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:

  1. Correlated positively with tolerance.  People who embrace individualism tend to be tolerant of others doing so as well.
  2. 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.



    Posted at Reply

    Is it possible that (at least some of) those objecting to incendiary speakers are empathic rather than individualistic and “tolerant”? The objection being to the hateful condemnation of specific groups of people rather than an objection to ideas?

    Politically I would like to see us evolve to a place where we act, and recognize that others with differing beliefs are acting, for the best interests of all. Incendiary is much more compelling, it promotes loud engagement and lively social media response, as well as profound disengagement and apathy.


      Posted at Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts. Agreed, definitely possible.

      Of course, there is a difference between (a) objecting to someone’s spoken thoughts and (b) denying them the ability to publicly speak those thoughts. In the example of Milo Y., who incidentally I do find objectionable primarily due to his own apparent intolerance, he happens to have a lot of followers. When one denies him the right to speak in a public location, one might consider what message that sends to all the people who support him. Are they likely to interpret that one is empathetic to whatever may be driving their opinions? As for themselves, are they more or less likely to open their own minds at that point? Are they likely to feel threatened by one’s willingness to employ violence to deny them the ability to speak in public? Are they likely to then justify more escalated, aggressive behavior of their own? Were the students at Berkeley contemplating all these downstream potential ramifications? I’m not a fan of denying free exchange of thought.

      And Milo was the extreme. Coulter is not as objectionable as is he (though again, not personally a huge fan), and she too was shut down due to threats of violence. One does not have to proceed even a few steps down that path to see where it leads. Those holding power get to decide who speaks, right?

      All of that said, the Berkeley incident is a bit of a red herring. I cited that just as one example of something that this study might help me better understand (there are many examples). Maybe it doesn’t apply to the Berkeley situation, I haven’t had a chance to think it all through yet. The study’s premise, though, I found very interesting.

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Thoughts from across the aisle...

“I mean, friends sit around their own kitchen table, and husbands and wives don’t agree with each other on every issue, but they don’t call each other names and throw things at each other. I think we need to do more of that, because the more you get to know somebody, at least while you can respect their differences, you’re not going to demonize them.”

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