April 17, 2024


In this paper I intend to explore the phenomenon of empathy or the lack there-of amongst the Chinese population. The evidence is mostly through observational techniques and interviews with Chinese commentaries about the findings. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others by recognising their emotions, behavioural action and situation. This method of cognitive ability is lacking in Chinese thinking styles and causes social impairment and behavioural problems in not recognising or understanding another person’s perspective when they interact socially. The findings show two possible conclusions, the first, the one-child policy of China causing interference with normal sibling learning experience and secondly, over-population, parenting advice and social learning situations.


Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others through observation of their actions, behaviour and situations. For example seeing someone fall off a bicycle causes the observer to wince at the thought of the person’s pain or discomfort. It is as if we fell off the bicycle instead. However we cannot fully understand or feel the person’s indignities or pain at that moment but can clearly try to imagine those feelings and thoughts of the other. In counselling empathy is an important component of the therapist’s armoury. Without this ability the counsellor would be ineffective in trying to understand his client’s situation. While the counsellor may not have personally experienced the same behaviour they can at least understand the client’s discomfiture, pain, thinking, feelings and cognitive reasoning. This ability to empathise enables the counsellor to enact transference with the client in a positive manner.

Research into social situations can reveal some aspects of empathy or at least its component of the compulsion to act in social situations where altruism is a required action to a situation. Coke et el (1978) showed that the increase in emotional empathy helps to change behaviour of the observer to help or assist another person. He believed this was because of the natural reaction cognitively of the observer, “What if that happened to me” thinking. This he reported showed that even empathy with good intentions can be selfish in motivation. Cialdini et al (1987) alternatively felt that people may feel saddened by the plight of others and in turn changed their mood to a more altruistic stance. Batson et el (1981) suggests empathy is a genuine desire to reduce other peoples distress rather than your own. Batson tested this by allowing observers to change places with victims who received electric shocks. He found that the observer’s distress was reduced by taking the victims place.

Social impact theory clearly shows empathy can be situational in that people are influenced by those around them in response to a distressing situation. On the Metro system if many people turn away from a beggar then you are more likely to conform to that behaviour rather than break the pattern and give money. In other words we follow the lead given by others when we are not sure ourselves how to act. Latane and Rodin (1969) and Latane and Darley (1968) in two experiments showed clearly that in a crowd situation people tend to observe others first then decide on an action. People more often when alone will act on their own violation rather than what others are demonstrating. Latane called this a diffusion of responsibility that occurs when many people are together witnessing a victim’s plight, in fact most research found that the more people are together the less helping behaviour happens and a sense of pluralistic ignorance abounds by people behaving badly together.

In China there seems to clearly be a lack of empathy understood between people and therefore their everyday actions cause distress to others not directly associated with kinship or social circle. For example queuing is a common activity in most societies and politeness tells us that we should wait, take our turn and be patient. Where do we learn such behaviour? As children we observe through social learning that our parents wait in line at the supermarket, give up their seat to the elderly or pregnant women that they do not push-in or complain impatiently while waiting for someone else to finish ahead of them. This starts the process of cognitive thinking in that when these social rules are broken they see people getting up-set, shouting, complaining and punishing the wrong-doer. In time they take on the cognitive social rules internally and apply them in their own situations through behaviour, this is the beginning of an understanding of empathy. So why then in China do people push-in, ignore others when entering buses, trains, the metro excreta? Why do they read a newspaper in a crowded trains causing others to be uncomfortable, inconvenienced or pushed aside? Why do they shrug their shoulders at others distress or misfortune?

There are two aspects of Chinese society that may indirectly attribute to the lack of empathy for others in their character. The first is the one-child policy introduced by the Chinese government to control the population rise and avoid starvation and poverty amongst its people. The second is over-population itself in which too many people are vying for too little recourses such as, food, seats on a bus, room on a train, and long queues at the supermarket.


In order to investigate this hypothesis the researchers interviewed subjects about recent tragedies, incidents such as accidents, fires, deaths and general day to day activities in which understanding another’s feelings was essential to good citizenship. Examples were the Sichuan earthquake, the frequent death of miners, minor bicycle accidents and road death.


In almost all the interviews the majority of Chinese respondents conferred a lack of empathy towards others and an inability to understand distress in other people accept in a very artificial way. For example when asked about a recent road death in which a taxi passenger opened a door to exit and killed a bicyclist who was trying to pass on the inside of the traffic. Most replied the cyclist should have been more careful. When asked how the passenger felt do you think at killing the cyclist – most replied I have no idea. When Westerners were asked the same question almost all replied the passenger would feel, scared, guilty, fearful of consequences and sorry about the victim. When this was pointed out to the Chinese respondent – they often shrugged their shoulders and replied how would you know this? In China many State owned mines and illegal mines operate on safety standards that would make a Western miner shudder with apprehension. Every week a report of miner’s deaths appears in the press, sometimes hundreds die in one incident. When asked how the miners families would feel at a time like this, the Chinese respondents replied mostly that the families would seek money for the death and worry about compensation. This matter of money was also mentioned in the bicycle incident. When further questioned as the feelings of the family most Chinese said something astonishing to most Western ears, and I quote, “What does it matter we have too many people in China”. It is as if the death of someone is actually a benefit to the whole society. When question about this callous view most Chinese felt that Westerners did not understand the culture and the need for the survival of the majority over the minority (those killed). This was however demonstrated by the Government here, when the need for land to accomplish major civil construction, that those people who lost their homes and land where doing so for the greater good of the country and it is their loyal duty to suffer so that many can benefit from their sacrifice. (The compensation for loss of farms, homes etc. were minimal and no social support was considered such as farmers relocated to modern apartments with no work and a lifestyle they did not understand). Finally most were questioned on the recent earthquake in China that killed over 80,000 people. Again most of the interviewees, felt that this was a major tragedy. When asked about how they felt about the people’s plight, most gave stereotypical answers that they recited from Government state issued sentiments and media sound bites. In other words – they were not feeling but simply reciting the sentiments they had been hearing from the media. When asked how they would feel in the same situation they found it very difficult to understand the question and its meaning. There were some comments that coincided with kinship, such as losing their own family members. In a group discussion with Shanghai students about the earthquake most also gave sound-bite replies however when asked if they had any feeling about the people who survived they felt they did not know these people so how could they feel anything for them? This did remind the interviewers about Princess Diana’s death in France, despite the public out-pouring of grief shown in the media; many British admitted in private they actually did not like her at all. So showing a mass hysteria approach to a tragedy, as a false type of empathy, rather than a personally felt empathy.


In conclusion it can be seen that the hypothesis can be supported in that Chinese people seem to lack basic empathy toward another person’s position. In trying to understand this difference in social learning the author looks at two phenomenons that exist in China and not in other countries. The first is the psychological and social problems with the one-child-policy, introduced to reduce the population strain on recourses in China and the second over-population itself as a source of attitude towards others on a daily basis. The one child policy has many social problems but in the case of empathy the author points out why a lone child growing up in a home with adults only can lack the social skill of empathy when dealing with adult situations later in life. In the West where two of more children grow up together as siblings, many social lessons are learned through observation. When a father is shouting at your brother/sister the observing child can understand the fear response from the other sibling by knowing what it is like to be the recipient of the same punishment. The child might be thinking, “I am glad that is her and not me” in other words the child is identifying the emotional feelings of the other sibling. These types of episodes happen daily as we are growing up from casual incidents to the more serious ones. To a child any incident can be serious even if we as adults would not class it as such. This observational learning is the founding of empathy in the child that when growing to adult uses this childhood emotional learning to exercise empathy when observing others who are in trouble or plight. Under China’s one-child policy the child often has no-one to observe and therefore can only internalise their own feelings about their experience without seeing that others might have the same feelings. With out this observational social learning the Chinese child becomes more selfish in it orientation – ego-centred for life – and so as an adult merely observes without a feeling of empathy to help understand another’s point of view or plight. The second area is over-population itself, here you can see daily in the cities particularly, that people do not wait patiently in line, are constantly complaining about others, push and shove when buying train or bus tickets that maybe in limited supply not just at holiday time but anytime (even when supply exceeds demand) and the scurry for seats on crowded trains and buses. Even in the traditional thinking of many countries, that while on a bus you should stand for women, babies, the elderly, the infirm here is Chine the government had to advertise polite behaviour prior to the 2008 Olympics to tell Chinese how to behave in public places such as not spitting, emptying their nose in public and standing up for other people on buses and trains. These advertisements had to show people actually smiling while giving way to others. However this is not the real situation in China, as the cites are so crowded, that people push and pull others in the attempt to gain seat (even when travelling a short distance). Often healthy young men sit while old women stand next to them. They do not give up their seats for anyone as this is their privilege. When challenged by researchers on buses many would indeed get up but this was merely social conditioning to follow authority figures demands. When asked why they should give up the seat again they often repeated government slogans from the media but rarely showed any actual insight into the person’s plight at standing when old or pregnant. Again the lack of real empathy is astonishing but once again people responded with a frequent reply. “There are just too many people to care about so you must look after yourself and your family first”. This reference to over-population is often quoted as an excuse for selfish behaviour and a lack of empathy to other people. Many said, “They do not care about me why should I care about them?”


The lack of empathy then in China can be seen from two social aspects, the first is the one-child-policy in which psychological social learning cannot take place within sibling observation leading to adult understanding of others feelings and the second, over-population itself in a society where a perceived shortage of recourses leads to selfish behaviour that prevents the showing of real empathy. It should be pointed out that this research was not exhaustive in that interviews were conducted often informally and at times of opportunity sampling as apposed to more rigorous techniques, however most Chinese who proof read the main content agreed with the findings from their own personal experience of growing up and living in China. So the author feels that although further research is desirable to confirm these findings the over-all lack of empathy is so obvious in everyday activities here that it leaves little room for doubt.


Graham Hill (1998) Advanced Psychology – Oxford Guides Pgs. 116 – 118.
Richard Gross (2001) Psychology of Mind & Behaviour, 4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton Pgs. 440 – 444