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Empathy Deficity Disorder; Not a true disorder, but a big problem

There's a new disorder out there and you may have it. It's called empathy deficit disorder. But don't go running off to the doctor just yet. EDD is not a "real" psychological disorder - it's more of a cultural one.

When was the last time you tired to put yourself in some else's shoes? Was it the last time you saw someone standing at a traffic light holding a sign saying "homeless and hungry"? Or was it when the man in front of you in line at the market had to put back a gallon of milk because he didn't have enough money to pay for all his groceries.

Those two scenarios could have evoked empathy. But for many people it may have only conjured up frustration and impatience. And that's why some people have coined the syndrome Empathy Deficit Disorder.

EDD, as it's called, is not a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School, Gail Gazelle, does not think EDD should be elevated to a disorder in the DSM. But she said empathy deficit a real cultural problem.

"If you think about people driving in their cars, suddenly the car in front of you stops, instead of thinking, gee, why did that car stop? Is there a young mother crossing the street with a baby in her arm and maybe the car stops so they wouldn't hit this young mother? No. What do we do instead? We honk on our horn. That's our immediate reaction and we mutter something under our breaths about that crazy driver in front of us. That, I think, is a classic example of a cultural way that we respond to other people that lacks empathy," Gazelle said.

She said empathy deficit is mirrored by society's quickness to place blame and criticize someone else instead of trying to understand why someone acted the way they did.

Angie Schumacher of Westerville said she thinks as a whole society is very empathetic.

"I think that's a difference between a lack of patience when you're in the car and a lack of, and a whole different thing to have a lack of empathy for someone if you don't understand their religious beliefs or whatever. I mean, that's two whole different things," Schumacher said.

Jane Hodge of Columbus contributes society's lack of empathy to its fast-paced lifestyle.

"A lot of people take the dog eat dog and come out on top attitude," she said.

Her friend Michele Frashier agreed.

"It seems like people are oblivious to other people's problem whether they be mild or serious," Frashier said.

Kent McDonald, who's homeless, sees a need for more empathy in society. McDonald speaks from experience.

"They just want to shun you away instead of trying to think of maybe what's the problem with this person, or what are they going through right now. What's their story? And really, people don't want to listen anymore," McDonald said.

WOSU asked American Psychiatric Association researcher Dr. William Narrow what he thinks of the new disorder, EDD.

"When someone uses that term I have no idea what they're talking about," Narrow said.

Dr. Narrow said true disorders must go through a rigorous scientific process to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He said the DSM helps doctors communicate with each other about real disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder commonly called PTSD. Narrow said coining a new disorder without significant study trivializes serious mental syndromes.

"And I would venture to say that if you got ten people in a room together each would have a different definition or a slight modification of what empathy deficit disorder is," Narrow said. Technically a disorder or not, Dr. Gazelle said someone's inability to be empathetic can have huge consequences in primary relationships like in marriages and the workplace, but also it can have a global impact.

"So if we can't picture ourselves in their shoes then of course we're going to be less tolerant of their viewpoint and their reason for reacting in ways that they do. I think this has major ramifications for how Americans operate on an international basis, how we're viewed by other countries and really kind of what the future hold for American in it's standing, globally," Gazelle said.

Dr. Gazelle said there are difference reasons why one may be unable to be empathetic - it could be the way they were raised or just getting caught up in their own lives. Either way, She said empathy can be learned. And one way to start is to fake it.

"There are definitely ways to correct it. You want people to learn this and you want them to learn it in a sincere, heartfelt way. But along the way can they act? Yes. They certainly can because as they practice, they develop the skill," Gazelle said.