Thursday, January 20, 2011

Empathy and Time Pressure

Scientific American reported yesterday on a decline in empathy, comparing college students’ answers on an empathy questionnaire over the past 30 years. There are unavoidable problems with this kind of research — the wording of the questions has not changed in 30 years, so the changing cultural context will inevitably make some of the hypothetical situations less relevant, even quaint. (An example: “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” In the 1970s, most people would have agreed with that strategy. By the 1980s, people had learned how to abuse that pattern by creating bogus stories designed to take advantage of people’s attention, so a strict “listening” strategy was no longer practical.) But assuming for the sake of argument that there has been a decline in empathy, there is a lively discussion about the possible cause.

The most likely explanation, if there has been a decline in empathy, is the increase in time pressure. If people are pressed with more commitments of their own, they are less able to stop to ponder the plight of others. If time pressure is the problem, then adding mandatory courses in empathy (or requiring people to spend endless hours reading fiction) is not the solution.

Of course, time pressure is related to population density. Sociologists have long noted that population pressure leads to more highly competitive behavior and thinking, which could encompass both increased time pressure and, at least, a lower level of sympathy for the losers.