Empathy: Is it Dying?

Empathy has long been considered a cornerstone of human behavior.  Several recent studies, however, have demonstrated that levels of empathy in our society have been declining over the past 20 to 30 years.  A recent study by the University of Michigan found that self-reported empathy had declined ever since 1980, with an especially steep drop after 2005.  Empathy is defined as:



"…the projection of one's own personality into the personality of another in order to understand the other person better; intellectual identification of one's self with another."


There have been many theories to explain the rapid decline in empathy, in which, some say it is the cell phone or simply the pace of modern life.  The University of Michigan study indicated that the increase in social isolation has also coincided with the drop in empathy.  Another more persuasive explanation points to the increased popularity of identity politics and our identification with only our own discrete demographic groups.  Under this study, empathy is limited to individuals within the same identity group.  Once an individual identifies more with a group than with society as a whole, it becomes all too easy to dismiss outsiders as undeserving of empathy. 


The trait of empathy is important for society as a whole, but as Portland personal injury lawyers, it is also crucial to enable us to successfully represent our clients.


Basically, empathy is the trait that allows one person to identify with another person's situation: to "feel their pain," to put themselves "into the shoes" of the other person.  At our firm, we rely on empathy in several key contexts to help our clients in Albany, Corvallis, and Portland.  Most injury claims settle without a formal trial.  In settlement negotiations, we strive to tell our client's story persuasively, to put the insurance evaluator into our client's shoes.  Similarly, in a formal hearing or trial, we call upon the same methods to persuade a jury or a panel of arbitrators to see our client's side of the story.


Although I don't believe that empathy is truly dead, I am quite concerned about the general trend of weakened concern for strangers.  All too often, I have heard people make extremely dismissive comments regarding another individual's suffering.  Of course, if it was their own suffering, they would see the situation very differently.  However, I also frequently see cases where one person does clearly see the other person's situation; does understand what the other person is going through. In any event, it's clear that convincing a stranger to see things from our client's point of view is becoming increasingly challenging. 

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