Do you wish to save the world and all its people, or do you look at downtrodden souls and happily swim in their sea of misery? These are the two extremes of empathy, the ability to comprehend and experience the emotional states of others.
Empathy is of course a spectrum, and a new study by Michigan State University (MSU) has used 104,365 people – aged between 18 and 90 years old and spread across 63 countries – to determine which nation, on average, contains the most and least empathetic individuals.
They were asked a long list of questions designed to examine how empathetic they were, the range of emotions they commonly experienced, and the degrees to which they were comfortable with inequality, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
It turns out that the countries with the highest total empathy scores are:
1 - Ecuador
2 - Saudi Arabia
3 - Peru
4 - Denmark
5 - United Arab Emirates
6 - South Korea
7 - USA
8 - Taiwan
9 - Costa Rica
10 - Kuwait
The least empathetic nation was Lithuania, followed by Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria. Curiously, seven of the bottom 10 were Eastern European nations.
Countries with higher levels of empathy also tended to have higher degrees of agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotionality, self-identified wellbeing, collectivism, and pro-social behavior – essentially the opposite of a nation of psychopaths, although things are decidedly more complex than this. Overall, women were found to be significantly more empathetic than men.
The top 10 ranking of the US will come as good news to Americans, who have long suspected their nation to be filled to the brim with charming and caring people. However, the authors note that cultures are rapidly changing across the world, and the rankings are likely to be somewhat fluid.
“This is particularly true of the United States, which has experienced really large changes in things like parenting practices and values,” said William Chopik, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at MSU, in a statement. “People may portray the United States as this empathetic and generous giant, but that might be changing.”
Teddy bears hugging – a fluff-filled symbol of empathy. Nanthaphiphat watto/Shutterstock
As noted in the study, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, differences in culture likely produce differences in empathy. A peculiar surprise, then, came in the form of three Middle Eastern nations making the top 10, according to the authors.
Although there are obviously plenty of highly empathetic people in this part of the world, these nations have been rocked by conflict, corruption, massive inequality (both economic and gender-based) and regional conflict, all of which should suppress a tendency towards empathy. The authors suspect that these anomalies probably come from the fact that the online questionnaire did not allow people to distinguish whether they feel empathy towards other countries versus people living in their own country.