Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered

By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017 

By many accounts, 2017 was a difficult year worldwide. Everywhere you looked there were lines drawn between groups in Us vs. Them scenarios — from the Brexit fallout, which has been linked to a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia to heated immigration debates in the United States. Sadly, too often, one group cannot or will not put themselves in the shoes of the other. Such lack of empathy has been called out by world leaders, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In her New Year’s address Merkel declared, “My wishes for the New Year are for us to become aware again of that which holds us together at heart; that we focus again on what we have in common; and for us to strive to have more consideration for others.”

In Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered, Maria Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry (MD, PhD) argue that empathy is key to individual growth, especially in areas such as health and creativity. Written in 2010, Born for Love was praised for using sharp research and detailed case studies to illuminate the individual need for empathy. Yet, they argue, empathy is bigger than individual emotions or relationships; it is also key to the proper functioning of societies and the relations between societies.

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Empathy is often considered a “soft skill” that is pushed aside to make way for rationality. Yet, Szalavitz and Perry argue that being empathetic is our most rationale capability. We have become the most successful species primarily because we can be empathetic and develop and maintain nurturing relationships that are mutually beneficial. As the authors put it, the human species survives because of our capacity to love. And our capacity to love is based on our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s position and care about their circumstances — that is to empathize with them. 

While it is intrinsic to human nature to rely on empathy for survival, it is also a trait that must be nurtured to properly develop. Szalavitz and Perry explain that humans have a “fundamental but developmentally vulnerable capacity for empathy.” In Born for Love, several case studies are presented to highlight the need for empathetic role models. Eugenia, a Russian orphan who spent her first year in an orphanage, and Jeremy, who was born with a facial defect, fall on two ends of the spectrum of empathetic development.

Eugenia had very little stimulation as a young child and suffered from a lack of contact with empathetic adults. As a result of this neglect, Eugenia found it difficult to develop empathy even after being adopted into a loving family. On the other hand, Jeremy suffered from too much attention. His mother, Angela, tended to Jeremy’s every need and empathized so deeply with her child because she feared the world’s reaction to his visible defect. In response, Jeremy did not develop proper coping mechanisms, couldn’t be separated from his mother, and would often lash out. These two case studies highlight the ways in which stunted development of empathy can have negative consequences for the individual and those around them.   

While empathy is crucial for individual growth, it is also crucial for the social well-being, economic strength, and health of a society. As Szalavitz and Perry explain, “Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work — like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems — crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name a few.” Furthermore, empathy and social connection lower stress hormones and have been proven to improve survival rates of heart disease. For a democratic society to function properly its citizens must be able to empathize with the plight of others, and vote to alleviate those plights.

Despite the evidence that empathy is truly necessary for individual and societal success, there has been a decline in empathy in the past 50 years. Szalavitz and Perry believe that the rapid advancement of technology, increased migration of populations, and general trends towards less community involvement have all led to a reduction in human interactions. The authors found that only 32% of Americans believe that most people can be trusted, meaning that the majority of Americans do not find their fellow citizens to be “potential friends or reliable business partners.” Without these genuine and trusting interactions, it is hard for empathy to flourish.

Szalavitz and Perry conclude by stating, “Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course, not. But few of them can be solved without it.” The authors offer several suggestions for remedying the current lack of empathy, emphasizing the need for both individual and community actions. They state that individuals could work on breaking habits, such as too much screen time, and instead seek more face-to-face interactions. At the community and even national level, the authors call for increased neighbourhood participation and volunteering, as well as actions such as an increase in paid family-leave and high quality childcare.

Born for Love provides a deep understanding of empathy and its individual and societal importance, highlighting that together we can shift how we relate to one another. Click here for more information and to purchase a copy of the book.