Michigan State University produced the first empathy-ranking of countries around the world. The team used data from more than a hundred thousand adults from 63 different countries. Ecuador ranked as the most empathetic country.

“Portrait of a Man.”
Work and image credits Gert Germeraad.

How does culture influence empathy? And how readily do people around the world place themselves in the shoes of others? Those are a few of the questions a Michigan State Uni team tried to answer in one of the most comprehensive global empathy distribution studies to date. The team collected data from 104,365 adult participants in 63 countries to measure their compassion for others and their tendency to imagine another’s point of view.

The data was acquired through online surveys, analyzing the links between empathetic feelings and a host of “prosocial” behaviors (such as volunteering or charitable donations) and various personality traits.

“To our knowledge, this study is by far the largest examination of cultural differences in empathy, with respect to both the number of individuals and the number of countries represented,” the researchers write.

So here’s the countries well on the path to empathy:

  1. Ecuador
  2. Saudi Arabia
  3. Peru
  4. Denmark
  5. United Arab Emirates
  6. Korea
  7. United States
  8. Taiwan
  9. Costa Rica
  10. Kuwait

On the other end of the spectrum, Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria ranked the lowest on their Total Empathy scores. The team notes that 7 of the ten lowest-ranking countries are found in Eastern Europe. You can see the full rankings here.

Or here in lower resolution.
Image credits William J. Chopik et al., 2016 / MSU.

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The team defined empathy as a tendency to tune in to others’ feelings and perspectives. They asked participants to answer a list of questions drawn from several standardized tests which reflected on personal and cultural qualities. The tests were designed to assess basic personality traits (such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, and personal well-being), prosociality, individualism/collectivism, and personal empathy. It also measured each individual’s self-esteem and feeling of wellbeing. The participants were also asked to rank a series of statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” or “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.” The team also asked how happy the participants felt with their lives, if and how often they donated money to charity or volunteered time to organizations.

After crunching all this data, the team found that ‘collectivistic’ countries — cultures who value tightly knit social groups and interdependence — ranked higher in empathy. Empathy across each country‚Äôs volunteers was linked with agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and prosocial behavior.

It’s a test done on a huge scale and it’s the first of its kind we’ve ever seen, so hats off to the researchers. That being said, there are a few issues with it that I’d like to point out.

First of all, the surveys were conducted in English and relied on self-reporting — language barriers and the differences between the perceived and real self could have a big impact on the quality of data. It also didn’t make a distinction between empathy for people in the participants’ own countries vs those in other countries, potentially driving up the score of collectivist societies. Finally, the sample size was unevenly distributed and for the scope of the study remains rather small.

Still, if you take the findings with a bit of salt they’re still valuable to paint a general picture. They give us insight into how empathy is expressed in different cultures, giving future research a solid foundation on which to build.

“Despite the strong influence that culture has on how we relate to others around us, researchers have generally relied on samples of North American college students when studying empathy,” they explain.

“Given the important role of empathy in everyday social life, we hope that the current study will stimulate research examining how empathy is expressed in different cultures and social settings, and help inform future research on the relationship between empathy and culture from a broader and a more representative perspective.”

The team says that their results are just “a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment”, and expect the rankings to shift in the future.

The full paper “Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries” has been published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.