Posted by Steve Lettau on May 28, 2020

By Philip Chard

What determines one’s attitude toward COVID-19 and our mitigation efforts, like masks and physical distancing? Is it socio-economic class, political affiliation, “tribal” identification or one’s brand of news consumption? These variables have their effects, but one other factor may prove the most powerful, as Barry’s situation illustrates.

This middle-aged gentleman believed the pandemic was mostly hype. He bought into one of several conspiracy theories circulating across the internet and espoused by his group of friends. “I didn’t go so far as to say it was a complete hoax, but I figured it was way overblown by the media,” he said.

Then, he contracted COVID-19 and, subsequently, infected his mother. Both ended up in an ICU. Slowly recovering, they struggle with lingering symptoms and the angst of a close brush with death. Now, at every opportunity, Barry cautions COVID deniers and minimalists that the threat to their well-being and that of their loved ones is very real.

Direct Experience

No amount of advice from public health experts or exposure to disturbing media accounts could have changed this man’s mind, but direct experience did. His capacity for empathy, largely dormant prior to catching COVID, arose from its slumber. Experience is the most powerful teacher.

At its core, empathy reflects the capacity to feel with another person. So, Barry now feels emotional resonance with other victims of the disease, and this has drawn him out of his narrow self-interest and us-versus-them thinking. Empathy, then, is other-focused rather than self-focused. Anthropologists believe early humans developed this trait as an adaptive response. As hunter-gatherers, helping each other afforded a survival advantage. But humans don’t have a monopoly here. Many other species display empathic behaviors, meaning it is deeply imbedded in the genetic lineage of higher life forms.

Research shows about half of one’s capacity for empathy is inherited, while the remainder stems from childhood experiences and parental role modeling. So, genetically speaking, parents who are empathic tend to bear children with a greater inherited propensity for this trait. And because these parents are inclined to exhibit empathic behaviors around their children, both genes and environment work in tandem to amplify this characteristic. In contrast, those lacking in pro-empathy genes tend to come from parents with a less robust hereditary foundation in this regard, and are more likely to grow up in homes where empathic behaviors are in short supply. Meaning each type tends to self-perpetuate.

Between Empaths and Sociopaths

Research suggests our population is roughly divided between higher and lower empathy types. Some of us are intensely empathetic, and, accordingly, earn the title “empaths.” On the opposite end, those bereft of empathy frequently earn the label “sociopaths.” In between, we find varying degrees of each trait. For instance, a person might display empathy for loved ones and close friends while remaining indifferent toward suffering in others at large.

Despite genetic and developmental influences, experiences with high emotional impact can encourage empathy, as Barry discovered the hard way. Certain folks harbor a dormant empathetic capacity that requires an experiential spark before awakening. A classic example was President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), a blue blood with money and power who, until he contracted polio, sailed above the suffering of others. His own affliction spawned a compelling sense of concern for the less fortunate. The New Deal, with its social safety net, arose from this attitudinal transformation.

While there are exceptions, those with little or no empathy are more likely to deny or minimize the human impact of COVID-19. And when they encounter others who take it seriously, they adopt an us-versus-them mindset. What’s more, they often ignore or even ridicule mitigation efforts, as Barry did before the disease popped his illusory bubble of invincibility. Through that deeply felt experience, this man recognized it’s far easier to turn away from the suffering of others when, in one’s mind, those faceless and nameless victims remain “them” instead of “us.”

Empathy nurtures the “us” we so sorely need in these trying times.


Philip Chard is a psychotherapist, author and trainer. Email him at or visit