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The Toxic Limits of Empathy

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

By May Zheng

For the past five months, American society has been restrained from its normal level of social interaction, whether that be in the workplace, at school, or between families and friends who don’t live together. Simultaneously, the country, and the world, has been through momentous upheaval, with COVID-19 exposing government incompetence or authoritarianism, civilians gathering in the streets to protest or riot against perceived injustices, supply chains and small businesses all but collapsing, human rights crises and chemical explosions demanding action.

Now more than ever, without routinely engaging activities that necessitate focus away from our phones and computers, we are drowned in constant notifications of people being shot in the street, dying in hospitals, being discriminated against, facing homelessness and bankruptcy. As social creatures who view empathy as a virtue, humans (especially the youth with our volatile temperaments) feel obligated to constantly feel in response to everything- in the past few months, it’s more often than not outrage, sadness, disgust, despair. This impulse and these emotions are amplified by social media, a platform too accessible to have excuses to not participate in through sharing graphics, photographs, pseudo-manifestos, regarding how to, essentially, showcase caring the most.

This creates a saddening paradox- we’re expected to feel everything, since not feeling supposedly is a form of complacency or perpetuating injustice. Yet, we can’t do anything tangibly significant to mitigate inevitably media-hyperbolized deaths and suffering through racism, COVID19, economic ruin. So we are left to simply stew in the emotions of others and ourselves through a screen for days, weeks, now months on end, as the world continues on its apparent highway to hell.

The prolonged digital nature of news consumption and activism leads to desensitization to the issues we claim to care the most about, excarberating the exchange of negativity in the context of our political and cultural discourse.

Substantial research indicates that when people are exposed repeatedly to the same stimulus, their response decreases over time on a neurological basis, specifically in the magnitude of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activation (HPA)[1] , or our psychological and physical response to stress[1]. This process is named habituation. Habituation speeds up in proportion to the frequency of exposure, and causes us to generalize stress-inducing stimuli along with our diluted responses. As of 2019, Americans check their phones an average of 63 times a day,[2] with teens, the age demographic most likely participate in online activism, averaging over seven hours on their phones,[3] so frequency of exposure is definitely over-fulfilled. As for generalization of stimuli, this can clearly be seen in the rise of tribalism and polarization skyrocketing steadily in the wake of social media, and even more so in the past few months of national unrest.[4] Disagreeing with someone in political matters almost always ends a conversation, straining or severing relationships. Language fractalizes into dichotomies between good and evil devoid of nuance (COVID19 justifies lengthy lockdowns and economic shutdown, or is unjustifiably exaggerated as a health threat); all cops are bastards, or they’re all pure-hearted heroes; demonstrations of all kinds are justified, or all protests are to be condemned for allowing violence; systemic racism is a fundamental factor in outcome or a victimhood myth, etc. Clearly, America today enables habituation to occur on a huge scale.

Multiple studies support habituation as a response to exposure to media. A study where participants watched nine violent movie scenes and nine comedy scenes found that repeated exposure to violence reduces its psychological impact in the short term, and at a higher rate than desensitization to comedy.[5] Another study, focusing specifically on violence in the news and entertainment, using surveys from three regions of the US, found that heavy local news consumption correlates with a “blunted response to news stories regarding real-life violent events when individuals have low trait empathy.”[6] Research from the University of Michigan followed college students over 30 years and found a 40% decrease in empathetic capabilities during this span, with the sharpest decrease after 2000, when digital technology began to enter the mainstream American lifestyle. The researchers found that social media has caused us to understand one another less (we’re less able to communicate effectively through nonverbal cues, which comprises the majority of a message, and can’t understand other perspectives as well due to less exposure to them via echo chambers). The only exception to overall emotional dilution was anger, which increased in virality and magnitude through reactionism, tribalism, and the popularity of shame.[7] In addition, research indicates that negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones because they’re rooted in survival instincts to avoid potential threats by “catching” someone else’s fear.[8]

Our current state - ceaseless exposure to the news and our peers, dozens of contentious issues to divide us, physical isolation demanding compensation via increased digital interaction - is the perfect recipe for the hyperactive activist culture we see today, where caring for every single victim of supposed police brutality, COVID19, economic breakdown, is mandatory, or else silence is “violence” or a “privilege.” Yet this expectation is psychologically impossible and alarmingly damaging to society’s functionality.

The idea of compassion fatigue was first coined by Charles Figley, a professor of psychology and family therapy, who described it as “we have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer...Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”[9] This definition and concept was initially applied to caretakers and therapists in regards to becoming desensitized to trauma and tragedy through decades of hearing similarly weighty stories from their patients.[10]

Compassion fatigue has been studied extensively in professional health and human services, and repeatedly result in reduced performance, absenteeism, and intentions to leave their jobs.[11] In charities and nonprofits, volunteer turnover is extremely high because of the nature of the job- low pay for self sacrifice, in the name of empathy. Empathy has been empirically proven to be finite: the more you allocate to Thing X, the less you have for Thing Y, and feeling obligated to designate equally for a myriad of things results in feelings of emotional drainage and burden. Empathy’s limits also result in preferential empathy to those we perceive as similar to us in belief and goals, enabling the underpinnings of an aggressive us-them mentality. Most importantly, Harvard Business Review cites studies that prove that empathy easily results in eroded morals, where “people are more inclined to cheat when it serves another person,” and “it only gets worse when they empathize with another’s plight or feel the pain of someone who is treated unfairly: In those cases, they’re even more likely to lie, cheat, or steal to benefit that person.”11

Empathy, when pushed to its limits, is finite, preferential, and self-rationalizing, all of which are negative. We can see all three in America today. Quarantine initially resulted in increased levels of anxiety and restlessness, before surrendering to depression and emotional exhaustion, with an underlying sense of having no control. More recently, two or three weeks after the George Floyd protests, graphics and articles began to circulate at higher rates regarding how to combat activism burnout, spelling out symptoms like lethargy, anger and hopelessness, feelings of shame and guilt for not being able to inspire significant change.[12] Although people were initially unified by denouncing the knee of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, once looting and violence began to be mixed in with protests, society began to fracture and radicalize, two distinct camps emerging of people who believe America is fundamentally racist and despicable, and those who believe America is a country built on good principles that it has been working steadily towards fulfilling since the Revolution, with racism as a declining role as a factor in achievement. People from perceived “oppressed” classes are automatically more credible and respected, as well as people

who claim to be their “allies” by following constantly shifting standards of thinking and behavior, under the name of “anti-racism.”

Self-rationalization is the most dangerous dimension of empathy. This can be seen in the justification of violence against law enforcement and non-protestors,[13] gatherings en masse via protests being acceptable but not for parties or religion,[14] cancel culture’s spread,[15] warping data about black on black crime and police brutality,[16] unilaterally condemning all white people for more implicit bias than any other race, misleading headlines that gloss over Biden’s racist remarks or constantly point fingers at Trump,[17] advocating for literal segregation and racial quotas in businesses,[18] employment,[19] and education at the expense of nonblacks and meritocracy,[20] unraveling history and education on the basis of people like Abraham Lincoln[21] and the notion of 2+2 = 4 being racist.[22] As irrational, extreme things like this become acceptable in the same of social justice

and equality, that group gains the upper ground in the mainstream and effectively pushes any dissent onto the defensive and into a minority, especially as they purge themselves by constantly pushing the idea that whatever anyone is doing to combat racism is never enough.[23]

Of course, empathy is a laudable social and neurological capability. It allows humans to strengthen our bonds with those around us, form connections with those who disagree with us through establishing other commonalities, and generally interact with people in a more positive and cooperative way. However, this great part of human nature is also the most vulnerable to exhaustion and perversion.

Deeply concern for the future of this country is warranted if legitimately toxic and unrealistic expectations continue to dictate activism. Taking breaks from consuming media and posting responses to current events needs to be normalized as a biological need - instead of looked down upon as being lazy or apathetic - in order to prevent emotional deterioration, mistreatment of others, and illogical radicalization. Mantras like “silenc

e is violence” and “in the age of information, ignorance is a choice” can’t be accepted anymore: they set people up for (1) failure to be adequate in their ability to recite the names of every perceived victim of racism, power-abusing police officer or politician, not-woke-enough public figure, and (2) compassion fatigue that takes a personal toll and damages a person’s relationships.

Ideally, our reserves of empathy should be redirected towards bridging gaps rather than reinforcing in-group biases, so that more of our limited energy goes moving together towards a shared vision of progress, rather than retreating further into our respective ideological corners in a delusion of complete self righteousness.

[1]Grissom, Nicola, and Seema Bhatnagar. “Habituation to Repeated Stress: Get Used to It.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 92, no. 2 (September 1, 2010): 215–24. [2] Metev, Denis. “How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media in 2020?” Review42, July 4, 2020. [3] “Average Time Spent Daily on Social Media (Latest 2020 Data).” Accessed August 14, 2020. [4]2018: Hawkins, Stephen, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon. “PDF.” 175 Varick St, New York, NY 10014: More in Common. 2020: 1. “Republicans, Democrats Move Even Further Apart in Coronavirus Concerns.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, July 27, 2020. 2. Dunn, Amina. “As the U.S. Copes with Multiple Crises, Partisans Disagree Sharply on Severity of Problems Facing the Nation.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, August 11, 2020. [5]Scharrer, Erica. “Media Exposure and Sensitivity to Violence in News Reports: Evidence of Desensitization?” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 85, no. 2 (2008): 291–310. [6]Fanti, Kostas A., Eric Vanman, Christopher C. Henrich, and Marios N. Avraamides. “Desensitization to Media Violence over a Short Period of Time.” Aggressive Behavior 35, no. 2 (2009): 179–87. [7] “Average Time Spent Daily on Social Media (Latest 2020 Data).” Broad Accessed August 14, 2020. / [8]“Emotions Are Contagious-Choose Your Company Wisely.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, October 20, 2012. [9]“Compassion Fatigue.” The American Institute of Stress, January 4, 2017. [10]“The Basics of Compassion Fatigue.” San Antonio: Figley Institute , July 2012. [11] Waytz, Adam. “The Limits of Empathy.” Harvard Business Review, November 3, 2016.]. [12] [13] and

[17] The Washington Post: “Trump’s Familiar Routine After Failing to Cut Deals With Congress: Signing Legally Dubious Executive Actions;” and “Biden Draws Distinction on Black, Latino Political Diversity” [18] [19] [20]

May Zheng is a senior at Montgomery High School, located in Central New Jersey. Since becoming interested and engaged in politics and current affairs in the second half of her sophomore year, she's been writing op-eds and essays and doing research on her spare time about whatever issues she finds most pertinent, as well as contributing to two youth journalism organizations. When she's not doing those things, May is usually creating art, listening to music, or biking.



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