This year, I was flooded by appreciation from those around me. My AP US History class threw a little surprise party (complete with "Brookie's Cookie Cake" and presidential finger puppets). My sister and her husband surprised me with a visit. And my wife surprised me by telling stories at my weekly improv show, Mister Diplomat, followed by an after party at the theater. As much as I try to remind myself how important social praise is, I was still taken back at how much these surprises meant to me. Even after my history class, I noticed a change in my attitude. I was more appreciative of the good interactions and more able to deal with the bad interactions.
This got me thinking what inspires people to do such nice things. Part of it is obligation, but to go above and beyond requires something more. That extra something is empathy. So I decided to find a way to measure my own empathy and came across this test. It gives 60 statements and asks how strongly you agree or disagree with it. Here's the scale:
0 -32 = low (people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20)I scored a 19. Well below average and within the "disorder" category. I was especially alarmed when I read this article trying to redefine evil as a lack of empathy. The article discusses several facets I'd never considered. Like how more testosterone (even in the womb), usually results in less empathy. This may help explain why women are commonly regarded as more caring. However, a person's environment also matters. Children who have insecure attachment to their caretakers (abusive households, foster children, etc) often has less empathy. For me this shows how empathy multiplies empathy, especially for young people. Which shows me my role, as a teacher, in the cycle of empathy. It's even got me thinking of ways to directly focus on growing in our sensitivity to others (through public schools, through improv, through personal relationships).
33-52 = average (most women score about 47 and most men score about 42)
53-63 is above average
64-80 is very high
The problem of empathy is bigger than just face to face interactions. There has been a fairly agreed upon assumption that empathy levels have decreased in America. I'm skeptical, but some blame this on conservatives. This could explain why political conservatives are seen as less willing to pay for the poor or why they focus more on security (from other less empathetic people). Either way I think this character trait is important for our political leaders. Perhaps an empathy test could be added to economist Alex Tabarrok's So You Think You Can Be President? game show idea.
So I am empathy deficient and it's clearly important. What I am to do? First, I need to learn from my ultra-sensitive wife, who scored a 56 on the empathy test. Part of marriage is carrying around another perspective of life. I can already see how her thoughts have improved mine. I also need to remember that even though it's difficult to change your own empathy, it's not impossible. Even knowing that I err on the side of less empathetic can help me override my default.
And finally, I think we should all have the goal of expanding our empathy circle. There's no reason not to include people in other cities, states, or countries. It certainly means putting more burden on you, but giving as much as we can to others may be what separates humans from animals. A main source of conflict is a lack on empathy. If we could implant a chip in our brain that made us feel others' pain as much as we feel ours, the world would be a much nicer place to live (though perhaps not a happier place). Until then, read the personal stories of others who lack empathy, have pity on us, and love us. You can start by commenting on this post.