Does Empathy Vary By Region?
Empathy involves both feelings of concern for others (“empathic concern”) as well as thoughts of imagining other people’s perspectives (“perspective-taking”). Though many individual-level studies have been done on empathy and its relation to prosocial behaviors, antisocial behaviors, and well-being, the variation of empathy by geography has been left largely unexplored. This study examines empathy in the United States at the state level. Studies such as this one can provide insight into the psychological basis of differences in social behavior by geographic region.
The authors of this study surveyed nearly 80,000 adult U.S. residents from different states about their empathic feelings and thoughts. Additionally, they used public records to determine rates of prosocial and antisocial behavior in each U.S. state. Prosocial behavior was measured by each state’s per capita rates of time spent volunteering and money donated to charity, whereas antisocial behavior was measured by each state’s per capita rates of violent crime and property crime. State-level well-being was taken from the 2010 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a national index that measures each state’s well-being based on factors such as residents’ emotional and physical health.
The study found that Rhode Island, Montana, and Vermont had the highest total empathy scores and that Delaware, Alabama, and Nevada had the lowest total empathy scores. There did not appear to be geographic clustering of states with similar empathy measures, i.e. nearby states often differed in scores. Previous studies on individuals had found that higher levels of empathy were associated with higher rates of prosocial behavior and well-being and with lower rates of antisocial behavior.
The state-level results of this study matched up on most counts. Findings which the authors determined to be statistically significant included the association of total empathy with higher rates of volunteering and well-being and with lower rates of violent crime; the association of the “perspective taking” aspect of empathy with higher volunteer rates, charitable donations, and well-being and with lower rates of both violent and property crime (though some of these effects went away when factors such as differences in sex, race, and income were controlled for); and the association of the “empathic concern” aspect of empathy with higher rates of volunteering and with lower rates of violent crime.
The authors were surprised to have not found a greater link between empathy and certain specific measures such as murder, rape, and property crime. Though the reasons cannot be known for sure, the authors offer speculations such as property crime being less affected by empathy since there is less criminal-victim interaction involved. The authors also offer speculations on other parts of the study. For example, it is possible that geographic variations in weather affect empathy, or that people move to areas with like-minded people of similar empathy levels.
The authors also admit limitations of their study, such as it being observational and therefore not good for determining cause and effect relationships. Finally, the authors make suggestions for future studies, including the suggestion to focus on smaller geographic areas such as cities or counties and to study the reasons behind geographic differences in empathy. Advocates can use this data to better inform their decisions about where people may be more receptive to empathy-driven campaigns.[Contributed by Mona Zahir]