So you’re tolerant. But are you empathetic? Study sees inverse correlation.
Today I read one of the most fascinating pieces I’ve come across in my research on this topic so far. One of the super counter-intuitive observations of the study was that increases in tolerance in America over time have correlated negatively with empathy. It provides a plausible explanation for why.
That is fascinating. (a) It is counter-intuitive, no? And anything counter-intuitive is cool. (b) It suggests insights into what may be causing the alienation behavior I’m addressing. (c) It therefore provides guidance toward where this effort should consider focusing future time.
The study’s authors are:
- Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University
- Nathan T. Carter, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia and
- W. Keith Campbell, Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia
The General Social Survey is a large survey conducted regularly since 1972. In a 2015 paper published in the academic journal Social Forces, the authors used that Social Survey data to study how attitudes around tolerance toward controversial beliefs (ranging from homosexuality to white supremacy) have changed over time. They sought to test several hypotheses, which are meaningful but which I won’t digress into here.
Except for their first hypothesis, which is the very good news that tolerance has absolutely improved over time. In my view this supports my contention that our current animus can be reversed.
But for me the really fascinating takeaway was that they found that, and offer a rationale for why, empathy is distinct from tolerance and in fact appears to be inversely correlated.
“However, years with higher tolerance were also years with lower empathy among college students. This is not as contradictory as it may seem: tolerance and low empathy are both linked to high individualism (Brandt 2011; Konrath, O’Brien, and Hsing 2011; Watson, Biderman, and Sawrie 1994), which may be the third variable causing both to increase over time. These results suggest that tolerance and empathy are distinct constructs and may even oppose each other.”
Their basic proposed explanation is that individualism in American society has measurably increased over the last fifty years, and that individualism is:
- Correlated positively with tolerance. People who embrace individualism tend to be tolerant of others doing so as well.
- Correlated negatively with empathy. Empathy, they assert, is a collectivist behavior because — in my own interpretation, empathizing with another increases one’s propensity to be willing to pursue grouping behavior with them.
Now, I recognize, point number two raises all kinds of questions and inconsistencies with pre-existing assumptions. That is part of what makes it fascinating, of course. But if true, it may help explain a number of inconsistencies in anecdotal observations that have been bothering me recently (by way of example, why otherwise tolerant college students would seek to shut down speakers they don’t agree with). It may also provide an avenue — a chink in the armor of the otherwise tolerant — to help persuade them to more deeply evaluate their self-perception as open-minded.
Love this stuff!
If you’re interested in the study but don’t want to read all the academic-ease, The Economist summarizes it for you.