There's been alot of discussion on ATS lately regarding the elite, and more specifically, their apparent lack of empathy. It has been studied and
concluded that overall empathy is somewhat lacking in the wealthy set, and much more abundant in the less-fortunate set. Although this disparity
renders multiple outcomes, this post is about how the development of empathy may begin.
We all have subjective traits which mimic those of our families, like a sense of humor or an intellectual bent. But what if our exposure to people in
less-than-ideal circumstances, and the ways our families translate their meanings to us, helps us to "develop" our sense of empathy, just as we may
develop a sense of humor or an appreciation for poetry? A child's development hinges on one dynamic with two potential outcomes: stimulus with
reward, and stimulus with punishment. Although we all develop beyond this mechanism, our formative years are governed by this dynamic.
We also know that repeated exposure to the same stimulus acts as a reinforcement of the corresponding reward or punishment. So if a person is growing
up in a privileged environment, without ever seeing a homeless person, without ever meeting someone who must decide between keeping their home or
taking their medicine, and without repeatedly witnessing firsthand the suffering endured by anyone who can't take the best course of action because it
requires more money than is available, how will that sense of empathy develop?
In psychology, the fundamental attribution error is the phenomenon we're all guilty of: we each attribute our own negative circumstances to a series
of difficult decisions, we tend to attribute the negative circumstances of others as simply being the result of a choice. We essentially recognize
our own complex nature while simplifying everyone elses'.
Could combining this fundamental attribution error with limited exposures to common, yet unfortunate, human dilemmas be the cause of this lack of
empathy? Does a lifetime of privelege disable our ability to empathize?
In Herman Hesse's "Siddharta", the wealthy Siddharta is awakened to the real world around him in his adulthood, and he is shocked and saddened by the
suffering and sickness hidden from the interior palacial walls his family lived in. Upon venturing beyond the walls, he decides to not return, and
instead, contemplate the nature of humanity and its relationship to suffering. But Siddharta wasn't exposed to misfortune until he was an adult,
allowing him to recognize the shocking contrast. In modern day, the wealthy elite are aware of the people around them in unfortunate circumstances as
soon as they can process the evening news, allowing for gradual desensitization to suffering.
Could empathy be a behavioral skill we learn to exhibit in order to create stronger interpersonal bonds, thereby broadening our circle of social
support and safety? And could the insulation provided by wealth, negating the apparent need for this degree of support and safety, combine with the
fundamental attribution error and limited exposures to create this absence of empathy in our governing elite?
I think so. What say you, ATS?
edit on 8/31/2011 by chasingbrahman because: urf