I read this article the other day on the MSNBC website which talked about how the current crop of college students are "less empathetic" than in the past. Toward the end of the article was a link to the empathy test. So, naturally, I took it. Did pretty well, actually. I think. It's not clear to me that the test is useful.
You see, for some test to measure your inner feelings, how you view the world around you, the wording of the questions need to mask the real intent of the question. When answers are easily equated to a certain result then they are useless. It leaves all the honesty up to the test taker. That may work when looking at a large number of people (people do tend to be honest, I think) but I suspect not always. One must be careful.
For this test, it was obvious that empathy was being examined. Empathy is generally considered to be a desirable trait. And, I'm afraid, it is all too often confused with sympathy and pity. Empathy is the ability to see and feel things as others do. Putting oneself in another's shoes, so to speak.
I can do that. Always have been able to. It is not always a good thing to do. Too much empathy can be a bad thing. It can make you a sucker, easily taken advantage of. That empathy you feel, those emotions, may only be on one side; your own. I have an anecdote that seems an appropriate example:
I was washing my car at a coin-op car wash in Pacific Beach (part of San Diego) one warm Sunday morning when a disheveled man walked up. He was youngish, late 20's or early 30's, and in seemingly good physical shape, just bleary and tired. His clothes were not shabby and 2nd or 3rd hand. They seemed fairly new, just slept in. He looked like he had been to a party that had lasted well into the next day, or night. And that is how he described it. He had gotten off work as a bartender Saturday afternoon and had gone straight to a friend's place where he met a young lady who took him to a party. He had no car, she was his transportation. Over the evening and night of drinking and carousing, they became separated.
He had gotten quite drunk and eventually passed out. When he awoke, it was early morning, he was lying on a patio in someone's backyard, and was terribly hungover. He had only a vague idea where he was, no one seemed awake or about and he just left and tried to figure out where he was. He discovered he was cashless and did not know how that came about. He lived in La Jolla, he told me, and needed to get home. He was due to be at work at 6 that evening. Could I let him have a couple of bucks for bus fare?
Being a bit of a softie and not broke myself, I gave him $5 and watched him walk away. After all, I had been in the same straits once or twice myself. At the back of my mind, I "knew" it was a phony story. It had some holes in it. This was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I saw him at a supermarket near my job. He was buying a bottle of cheap wine and handled it like it was a prized possession as he paid for it with a couple of wrinkled bills. He was beaming. It was 10 AM and his clothes were the same as he wore that Sunday morning, though a bit worse for more wear.
Con men use your sympathy and empathy and, when necessary, your pity to squeeze some money from you. Even friends and family members will use these to get you to do something for them. We've all done it, I suppose.
So how empathetic should we be? We need to balance that empathy with a touch of realism. What if I had truly empathized with my panhandler? What if I had seen it from his actual persepective? His actual perspective was that I was a "mark", a person who might be able to relate to a certain story because I was at the right age (late 30's) and appeared to be someone who might have been a partier. If I had any empathy at all, I would at least listen to the sad story. A salesmen making his pitch based upon his ability to read the customer or client.
Politicians also use this to garner votes, to sway public opinion. Charities rely on it to get donations.
Take the test yourself. I could have got close to a perfect score because, to me, the answers to achieve that were way too obvious. But I chose to treat it honestly. I had to be careful, though, and not let my desire to appear to be a "good guy" dictate any answers.
My score was 55/70 (78.6%)
A Night Unremembered
6 years ago