Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.
It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health.
Researchers from three U.S. universities conducted a comprehensive survey and ranking of 63 countries to determine their level of empathy. The study’s surprising results were published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.
You can find a large version of the above map here.
Here are the ten most empathetic countries in the world, as reported in ScienceAlert:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
- United States
- Costa Rica
Meanwhile, the countries with the lowest “Total Empathy Score” were Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria; indeed, seven out of the bottom ten countries were Eastern European,.
By contrast, the top ten were more culturally and geographically dispersed — East and West, developed and developing, majority Christian, secular, and Muslim, etc.
The results are based on data collected from online surveys of over 100,000 individuals spanning the subject nations. The methodology was as follows:
The researchers defined empathy as the tendency to be psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives. To measure this in the participants, they asked them to complete a comprehensive list of questions drawn from several standardised tests.
These tests assessed each person’s empathy, basic personality traits, prosociality, and individualism/collectivism – meaning if they prefer loosely knit social networks and individuality, or tightly knit social networks and interdependence with others.
They also measured each individual’s self-esteem and feelings of wellbeing.
The volunteers were asked to rank a series of statements ranging from, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” to “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.”
They were asked how happy they felt with their lives, and how often they donated money to an organisation, volunteered time to an organisation, or helped a stranger. Personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness were also assessed.
Based on the results, it appears that countries that are more collectivist and community oriented — where people reported a higher preferences for “tightly knit social groups” and interdependence on one another — score higher in empathy. In turn, those who claimed to have more empathy with others also reported higher levels of life satisfaction, self esteem, affability, considerateness, and other values and beliefs that are socially and psychologically beneficial.
Indeed, nearly all the countries scoring high on empathy are notable for being collectivist in some sense or another, be it through the generous welfare state and social support of Denmark, the Confucian values of Korea and Taiwan, or the deeply rooted Islamic emphasis on the ummah, or community. One way or another, promoting a community-centered outlook creates the sort of emotional and psychological bonds that underpins empathy — although there may be something of a causal dilemma here, insofar as empathy is what brings individuals closer as a community in the first place.
I personally find the U.S.’s presence among the top ten interesting, given the country’s famously high level of individualism. Since the researchers were not focused on any one society, the study does not offer an explanation, though I imagine it might be rooted, idealistically, on the country’s founding values of civic duty and the importance of personal responsibility towards one’s fellow citizen. It may go to show that being individualistic is not mutually exclusive with empathy and care for others, although the U.S. seems an anomaly in this regard.
I imagine that the poor showing for Eastern European countries in terms of empathy might have something to do with the region’s bloody and tumultuous history, which only recently culminated in free and open societies; most individuals in these societies experienced and were shaped by authoritarian regimes that often maintained a network of informants. The lack of civic participation, coupled with repression and constant surveillance, likely had a chilling effect on community orientation. Perhaps several economic and political instability, as in the case of Venezuela, has dampened trust and goodwill further. I can only speculate, though we mustn’t make too many assumptions or rely too much on stereotypes.
In any case, there are, as always, important caveats to keep in mind, especially in a study as unique as this one.
There’s the fact that the surveys were all conducted in English, and that the results relied on self-reporting by the volunteers. The study also did not distinguish between feelings of empathy toward people in the participants’ own country versus those in other countries.
The researchers also emphasised that this is just “a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment”, and say they expect the values for each country to shift in the coming years.
Indeed, this would explain why otherwise more insular and nativist cultures were so well represented amongst the most empathetic. It is easier to empathize with someone of a similar appearance, nationality, ethnic group, etc. than with someone of a completely different, let alone foreign, background. In fact, this is one of the dark sides of empathy, which might inadvertently orient someone more towards their ingroup than beyond.
Nevertheless, the researchers rightly conclude that their results offer a “crucial insight into how empathy is expressed in different cultures”, and will give future researchers the opportunity to study empathy through a much more diverse sample size. (The study’s authors point out how up until now, most research on empathy is conducted on mostly white young college students from North America.)
Given that we find ourselves in the midst of a budding global civilization, albeit one still deeply mired in too much injustice, conflict, and apathy, it is more critical than ever that we explore the benefits, characteristics, and even possible limitations of empathy.
What are your thoughts?