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Empathy v. Narcissism – Will the Coronavirus help bring Empathy Back for Good?

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I wrote an article several months ago about how empathy has dropped significantly based on a study done by the University of Michigan.  That article stated that “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.” 

When we empathize with someone, are we taking on that person’s exact emotions, or are we just having sympathy for their emotional state?  Has the coronavirus helped us realize how important empathy is for our society?  We are seeing all kinds of empathy and good deeds being displayed; however, will it continue? 

Perspective-taking (or thinking) is what we have seen a lot more of during this coronavirus pandemic, and it hasn’t been seen at this level in many years (probably the most recent example was at the time of 911).  Perspective-thinking is when we see things from another person’s perspective and then show an empathic concern. 

This is the most central component of empathy, and the loss of such a trait has shown a sharp decline in the last decade as the University of Michigan’s study reported. When the researchers speculated on why this trend was occurring, they pointed to a parallel rise in narcissism. Narcissism or the excessive or exotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance is the polar opposite of empathy.

It’s very difficult to maintain an excessive interest in yourself (or your internal domain) when your thoughts are from the perspective of members in a herd, such as in the coronavirus situation. As millions of people (the herd) are being affected, the herd is unifying to fight the pandemic. 

We are seeing all kinds of great incidents of people caring for others, showing respect, helping with fundraisers, and doing everything they can to help people survive, live, and be protected.  And yet others who simply don’t give a damn. Those are the self and ego-centered people, or the so-called “invincibles.”

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Most interesting to me were the researchers’ observations of media and technology.  Personal technology trends through interactions on social media, the use of smartphones, and television sensationalism have damaged our empathy towards others and reduced our attention span.  

Such negative interactions have influenced many to prioritize self-expression over the welfare of others.  We have seen this build up over the years with the lack of respect that people have for others, especially the younger generation.  A perfect example is some people’s lack of social distancing during the coronavirus.  Yet, at the same time, you see an outpouring of people helping others and showing appreciation for our healthcare providers, first responders, and those working in essential businesses (such as grocery stores and delivery services).

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Narcissism and empathy are two traits that cannot co-exist. Over the years, the decline in empathy has coincided with a sharp rise in narcissism and self-oriented goals. In other words, before the significant increase in mobile devices, reality TV, and social media, perspective thinking about others was more prevalent. I don’t mean to imply that the world was perfect before 2000 either. 

There has always been bad behavior, and there have always been selfish people. But good deeds and a strong work ethic were much more highly valued before this quick change in media and technology.  Saying condescending things about people, laziness, bad language, and greed were more likely to be frowned upon before. In contrast, now, these behaviors are more likely to be tolerated, even among our leaders. 

Many individuals get away with bad behaviors because they have no fear of repercussions should they be caught in the act, or think what they are doing is funny. Surprisingly, instead of these behaviors being considered horrific, they are admired!  They just don’t seem to care or give a damn.

Society has transitioned into a me-centered culture. I’m not just basing this off my intuition; there are scientific studies to back it up.  In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that 64 percent of 18-years-olds surveyed said that making money was the most important goal of all!  These studies highlight two trends—a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism—which affect us all. We have become a greedy culture. 

Over the past 20 years, we have progressively cared less for others than we used to, especially for people we don’t know. There has been no foundation for people to understand how and why it is so important to GIVE A DAMN about everyone. 

There is not nearly enough attention or focus on it in our schools or at home. The education system and the degradation of family values are primary contributors here.  Technology, the media, and pop culture have promoted and reinforced selfishness, and it’s being accepted.  Society and government have been negatively affected by particular interest groups and a flawed legal system. 

These three elements are all intertwined with others and have contributed to the degradation of our society.  They feed off each other becoming cancerous to Americans and our youth.  

If there is hope for Americans to move forward together as a country, the coronavirus gives us this opportunity.  We need to nip narcissism in the bud.   It can and has to be our learned gateway to an empathic philosophy that teaches a GIVE A DAMN attitude, and then understanding why it is so important. 

It can bring Americans together as a “one people,” regardless of our different viewpoints.  It can open us up to see the other side’s perspective and then work together with an open mind that focuses on the common good.  When this is accomplished, everyone wins.   

This is what I see happening with the coronavirus.  We have come together with one mission in mind to find a cure and save people.  We are working collaboratively for the greater common good across all venues. Although this type of behavior always happens during some unfriendly circumstances (hurricanes, floods, pandemics, 911, etc.), unfortunately, it never lasts.  

The coronavirus is our chance to make a tangible ongoing difference in America in how we think towards others, and it now gives us the best opportunity to make it last.  Can we make this happen?  It’s up to us to say yes, and not look back. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to truly “make America great again.” 

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