Brain Food: The Empathic Decline

It’s more than just “I don’t care”
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Posted May 3, 2016

I have a belief that, despite what the six o’clock news tries to convince us, we are not, at our core, vicious or blood-thirsty, prone to aggressive behavior and defenders of some territorial imperative. That said, it’s hard to watch the recent events of savagery through suicide bombings and the other unspeakable events unfolding in civil wars and not wonder if our consumption of the media machine’s daily offering of how many died and who claimed responsibility is simply ingrained blood lust.

It would be hard, that is if I wasn’t also reminded that, along the millions of years of evolutionary path, we would not have arrived at this point in our collective history, if it were not for cooperation and empathic extension. Not discounting the tragic things we do to each other, we are bound together in our shared propensity to be in relationships and to find meaning in our lives by sharing them with others.

In our current political discourse, some politicians fan the flames of fear, promoting isolationist ideologies and arguing that we look out for ourselves because others, who are unlike us, are dangerous. I still believe that this dead-end thinking is counter to our deeply rooted need for community. We are better together than apart and even better when we share our differences. Our brains love learning through novelty and the exchange of ideas that challenge our neuro status quo.

Then again, I come across research that suggests that my beliefs of the brain as the social organ, primed for empathy and connection, are potentially being rendered invalid as a new cohort of consumers comes of shopping age as they are graduating college.

A study published by University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath was a cross-temporal meta-analysis look at empathy over the past 30 years (“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Student Over Time: A Meta-Analysis”). Konrath looked at how this quality in people helps them relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation.

If Konrath could determine that there was a change in people’s ability, or willingness, to be empathic over time, she might also be able to draw correlations between environmental factors such as socio-economic conditions, the growing prevalence of digital technologies in people’s lives, and how these are related to people’s ability to relate to each other.

In this study, the researchers examined scores on the “Interpersonal Reactivity Index,” which measures a multi-dimensional theory of empathy. The IRI takes into account a number of factors such as ‘Empathic Concern’ and ‘Perspective Taking.’

One might expect that increasing narcissism, individualism and materialism during the past decade would naturally lead to a decrease in empathy. After all, it is hard to be overwhelmingly concerned with your self-interests and equally empathic for others – at the same time.

Konrath’s research suggests that growing self-interest among graduating college students was further reflected by extraordinary growth in the popularity of social networking sites.  While it is true that social networks can, of course, include the attributes of reciprocity (sharing emotional concern and positive communal emotions such as sympathy and affection), Konrath found that young people “…more frequently remove themselves from deep interpersonal social situations and become immersed in isolated online environments.”

Not great news.

The study’s findings suggest that empathy has declined over the years. From 1979 to 2009, empathic concern dropped 48 percent, and perspective taking dropped 34 percent. Taken together as a representation of empathy, the results show that American college graduates have 40-percent less empathy than their predecessors and the precipitous decline began around 2002.

Statistics like these – while not exactly causal – left Konrath to speculate that “one likely contributor to declining empathy is the rising prominence of personal technology and media use in everyday life.” Frequent digital technology users, in a very literal way, are re-wiring their brains by interacting less in embodied, face-to-face ways and more through their digital connections to their social networks.

Repeating behaviors, thoughts and feelings reinforces neural pathways in the brain at the expense – and eventual pruning away – of those that are used less. If you spend all day, every day, looking at your phone, communicating in texts and pulling complex thoughts together in less than 140 characters, you might just be doing away with neural pathways that have allowed us to communicate in ways that have been the foundation of our socio-cultural fabric for millennia.

Connecting to an emerging customer and providing relevant experiences to them cannot be accomplished the same way as in the past. It won’t just be a matter of digital natives not being interested in what you have to sell them. On a brain level, they may not have the mental machinery to understand what you are saying. We will be far beyond a generation gap, and instead, well into what Dr. Gary Small calls a “brain gap.”

Studies like those I’ve cited point to a growing change in how we are communicating. The effect on shopping is going to be nothing less than a complete overhaul of how retailers and brands reach and connect with customers in a relevant way.

The Internet is now simply considered part of the retail landscape. To create better shopping places, we need to appreciate the complexity of brain change in response to the pervasive digital environment. Emerging technologies will force us to ask different questions about what drives customer behavior, how the neurophysiology of emerging customers is changing and to better understand what will continue to engage the emotional, empathic brain which has been part of human evolutionary history.

Despite the research and what I experience in customer service interactions, I still don’t believe that we will lose the capacity to extend ourselves in empathic relationships. It’s been too deeply hardwired into our DNA. However, retailers will have to discover new ways to engage a customer who, on a neurological level, may not have the mental machinery to fully engage in empathic extension as in years past.

David Kepron is Vice President - Global Design Strategies with Marriott International. His focus is on the creation of compelling customer experiences within a unique group of Marriott brands called the “Lifestyle Collection,” including Autograph, Renaissance and Moxy hotels. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. David is also author of Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com.