Letters to the Editors, May/June 2011

Letters to the editor about the January/February 2011 issue of Scientific American MIND

The biggest takeaway for me from “Get Attached,” by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller, was how much my attachment style affects all my relationships, especially with friends and family. The need for independence does not limit itself to romance only.

Thanks for the great article.
Vern Martin
Alliance, Ohio

I’m increasingly inclined to view Scientific American Mind as a kind of snobbish self-help exercise. I confess that I love doing the Mensa puzzles and getting the instant gratification that most of the articles provide, but science? Do me a favor! This attachment piece is a case in point—so plausible and yet so irrefutable as to be meaningless. Any reasonably educated person could come up with his or her spectrum of epithets to describe basic human sensibilities; what substantive good comes from it?
commenting at

In “What, Me Care? Jamil Zaki devotes a large portion of the article to speculation about various social factors that might have caused college students’ empathy levels to decline over the past 30 years. I was surprised that Zaki didn’t consider whether nonsocial factors might also have contributed to the decline. Researchers have found correlations between levels of lead in the blood and delinquent behavior, and they have speculated that pollutants in the environment may have contributed to a rise in autism rates. If it is reasonable to investigate whether pollutants are implicated in delinquent behavior and autism, then it seems reasonable to consider whether pollutants might also have ­contributed to the more general decline in empathy.
Molly Gardner
Madison, Wis.

So people have become less empathic in the past 30 years? During those 30 years English-speaking societies have been dominated by a move toward competitive individualism as the dominant—indeed, the only permitted—model of human nature and interaction. Competitive individualism is all about the fewest restraints possible on human action, including restraints from ties of mutual obligation. It’s all about everyone maximizing his or her outcomes, and devil take the hindmost, especially because the “losers” in the rear are by definition responsible for their own failure.

Governments have led the way as they have stripped away social supports for the less fortunate. The only inexplicable aspect is that this trend could have escaped notice and that its outcomes at the individual level—indifference to our fellows—could be a surprise to anyone.
Catherine Scott
Camberwell, Australia

Perhaps low empathy levels could be improved if people were given the time and space to find one another interesting. I’m saying nothing new, but I think young people are overloaded with fast-paced activities and amusements. Other people, meanwhile, are represented by that slow person at the DMV, that classmate who gossips about you or that teacher who gave you the book report on Wuthering Heights you haven’t yet finished. Obstacles, in other words. If it were somehow necessary for people to depend on the kindness of strangers, they might find reasons to care about them.

Unfortunately, that kind of widespread empathy seems to occur primarily after disasters. Society, when it’s operational, tries to optimize it out.
commenting at

This article was originally published with the title "January/February 2011."

or subscribe to access other articles from the May 2011 publication.
Digital Issue $7.95
Digital Subscription $19.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article