Why Some People Lack Empathy

Growing up, we were taught that empathy is the ultimate solution to problems that segregate people. That's why many of us grew up expecting to find an empath in every grown-up — especially in times of crisis. The worst pandemic in U.S. history has taught us otherwise. Back in 2020, Khloe Kardashian TP'ed her sister's house while the U.S. was in the middle of a widespread toilet paper shortage, per Daily Mail. Kendall Jenner ignored Cali's non-essential travel orders to embark on a luxury vacation, TMZ reports. Meanwhile, Ellen Degeneres was accused of keeping her crew uninformed about their working hours and pay during the pandemic, Variety Magazine reports. Do these bigwigs not understand or not care how insensitive and uncaring they are to an already suffering community?

Here's a reality check: the richer a person gets, the more empathy they lose — or so some studies on the relevance between social class and empathy in the journal Psychological and Cognitive Sciences suggest. So, is lack of empathy a matter of class? That's not necessarily true. At some point in our lives, we've interacted with people who are average but unempathetic at the same time. These encounters might leave us feeling frustrated and confused, wondering if the person is too socially unaware or if we're too sensitive. If you've been on the receiving end of someone's lack of empathy, here's what to know about this condition so you'll know what to do the next time you're around them.

Types of empathy

Before we delve into the causes of low empathy, let's take a look at different types of empathy. According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman (via Inc.), there are three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Levels of empathy can vary, and not everyone develops all types of empathy.

Cognitive empathy refers to an individual's ability to recognize others' emotions and understand why they behave the way they do. For example, if a person has gone through a divorce, you are cognizant of how they feel and why they've been upset.

With emotional empathy, you may put yourself in the shoes of another person and adopt their sentiments as your own, even to the point of experiencing bodily sensations. For example, you may be saddened or experience heartache when you see a loved one going through a traumatic experience.

Compassionate empathy is the next degree of empathy, distinguished by a deep comprehension of and sentiments for another's plight in addition to a strong desire to help them. For example, you might donate a small amount of money to a beggar or walk an elderly person across a busy traffic junction.

Although empathy and sympathy sound similar, there is a significant difference between them. According to Ramsey, sympathy is acknowledging someone else's misfortune and feeling sorry for them, while empathy is choosing to share the agony with them.

Personality and developmental disorders

Empathy is an enormous concept. When it comes to pinpointing the cause of a lack of empathy, many factors are at play. Although empathy is a partly learned behavior, we shouldn't rule out the fact that many people were born with processing and responding issues, which makes them look like they lack empathy. Low empathy is often associated with personality and developmental disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), sociopathy, Machiavellianism, autism, alexithymia, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

A 2017 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research reveals that people with BDP might have the capacity for cognitive empathy yet have problems developing emotional empathy. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that those who possess the Machiavellian trait — characterized by manipulation and a disregard for morals — can empathize but usually choose to withhold their empathetic reaction. Altogether Autism points out that while some people on the spectrum may struggle with empathy, others may feel overwhelmed by others' feelings. While there's always a need for more empathy in our society, we should recognize the need for a deeper understanding of empathy, and transition away from calling every unusual or dysfunctional expression of empathy a "lack of empathy." 

Low emotional intelligence

A lack of empathy can also be an indicator of low emotional intelligence, which is the inability to recognize and manage emotions in oneself and others. According to Kentucky Counseling Center, those with low emotional intelligence tend to be out of touch with the environment and the people around them. They have problems reading emotional cues, struggle to express their thoughts, and always end up saying the wrong thing at the wrong time — many times without bad intentions.

PsychMechanics points out that those with low emotional intelligence are usually self-centered, caring only about their feelings while disregarding those of others. Meanwhile, those with a high level of emotional intelligence have a high level of self-awareness, possess a sympathetic ear, and take into account other people's feelings before saying or doing something.

If you want to increase your emotional intelligence, practice active listening and pay attention to what other people say. Being present and able to listen with intention helps hone your social awareness and allows you to connect with others on an emotional level. When it comes to dealing with people with low emotional intelligence, the only way to preserve harmony is to not take everything they say personally, avoid getting into heated arguments, and exercise empathy whenever possible.  

Burnout and stress

Long-term stress and burnout can make the most compassionate people indifferent. Numerous research studies have found a two-way link between empathy and burnout, according to a review article in the journal Psychology Research and Behavior Management. That is: the less empathetic a person is, the more likely they are to suffer burnout. On the flip side, burnout can also lead to a decline in empathy. In an article published in Psychology Today, psychologist Amie Gordon also points out that stress makes people distracted and reduces a person's capacity for compassion for the suffering of others. It's human instinct. When someone is emotionally exhausted, they may revert to emotional avoidance as a kind of self-protection by avoiding any additional emotional burdens, including listening to other people's problems or opening up to others. 

Communication can become very challenging when one is unable to perceive and accept the perspectives of others. People who lack empathy may also misread what others are trying to communicate, which can ultimately result in misunderstandings and add strains to the relationship. Understanding how stress and burnout affect the way people behave helps us refrain from taking people at face value and passing judgment too quickly. At the same time, it helps us to be conscious of the way we treat others when we're stressed and keep a check on our emotions.

It's a matter of short attention span

Picture this: We read about the war in Ukraine, feel sorry for the victims, and rush to supply essential humanitarian aid to those in need. Meanwhile, when a celebrity takes to Instagram to share about her struggle with mental health — we roll our eyes, put some memes in the comment section, and continue doomscrolling. As if we haven't seen enough celeb meltdowns these days!  

As commoners, we're more likely to show empathy to those whose life experiences we can relate to while treating celebrities who frequently rant about a storm in a teacup as objects of recreation rather than empathy. "As a human race, our attention spans have shortened and our need for entertainment has increased," Syeda tells Vice. "We don't care about the facts when it comes to a celebrity meltdown, because as long as we are entertained, it's free for all."

With updates on the daily lives of celebrities becoming widely accessible, it's easy to feel inundated and become jaded over time. Many times, we forget that a celebrity — despite their wealth and fame — is also an actual living person with common fears like the rest of us, and their flawless public persona doesn't make them less of a victim. Additionally, our judgment about celebrities and their lifestyles gets in the way of our showing empathy for them, psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser tells Yahoo Life. If we perceive a person to be too privileged and attention-seeking to need empathy, we might struggle to feel empathetic toward them.