The United States might be a land of free-market individualism and up-by-your-bootstraps success, in a way that seems counter to the caring social democracies of Europe. Our foreign aid budget is laughably small, our homeless population is out of control, our health care system often fails the neediest. But according to one study, it turns out we’re actually pretty concerned about others. In an international survey of people’s ability to empathize with others, Americans rank quite high. We’re in seventh place among 63 countries. But we’re apparently less empathetic than folks from Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, or Peru, the nations in the first three places in the study.
Researchers completed an online survey with 104,000 people, asking whether respondents “have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate” than themselves, and are able to “imagine how things look from their perspective.” Respondents were aged 18 and 90 years old. Three Middle East countries (Saudi, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait) had scores in the top 10. Eastern European countries were generally lower down the list. Lithuania was last, though, it’s important to note, the differences between top and bottom were relatively small.
The research looks both at relative levels of empathy and at correlations with society types. For example, are more collectivist countries (like in East Asia), where people are taught to subsume personal wishes for the greater good, more empathetic than individualistic Western ones, where parents teach the benefits of independence and uniqueness? The answer was yes. Collective societies generally scored higher in the rankings, though the U.S. was an exception.
“The U.S. is the most individualistic culture in the world but is an outlier with respect to empathy,” says lead author William Chopik, an associate professor at Michigan State University, in an email. “It’s very much the case that more collectivistic cultures were more empathetic on average [though].”
The research also found a correlation between empathy and levels of key psychological traits like agreeableness (kind, gentle, and generous) and conscientiousness (reliable, organized, and dutiful). That was in line with previous studies looking just at U.S. subjects.
Interestingly, as social norms change over time, relative empathy levels of countries also change. A well-known University of Michigan study from 2010 found that American students had 40% less empathy than corresponding students 30 years earlier. Perhaps if the international comparison had been done in an earlier, less self-centered age, the U.S. would have topped the ranking?