Empathy is vital for cooperation and friendship. Without empathy there would be no humanity, just a world of disparate individuals without the social glue to hold them together.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's perspective – you place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. When we empathise we not only mirror the distress of the other person, but are moved to respond in helping ways. In other words, empathy helps us take care of one another.
When we are distressed by the suffering of others, that distress becomes the seed of our compassion. No one is empathic all of the time, and some of us are more empathic than others. But some individuals show so little interest in the affairs of others that their lack of interest could almost be called neglectful.
Apathy is a state of mind that blocks empathy. It is a defence mechanism that takes away the problem of deciding which way to turn, and renders us pretty useless and unsupportive companions.
Apathy immobilizes us
The word apathy is derived from the Latin apath?a and Greek apátheia, meaning insensibility or indifference to suffering. In the context of everyday life it means we lack interest in, or concern for, other people or even ourselves. Often it is a temporary affliction; say as a first reaction to danger.
Apathy can be an avoidance strategy engaged in in the hope that the problem will go away. In such situations it can leave us walking in and out of situations in a trance-like state, and incapable of helping or supporting those around us when they are in need. In this state apathy becomes not simply a lack of empathy, but a betrayal of it.
We ignore humans who are suffering because at that moment we don't view them as our equals. We view them instead as 'others', objects and ''its''.
This sort of apathy in culture is analogous with the townsfolk in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, 'The Emperor's New Clothes', where two weavers promise the Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to people who are stupid. When the Emperor parades before his subjects they pretend to see the Emperor's elegant new clothes, not wishing to look stupid.
From infancy we are trained to conform to society's standards and rules and conditioned to keep quiet, which often means turning a blind eye or putting up with abuse. In other words, we are moulded into being like the townsfolk who pretended not to see that the Emperor was naked. In this context apathy represents fear, collective denial, and social hypocrisy, and at its worst takes the form of collusion.
Apathy can be learned helplessness; where an individual has learned over time to behave helplessly and fails to respond to help themselves and other people too. Learned helplessness is not unique to humans. Take the extreme case of ants, which communicate information by leaving pheromone tracks, so that an individual ant encountering a trail made by other ants will follow it. On the rare occasion that a group of army ants are separated from the main foraging party after losing the pheromone track, they begin to follow one another, forming a continuously rotating circle and eventually die of exhaustion. This behaviour is called the 'ant circle of death'.
Empathy is contagious
Clearly apathy and collective follow-my-leader behaviour can be detrimental to ourselves and others. It is tempting to look at apathy as merely a problem of the individual but it is not. It is a problem of global proportions and extremely hazardous. Apathy can damage people and political systems.
The problem was demonstrated effectively in experiments of the 1960s when Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, set out to test the human propensity to obey orders. In the experiment, a participant in the role of ''teacher'' was asked to administer an electric shock to the ''learner'' whenever they answered a question incorrectly. The experiment was stopped after the subject supposedly had been given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession (in actual fact, the learners did not receive a shock and were faking their physical response). In the experiments, 65 per cent of the ''teachers'' administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock, though many were uncomfortable doing so.
Milgram's experiments have been repeated many times over and yielded consistent results: a person of authority can strongly influence other people's behaviour, with appalling consequences. If, on the other hand, we focus on others, our world expands.
Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection or compassionate action. Empathy comes through becoming more self-aware, and having a clearer perception of our own personality – our thoughts, beliefs, motivations and emotions. Self-awareness allows you to understand yourself, and by doing so, understand other people and your responses to them.
Both empathy and apathy are contagious in that they spread from one person to another. Consequently one person who acts with empathy or apathy potentially has the power to infect or influence everyone around them. Breaking from the apathy around you and responding empathically is a step toward building a culture of cooperation. We each can make a difference, for individually as well as collectively we make up the culture we live in.
Click here to buy The Empathy Trap: Understanding Antisocial Personalities, by Dr. Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor