Majority of Britons think empathy is on the wane

YouGov survey finds 51% of people think empathy has declined compared with only 12% who think it has increased

Is it the schism of Brexit or the cranked up vitriol that flows through parts of social media? Either way, people in the UK are concerned that empathy is on the wane, with more than half of the population believing Britons’ ability to sense, understand and share the feelings of others has declined over the last year.

Only 12% of people said they had noticed an increase in the ability of people to put themselves in others’ shoes, according to a study by YouGov, while 51% said there was less empathy towards others.

It amounts to “an emerging crisis of empathy”, according to the Scout movement, which commissioned the research. Bear Grylls, the explorer, TV presenter and chief scout, has warned that if the trend continues “we risk more division in our communities and increasing alienation among young people”.

The findings follow research by Cambridge University that found empathy is a largely learned trait, although it can be passed on genetically in a minority of cases.

But they come amid other indications of rising solidarity, at least among some groups. Support for increased taxes to spend more on health, education and social benefits is at its highest since 2002, according to the survey of social attitudes in Britain by the NatCen centre for social research.

Two-thirds of Labour supporters want increased taxation and for the first time in 15 years, a majority of Conservative supporters (53%) also say the same. 54% also said people can almost always or usually be trusted, representing an increase in reported rates of trust.

But there are splits in British society along generational lines about how much others need help and on issues such as climate change.

Two-thirds of people aged 18 to 25 want the government to top up low-earning working parents’ wages, compared with less than half of people over 65. Equally, eight out of 10 of this younger group want low-earning single parents’ wages to be topped up compared with less than six out of 10 of the older group, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey.


The same study, published in July, showed 31% of those between 18 and 34 are very or extremely worried about climate change compared with 19% of over-65s.

Grylls said: “In a world that sometimes feels fractured and insular, empathy and kindness are more important than ever. When society is polarised we need to work twice as hard to understand each other and find ways of working together. I believe young people have a right to develop key skills such as empathy and kindness and we urgently need more adult volunteers to help us do this.”

Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos Mori, said studies had shown that people born before 1945 and the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state were more empathetic towards the poor than each subsequent generation.

“This continued until the [2008] crash, when empathy increased but levels have still not returned to that of the 1980s,” he said. “We have become a society less empathetic to the working-age poor.”

Matt Hyde, chief executive of the Scout Association, said: “There is a worrying decline in empathy in the UK. We have a polarised politics and I don’t think social media helps. People are retreating into their own friendship circles and not engaging with people different to them.”


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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