There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of empathy. Back before I had the pleasure of sitting in classes led by one of the leading researchers on the topic, Dr. Sara Konrath, I wrote about the need for compassion that had a tangible outcome. Empathy may not have a tangible outcome, but taking action to help someone in need requires empathy. The term is often interchanged with altruism. Some scholars are fine with that while others argue there are subtle differences. In my use of the terms, I tend to use empathy when I’m talking about a psychological condition and altruism when it’s about emotion. I’m sure this use and my position in this ongoing debate will swing back and forth while I continue to review literature on the topic in my PhD work.
Empathy is a hot topic at the moment because narcissism is a hot topic. And narcissism is being discussed so much because empathy is falling. There is a lot of evidence supporting this though most people don’t need scientific evidence to prove a phenomenon that they see every day. Researchers are looking into so many causes for this drop, and I will share open source articles and media coverage on empathy, altruism and anti-social behavior on this blog when I run into it. My current research is on how information overload might be playing into it as well.
If you’ve ever experienced information overload (which I did last semester doing a literature review of research on information overload) you know that it is a serious and debilitating condition. We’ve been warned about it since the early 1940’s in the field of organization theory by scholars like Herbert Simon. He developed a theory called “Bounded Rationality Theory” which claims that people find ways to disqualify most of the information they encounter to be able to manage the load and get their work done. For the organizational theorists, this was a concern since one of the main elements to success in business is the collection and leveraging of knowledge.
Most of what I found during this research, however, was scholarship responding to a book written in 1970 by a man named Alvin Toffler called Future Shock. There was even a movie based on it that was released in 1972 and voiced by Orson Wells. It reads like fantastic Science Fiction novel but was intended as a warning, and it’s absolutely come true. Although it was a best seller at the time, the frighteningly spot-on warnings turned out to be prophecy. The outcome is a kind of disconnection that we’ve cultivated in order to deal with all the data. I’m wondering if this coping mechanism has also disconnected us from each other.
The book is worth a read. Not only does it illuminate the cause of recognizable behavior all around us, now, but it makes you think about the value of wisdom – particularly one like this treasure that is so timely yet was offered nearly fifty years ago. But then, tracking down all the wisdom from the ages through the thousands of search results, licensed database inquiries, mountains of library stacks, all while rifling through our emails and engaging with all our social media tools and doing our day jobs would just put us into overload.