asheville Yoga Center and is pursuing her Yoga Therapy certification. During her free time, you’ll find her on the mat or in the kitchen, creating new kid-friendly superfood recipes.
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