You know that friend who never seems to care how you’re feeling? The one who lacks empathy and emotional sensitivity. Their behavior can be frustrating and hurtful at times. Ever wonder what’s going on in their mind to make them act that way?

As it turns out, there are a few possible explanations for the lack of empathy. For some people, it could be a result of how their brain is wired. For others, it may have developed from their life experiences and environment. The good news is that empathy can be learned and nurtured. Understanding the reasons behind the lack of empathy is the first step to building compassion.

What Is Empathy, and Why Is It Important?

What Is Empathy, and Why Is It Important
What Is Empathy, and Why Is It Important

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Without it, a person can seem cold, uncaring, and socially inept. Lacking Empathy

Some possible reasons for lacking empathy are:

  1. Genetics. Some people are born with a limited ability to be empathetic. Studies of twins suggest that about 50% of the variability in empathy can be attributed to genetic factors.
  2. Traumatic experiences. Things like physical or emotional abuse, neglect, loss of loved ones, or bullying can damage a person’s ability to empathize.
  3. mental health issues. Conditions like narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, autism, and schizophrenia are linked to impaired empathy. 4. Lack of exposure If someone grows up without experiencing much empathy from others, they may develop less capacity for empathy themselves. They simply haven’t learned what it feels like.
  4. Self-centeredness. Some people are so focused on themselves and their own needs that they lack interest in the feelings and experiences of others.

Empathy is what allows us to build meaningful connections. Although challenging, with effort and openness, people can work to improve their ability to understand others and forge fulfilling relationships. Overall, increasing empathy leads to a kinder, more just world for all.

When someone has no empathy

when someone has no empathy
when someone has no empathy

Someone who lacks empathy might come across as aloof, heartless, or frigid. They could find it difficult to build trusting relationships with others, or they might harm individuals without feeling guilty. A personality illness like narcissism or antisocial personality disorder may manifest as a lack of empathy. Additionally, childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect may be the cause. Individuals lacking empathy could benefit from counseling, where they can learn how to identify and control their feelings as well as cultivate greater empathy for others and themselves.

1. They may lack emotional intelligence.

Some people struggle to understand the emotions of others and regulate their own emotions. Recognizing emotions in yourself and others is a skill that is learned and developed over time. Without practice and life experience, emotional intelligence may be underdeveloped.

Excessive Selfishness

Those who are primarily focused on themselves often have a hard time seeing things from another’s perspective or showing compassion for others. Their own interests and desires take priority, making it difficult to relate to what others are feeling or experiencing.

Judgmental attitude

When we are quick to judge others, it becomes easy to dismiss or ignore their feelings and emotions. Judging someone else as unworthy or inferior makes their inner experiences seem unimportant or irrelevant. This judgmental stance acts as a barrier to empathy.

Traumatic experiences

Going through emotional or physical trauma can impact a person’s ability to empathize. Their own painful experiences may make it difficult to relate to the pain of others or show compassion. Their empathy resources are directed inward for self-preservation. With treatment and healing, empathy can be restored.

In the end, the reasons for lacking empathy are complex. But by recognizing the potential causes, we can work to build understanding, cultivate compassion, and foster more empathetic relationships. Empathy is a skill that can always be improved and developed, no matter what barriers may exist.

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2. Difficulty Understanding Others’ Feelings and Perspectives

When someone lacks empathy, it can be difficult for them to understand other people’s feelings and see things from different perspectives.

Difficulty perceiving emotional cues

Without empathy, a person may struggle to perceive subtle emotional cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. They have trouble determining how others are feeling based on these nonverbal signals. This makes social interactions challenging and relationships harder to build and maintain.

Self-centered thinking

Someone who lacks empathy typically has a self-centered way of thinking. They find it difficult to shift their perspective and see things through someone else’s eyes. Their thoughts and priorities revolve around themselves, so they fail to consider how their words or actions might impact others. This “me first” mindset makes it hard to establish meaningful connections with people.

Disagreeable attitudes

Rather than trying to understand others, a person without empathy may be quick to judge or criticize them. They form opinions about people based on superficial factors and make insensitive or disparaging comments. This judgmental behavior can damage relationships and cause emotional harm. Developing empathy involves overcoming biases and prejudices to foster more compassion.

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While a lack of empathy is problematic, the good news is that people can work to increase their ability to understand different perspectives and connect with others in a meaningful way. Making an effort to listen without judgment, understand emotional cues, and see beyond yourself are all skills that can be improved with conscious practice and an open mind.

3. They may lack remorse or guilt.

When someone lacks empathy, it means they have trouble understanding or sharing the feelings of others. A lack of empathy is often linked to a lack of remorse or guilt.

No sense of responsibility

Without empathy or guilt, a person may not feel responsible for the harm or hurt they’ve caused someone else. They don’t experience emotions like shame, regret, or conscience that typically motivate prosocial behavior and discourage antisocial acts.

Difficulty with relationships

Building close relationships requires empathy. If you can’t relate to what others are feeling or put yourself in their shoes, it’s hard to establish emotional intimacy and trust. Lacking remorse makes it even harder, as you may not care if your actions damage relationships or hurt your partner’s feelings.

Prone to manipulation

Some people, without empathy, exploit others for their own gain. They are adept at manipulation, using charm and deception to get what they want without concern for who they hurt along the way. Lacking a conscience, they feel no qualms about betraying trust or violating social norms for their own benefit.

4. Their upbringing, environment, and genetics

A lack of empathy can stem from several possible causes, both natural and nurtured.

Biological factors

Some people may be born with a biological predisposition for lower empathy. Differences in brain structure and functioning, genetics, and hormones can all play a role. For example, lower levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” or a smaller anterior insula, the part of the brain involved in empathy and compassion, could make it more difficult for someone to be empathetic.

Upbringing and environment

How a person is raised and the experiences they have growing up can also impact their ability to empathize with others. Things like:

Traumatic experiences: Going through physical, emotional, or psychological trauma as a child can make it hard to develop empathy. The focus becomes surviving, not connecting with others.

Lack of affection: Children who do not receive affection, nurturing, and caring interactions with parents and caregivers may have trouble learning how to show empathy themselves.

  • Poor role models: Seeing parents, family members, and community leaders behave in unempathetic ways, especially towards others, teaches children that this is acceptable and normal behavior.
  • Isolation: Not having opportunities to interact with diverse groups of people and build social connections can hamper the growth of empathy. Exposure to different life experiences helps foster understanding.

While some causes of low empathy may be difficult to change, making an effort to build connections, expose yourself to different perspectives, reflect on how your words and actions affect others, and work to understand people who are different from you can all help strengthen your ability to empathize. Empathy is a skill that can be improved with conscious practice and an open mind.

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5. Mental health problems

A lack of empathy and remorse can sometimes be a symptom of conditions like antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy. However, it may also stem from childhood emotional neglect, trauma, or learned behavior. The good news is that empathy can be developed over time with conscious effort and compassionate guidance. But it requires a willingness to change and the ability to recognize the impact of your actions on others.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

One possible reason for lacking empathy is narcissistic personality disorder. People with this disorder have an excessive sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a constant need for admiration.

  • They believe they are unique or special in some way. They exaggerate their achievements and talents and expect constant praise and admiration.
  • They lack empathy for the feelings and needs of others. Everything revolves around them, so they have little interest in the emotions or life events of those around them.
  • They feel entitled and expect favors and preferential treatment.
  • They take advantage of others to get what they want and believe that their own needs should be prioritized.
  • Criticism or defeat injures their self-esteem. They react with anger or contempt when challenged or proven wrong. They have trouble handling anything that may affect their self-image.
  • They envy others or believe others envy them. They feel jealous of others’ achievements and status but also feel that others covet their own imagined successes or lifestyle.

They insist on having the best of everything as a way to convey their superiority to others. They judge people based on material possessions and status symbols.

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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Those on the spectrum often have difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and expressing empathy.

Challenges with empathy

Individuals with ASD may struggle to understand emotional expressions, communicate their own feelings, and share in the joy or distress of others. They tend to have a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand their perspective. This can make social relationships and connections complicated.

Some possible reasons for lacking empathy in those with ASD include:

  • impaired “theory of mind”—the ability to understand that others may have different beliefs, intentions, and knowledge than oneself. This makes it hard to understand how others might think or feel.
  • Difficulty interpreting social cues like facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. These cues are how we often determine someone’s emotional state, and empathy depends on recognizing these signals.
  • tendency to be self-focused. Those on the spectrum can become intensely focused on their own interests, thoughts, and routines, making it hard to focus on others’ needs or consider their feelings.
  • anxiety in social situations. Trying to empathize with others in real time during a social interaction may provoke anxiety for some on the spectrum, causing them to avoid it.

While a lack of empathy is common in ASD, many individuals do develop better empathy over time or with support and intervention. Understanding the reasons behind the challenges can help in providing appropriate social skills training and coping strategies for those on the spectrum. With patience and the right resources, people with ASD can absolutely build empathy.

When someone lacks empathy, there could be an underlying mental health issue involved.

Depression: People dealing with depression often struggle to relate to others or show empathy. Their mental energy is focused inward, making it difficult to understand what others are experiencing. If you know someone like this, be patient and offer your support. With treatment, their ability to empathize can improve.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Those with narcissistic personality disorder typically show little interest in the emotions or experiences of others. They tend to lack empathy and concern for people around them. The root cause is an excessive need for admiration and a lack of self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are limited treatment options for narcissistic personality disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Individuals on the autism spectrum frequently have difficulty perceiving and understanding the emotional states of others. This is due to differences in brain development and sensory processing. With support, coaching, and practice, people with ASD can strengthen their empathy skills over time.

As you can see, there are various possible explanations for why someone may struggle with empathy. The good news is that empathy can often be improved with treatment, patience, understanding, and compassion. Rather than judging others, make an effort to be empathetic yourself.

6. Difficulty Maintaining Relationships

If you have trouble empathizing with people, you may struggle to sustain long-term relationships. It can be hard to provide emotional support when you don’t fully grasp what the other person is experiencing. You might also have trouble compromising or resolving conflicts in a mutually agreeable way.

Lack of empathy often coincides with diminished interest in social interactions and poor communication skills. You may come across as aloof, argumentative, or insensitive at times, even if you don’t mean to. This can push people away and make them hesitant to open up or share personal details about their lives with you.

The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be strengthened with conscious effort and practice. Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, listening without judgment, and asking thoughtful questions to better understand their perspective. Make an effort to express interest in others by inquiring about their day or feelings and following up on important events in their lives.

With patience and persistence, you can enhance your ability to forge meaningful connections. Don’t get discouraged if it feels unnatural at first. Nurturing empathy and improving relationships is a journey, not a destination. But with time and effort, you’ll find that empathy becomes second nature, and your relationships will start to thrive as a result.

How Lack of Empathy Impacts Relationships

When someone lacks empathy, it can severely impact their relationships and interactions with others.

Without empathy, it’s challenging to relate to what other people are experiencing emotionally. You may have trouble understanding why friends or family members feel the way they do in certain situations or what they need for support. This can make your responses seem cold, dismissive, or judgmental, even if that’s not your intent.

It’s also harder to build meaningful connections since you can’t fully appreciate what the other person is feeling or share emotional moments together. Your conversations may seem superficial or stilted. Over time, this can lead to feelings of isolation, conflict with loved ones, or trouble sustaining long-term relationships.

Some key signs that a lack of empathy may be damaging your relationships include:

  • Difficulty comforting others when they’re upset
  • impatience with emotional displays from friends or family
  • a tendency to criticize or judge rather than support loved ones
  • Feeling detached or unmoved by situations that deeply affect those close to you;
  • Struggling to compromise or see other perspectives during arguments or disagreements

The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be strengthened with conscious effort and practice. Making a habit of listening without judgment, asking open-ended questions to better understand others’ experiences, and putting yourself in the shoes of people with different backgrounds or viewpoints are all ways to build your capacity for empathy. Nurturing empathy will help enrich your relationships and make you a better friend, partner, family member, and member of your community.

7. Other Potential Causes of Low Empathy

When someone lacks empathy, there are a few possible explanations for this behavioral trait.

Undeveloped cognitive ability

Some people may have underdeveloped cognitive abilities that make it harder to relate to others or understand different perspectives. Empathy involves being able to perceive, understand, and care about the emotional states of others. If certain cognitive skills required for empathy haven’t fully developed, a person may struggle to be empathetic.

Traumatic experiences

Going through traumatic, abusive, or emotionally neglectful experiences can impact a person’s ability to empathize. When a child’s emotional needs aren’t met at an early age or they suffer trauma, it can be more difficult for them to care for the needs of others. Their focus remains on their own survival.

Personality disorders

Certain personality disorders, like narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, are linked to a lack of empathy. People with these disorders tend to be self-centered, manipulative, and lack remorse for their actions. They have an impaired ability to understand how others feel.

Learned behavior

Some people may have learned from an early age that showing empathy is a sign of weakness. They were taught not to express caring or concern for others. Over time, this can significantly impact a person’s ability to be empathetic. The good news is that learned behaviors can also be unlearned with conscious effort and awareness.

In summary, there are several possible explanations for why someone may lack empathy, including undeveloped cognitive skills, traumatic experiences, personality disorders, or learned behaviors. The underlying causes can often be addressed through therapy, self-reflection, learning coping strategies, and making a conscious effort to understand different perspectives.

Common Behaviors of People With Low Empathy

Common Behaviors of People With Low Empathy
Common Behaviors of People With Low Empathy

People with low empathy often exhibit certain behaviors that can be off-putting or concerning to others.

  1. Lack of remorse They rarely feel guilty about hurting others or bad behavior. Apologizing or taking responsibility for mistakes doesn’t come naturally.
  2. Self-Centeredness Their primary concern is themselves. The needs, wants, and feelings of others are secondary or unimportant. Conversations frequently revert back to them and their interests.
  3. Poor listening skills They tune out or talk over others, showing little interest in what the other person has to say. Their minds are occupied with what they want to say next rather than actively listening.
  4. Difficulty maintaining relationships Connecting deeply with others in a meaningful way is challenging. Relationships tend to be superficial, short-lived, or unhealthy as a result.
  5. Aggression or callousness Some may lash out aggressively at perceived slights, while others simply seem cold, harsh, and unfeeling towards people or situations that would normally evoke emotion in others.
  6. Lack of affection Expressing care, warmth, affection, and physical intimacy does not come naturally. Emotional needs and bonding with close ones tend to be underdeveloped or absent. While concerning, a lack of empathy does not necessarily make someone ‘bad’.

With conscious effort and awareness, empathy levels can be improved over time through experiences, education, counseling, and a genuine desire for growth. But for some, professional help may be needed to develop this ability and curb unhealthy behavior patterns.

The Role of Nature vs. Nurture

The Role of Nature vs. Nurture
The Role of Nature vs. Nurture

Whether lacking empathy is more due to nature or nurture is still up for debate. Some key factors that influence a person’s level of empathy include:


Our genes play some role in determining a person’s capacity for empathy. Identical twins, for example, tend to have similar levels of empathy. However, environment and experiences also significantly impact empathy development.

Environment and upbringing

The environment a person grows up in, including relationships with parents and peers, strongly shapes their ability to empathize. Children learn empathy through social interactions and modeling the empathy of others. Harsh, unloving, or abusive environments can hamper the development of empathy. On the other hand, nurturing, caring environments that encourage emotional expression and validation of others’ feelings cultivate empathy.

Life Experiences

Our life experiences continue to mold our empathy beyond childhood. Traumatic events like illness, injury, or loss can increase empathy as we gain insight into suffering. Positive social interactions where we experience deep connections to others also boost empathy. Conversely, a lack of exposure to diverse groups of people and life experiences can limit our ability to understand different perspectives and struggles.

While some individuals may be born with a greater capacity for empathy than others due to genetics, their environment and experiences play a much larger role in developing this vital ability. Empathy is a skill that can continue to be strengthened over a lifetime with conscious effort and practice. Understanding its roots gives us hope that we can build a more empathetic society by creating supportive environments and fostering meaningful human connections.

Strategies to increase empathy

Strategies to increase empathy
Strategies to increase empathy

To increase empathy in someone lacking it, try the following strategies:

  1. Listen actively: Pay close attention to others and try to understand their perspective and emotions. Ask follow-up questions and reflect back on what they’re saying to confirm you understand.
  2. Challenge negative assumptions: Try not to make negative snap judgments about others. Look for evidence that contradicts initial assumptions, and try to see the humanity in people. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
  3. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to see the world through the eyes of others who are different from you. Imagine what their lives are like and what they may have gone through. How would you feel in their situation? This can help foster understanding and compassion.
  4. Express interest in others. Show genuine curiosity about people and their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Make eye contact, smile, and engage people with empathy and care. Validate their experiences by saying things like, “I can understand why you feel that way.”
  5. Volunteer to help others. Helping people in need is a great way to increase empathy. Interact with and assist people from diverse backgrounds. Make personal connections, and you’ll gain valuable perspective.
  6. Travel and expose yourself to different cultures: Traveling and immersing yourself in diverse cultures is one of the best ways to become more empathetic. Witnessing different ways of life and values helps you appreciate life’s complexities and understand people better.
  7. Try to keep an open and curious mindset. With conscious effort and practice, empathy is a skill that can be strengthened over time. Make developing greater empathy a priority, and work on it each day through deliberate action and an open, compassionate mindset. Over time, empathy can become second nature.

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Coping Tips for Loved Ones of Low-Empathy Individuals

Coping with a loved one lacking empathy can be challenging. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Don’t take their behavior personally. Remember that their reactions say more about them than about you. Try not to internalize their lack of empathy.
  • Set clear boundaries. Be very specific about what is and isn’t acceptable treatment. Enforce consequences when those boundaries are crossed. This helps prevent their behavior from impacting you as much.
  • Focus on your own emotional needs. Make sure to connect with other empathetic loved ones who can provide the support you need. Engage in self-care and do things that help you de-stress and feel better.
  • Adjust your expectations. Accept that you can’t force them to change. I hope for the best, but expect that they may continue to lack empathy. This will prevent constant disappointment.
  • If the relationship is unhealthy, limit contact. While this is a last resort, if their lack of empathy causes significant problems, you may need to cut ties or at least restrict the time you spend together. Your mental health and safety come first.
  • Seek counseling or join a support group. Speaking to others in a similar position can help give you strategies and advice for coping. A counselor can also provide guidance tailored to your specific situation.
  • Focus on communicating in a compassionate way. Explain how certain actions make you feel and appeal to their self-interest by talking about the benefits of improving empathy skills. This approach is more likely to get through to them, even if change is slow.

With time and practice, dealing with a low-empathy loved one can get easier. But always put your own needs first, and don’t hesitate to make difficult decisions if your wellbeing is at stake. You deserve to be in healthy, mutually caring relationships.


So there you have it. Lack of empathy can have some serious effects on behavior and relationships. If someone in your life seems to lack empathy, try to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they grew up in a harsh environment or had emotionally unavailable parents. While their behavior isn’t okay, empathy and compassion from others can help.

On the other hand, if you’re the one struggling with empathy, the good news is that you can work to improve it. Make an effort to listen, understand different perspectives, and connect with the emotions of others. It will enrich your relationships and make you a happier, healthier person. Overall, empathy is such an important skill, so do whatever you can to nurture it in yourself and those around you.


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