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Empathy: You have to be carefully taught

Whether you’re altruistic or not may depend on what kind of family you grew up in.

TRBQ host Dean Olsher recently talked with Tom Smith at the University of Chicago about his study of altruism and empathy in America.

Smith directs the National Opinion Research Center at the university. Every year, the center does a national survey of social trends.

Recently they looked at altruism, and Smith says they got some results he wasn’t expecting.

“The thing that I found most surprising was this relationship with the type of family you were raised in,” Smith says.

The survey found that people who grew up in a two-parent household were the most empathetic, followed by people raised by a single woman. Single men, apparently, produce the least empathetic kids.

The survey also found that people in small towns are more altruistic than people in big cities. Smith guesses there’s a simple reason.

“You know the only barber, you know the three waitresses down at the one restaurant, you know a high proportion of people,” he says. “So you tend to develop stronger ties with people.”

Some findings are a bit more complicated.

For instance, the survey found that women are clearly more empathetic than men, but they’re not more altruistic.

Smith says women are more likely to identify with and care about people, but they’re not any more likely than men to act on that empathy. Acting on those emotions is what changes empathy to altruism.

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  1. I have very much enjoyed the Sharing series and, as someone with PhD in Economics, thing the whole rethinking of sharing, altruism, cooperation is vital. I work in developing countries on how to motivate poor people to adopt new technologies and set up businesses, and how to get the rest of the business sector to support that (input suppliers, buyers for their products). Do you or your producer have a reading list that you used and can share? I tried to write down all the names of people you interviewed or read all the pieces on the site, and find something they’ve written. It is not really set up for that.


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