Stephen Hawking was asked what the greatest human shortcoming was. He replied,
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression, it may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.”
Hawking went on to say that the best cure for aggression was increased empathy, which “brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”
Yes, the future of our empathy is uncertain. The prevalence of digital devices makes us more isolated. We can go all day without making any physical contact with another person, yet it is physical touch that distinguishes us from animals.
A creature was spotted in France 200 years ago. It was captured, and they determined that it was an 11 year old boy who had run wild in the forests for most of his life. He was indistinguishable as human.12 This leads me to ask,
“At what point do we begin to lose our humanity?”
You may be thinking, “Millennials care more for their fellow humans than any other generation.”
While Millennials may be answering surveys expressing their own opinions on their level of empathy (Don’t we all believe ourselves to be nicer than we are?) there have been conflicting studies.
A study on Empathy conducted with 72 samples of American College Students discovered a
“48 percent drop in empathetic concern for others over the past few decades.”1
Wait a second. We always come together in a crisis, don’t we? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the empathic response was overwhelming. It could be witnessed throughout our country and across the globe. People of all races and political views came together for a greater good.
In 2017, we witnessed two back-to-back Hurricanes: Harvey and Irma. We saw some of the best in people as neighbors banded side-by-side. Many even risked their own lives to rescue others.
Donations that were as little as a few dollars came via text message showing that everyone can contribute something.
These events in history and ones like them trigger strong empathic responses to provoke even the least generous among us to reach into our pockets.
But what about the hand gestures we give to each other in traffic? Or the names that we shout? On a day-to-day basis, we can be quite mean.
A survey of 104,000 people from 63 countries ranks the United States 7th
in the world for empathy. 2
Thought it would be a little higher, right?
According to William Chopik, the lead author of the study, the psychological states of Americans have changed– leading to a larger focus on the individual and less on others.
Another study completed in 2011 discovered that American College Students became less empathetic over a 20-year span.
“Potential factors included the explosion of social media; increases in violence and bullying; changing parenting and family practices; and increasing expectations of success.” 2
In other words, we don’t communicate in a meaningful manner anymore. Eating together at the dinner table has become a rarity. We isolate ourselves and focus more on ‘me’ than ‘we’. We offer each other very limited eye-contact; our eyes in stead are affixed to digital devices which contributing to the shortest attention spans in history.