What Will Happen to Empathy In 2020?

3 scary predictions for the new year


Change has never happened this fast before, but it will never happen this slowly again.

The reason why we humans have survived and thrived through times of profound change is our ability to adapt. As our brains have evolved through time, they’ve added several additional structures. One of these, the anterior insular cortex, is responsible for our ability to feel empathy. It’s essential to us as humans, as this ability allows us to place ourselves in our enemies’ shoes, feel what they’re feeling, and experience the world from their point-of-view. Empathy was vital to our evolution from reptilian to human.

But all this is threatened — and 2020 might indeed encapsulate the essence of it.

1. The root cause of danger to human empathy? Too much transparency.

In the heart of Brexit, Trump, and the disappearance of privacy … you’ll find transparency. We fool ourselves into believing the more transparency the better, but nothing could be further from the truth. Never before have we compared ourselves as much as we’re doing today. My popularity on LinkedIn, my number of followers on Facebook, my salary, my looks, my scores….

Data keeps clicking away, but as transparency explodes, our self-esteem has vanished. Don’t take my word for it. Statistics tell the sad tale: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show suicide among 10-to-17-year-olds increasing by 75% between 2010 to 2017.

2. Our tribes keep retreating to our safe havens.

“Build that wall.” We can laugh about it — but the 53 million Americans who voted for Trump aren’t laughing. More than half of the British population voted to seal their borders and leave the European Union. Online communities are shrinking, not in percentage of the total population, but in terms of members per group. Why? Because smaller niche-communities make us feel human again. In my online community, my people share the same (safe) language and rituals, and we surround ourselves with likeminded yeah-sayers. Amplified by Facebook and YouTube algorithms, everyone in my little group reinforces what I believe.

3. Killing empathy, the very essence of humanity. 

Which brings me back to my opening. We all want to be part of a tribe — to fit in, to have ourselves validated by others — so we align ourselves, we adapt, and we use Botox (studies shows that when mothers use Botox, their babies can no longer read their facial micro-expressions, and mother-child bonding slides by 30%).

We barricade ourselves behind our phones. When waiting for someone, we grab our phones and do something, anything, so we won’t look like total losers. As a result, we meet fewer people.

In our offices, we hide behind glass windows and an endless stream of emails, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel spreadsheets. 

With all this, we don’t even notice our most valuable asset — our empathy — slowly fading away. A University of Michigan study showed a 40% drop in empathy among college students. We’re deluged with snappy headlines (think Twitter) that express no emotions except anger, our profile pages are full of picture-perfect, filtered photos, and we have zero time to reflect because those two minutes we finally have to ourselves are sucked up by our hungry phone screaming for attention.

With all of that, our ability to place ourselves in the shoes of the other person, the very essence of humanity, has begun to vanish. You may not feel it this very moment while reading my words, but haven’t you noticed more anger in your online social media spaces? Haven’t you observed more politics at your workplace, more silos, less flexibility among your co-workers? Haven’t you seen that your fellow employees are less able to feel what co-workers in that other department really feel? Instead, they steamroll right across the opinions of others, as if they can’t quite appreciate the opinions of other little tribes. Empathy, anyone?

For sure, technology is partly to blame. But so is our inability to let go, sometimes to allow ourselves the time needed to jump into the helicopter and experience things from a lofty perspective. In short, to rediscover what empathy is all about. 

I did this, exactly two years ago. I hid my phone away, and I began a completely new life.

On your behalf, I offer this as a friendly suggestion. How about putting aside your phone as your New Year’s resolution?

Don’t be scared. It’s possible to do it.

If you’re intrigued, join me again next week. I’ll share my experience, and I’ll suggest what you can do to unleash the shackles, stop the empathy from bleeding, and feel like a real human again. 

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