Archive for March 18th, 2011


“I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

 – Gustav M. Gilbert, prison psychologist at Spandau prison,  where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945


I know that the quote above sounds pretty dark for a character trait that most people would recognize as being positive but it has haunted me for some time.  Empathy is something I take for granted as being a large part of everyone’s psyche and to think that there are are large segments of the population without the ability or the willingness to put themselves in others’ shoes or to imagine how the world looks through others’ eyes was disturbing to my simplistic worldview. 

 Disturbing , yes.  Surprising, no.  There was always ample evidence of a lack of empathy in the world and we have often exhibited a large capacity for cruelty and selfishness.   Just glimpse through history or read the newspapers on any given day.  There are scores of examples.

So I am not surprised so much as I am disheartened, especially when I came across a report that was released last year concerning a study from the University of Michigan that  surveyed over 14,000 college students over a thirty year timespan, beginning in 1979.  They were examining the degrees of empathy and found that over this timeframe that empathy had decreased severely among students, with the most dramatic drop taking place in the last ten years.  Today’s college student is likely to be 40% less empathetic than  students from 20 or 30 years ago.  They are less likely to consider how they would feel in someone else’s situation, less likely to have concerns for others’ problems  and less likely to feel pity for those being treated unfairly.

I know that this is only a study and may have large flaws in it so I am taking this with a grain of salt.  But to contemplate those numbers and what it may mean for us as a society is a scary thing.  Perhaps we need some sort of emapthy training, something that shows the young how to walk in the shoes of others, that explains how the suffering of one is the suffering of all.  I don’t know.  I just know that if these numbers are vaguely representative of the true nature of our youth then we are in for some tough days ahead.

Sorry for being so downbeat especially at a time when the world needs positive reinforcement.  Maybe I’m using this as scare tactic.  Whatever the case, we need to close the empathy deficit.  You can take the U. of Mich’s Empathy Test and see how you stack up against the numbers.  There are also several good articles  online that go further on the results of this study.

For those of you with a bit of empathy here are the current totals on the ongoing auction:

#1 Full Silence-- Current High Bid $650

#2- Seems Like a New Sun - Current High Bid $800

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