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Indian Meal Moths and the Volunteer Crisis: How the Pandemic Destroyed Our Empathy

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

A good measure of the health of any church or community-based organization is the level of volunteerism among members. When a person is willing to dedicate their limited free time to supporting their church community, this not only demonstrates a commitment to the cause of the church, but also a belief that the investment of time enhances their sense of purpose and worth in the world. The more people give their time to a particular church, the greater the vitality of the community, which becomes a positive feedback loop that continuously draws in new participants.

Recently, however, what I have witnessed in my community, and many others, is that, as the effects of the pandemic persist, people have no desire to volunteer. This is not simply isolated to my church. This is true of churches and non-profits across the country. All of a sudden, people are not just pulling back from their responsibilities. They’re pulling out all together. When asked why individuals are not willing to give their time to various causes they used to care about, the answer is consistent: I have the time, I just don’t want to do it.

As someone who oversees an organization where the lifeblood of the community is rooted in volunteerism, the specter of less people donating their time for the benefit of the organization is a death knell. There is no way that community-based organizations can survive long term without the investment of people’s time and talents. Admittedly, it was a challenge before the pandemic to find enough volunteers to staff our programs. Now, it is nearly impossible, which has raised an important question in my mind: how did the pandemic create an environment where people simply no longer feel like helping out?

Initially, when this trend began in my community, I chalked it up to the fact people were scared by the prospect of getting infected by the Coronavirus and, therefore, were reticent to help out. Of course, I assumed this problem would correct itself once a majority of our community was vaccinated. I believed that, post-vaccine, everyone would eagerly jump back into church life. Instead, once our community was vaccinated, the anti-volunteer phenomenon not only persisted, but became worse.

I was racking my brain, trying to understand why this was happening. Was it something I said? Was it something I did or didn’t do? Was there some secret memo being passed around my community where everyone had silently agreed to back away from serving the church? I was flummoxed and, frankly, depressed. As it turns out, the answer was right in front of me or, at least, in my pantry.

Pantry Pests

Around April of 2021, I came across an article written about some fascinating research that was being published out of my alma mater, Rice University. The biologist, Volker Rudolf, in association with his longtime collaborator, Mike Boots of the University of California, Berkeley, published their findings about the Indian meal moth. If you have ever not properly sealed your cereals or flours, you may have encountered pantry pests like these. When the moth is able to lay eggs in these nutrient-rich environments, the larvae will eventually grow into vegetarian caterpillars, which will eventually metamorphize into the Indian meal moth.

The Indian Meal Moth

Rudolf and Boots became interested in the Indian meal moth larvae because they possess an interesting characteristic—sometimes they exhibit cannibalistic tendencies by eating one another and, in certain circumstances, even their own broodmates. What Rudolf and Boots discovered is that they could “predictably increase or decrease rates of cannibalism in Indian meal moths” by controlling the distance they could travel from one another.

Their findings were counterintuitive. One would assume that placing the larvae in close proximity to each other would increase their cannibalistic tendencies. The idea being that, as the larvae are running into each other, they would discern there is higher competition for scarce resources and, therefore, cannibalize their brothers and sisters. In fact, the opposite was true. As Rudolf and Boots decreased the range individuals could roam, forcing interactions with siblings, the cannibalistic behavior became less prevalent.

Indian Meal Moth Larvae

Indeed, by creating environments where the larvae were forced to interact with their siblings, what they discovered is that they could literally breed the cannibalistic behaviors out of the meal worms: “In habitats where caterpillars were forced to interact more often with siblings, less selfish behavior evolved within 10 generations.” The conclusion of their study was that “increased local interactions” among Indian meal worms “stack the deck against the evolution of selfish behaviors like cannibalism.”

In other words, when Indian meal moths are more isolated from each other, they end up exhibiting more selfish, cannibalistic tendencies. Whereas, when they are living in community together, they are more likely to exhibit selfless behaviors, such as sharing their resources. Paradoxically, the close proximity breeds altruism, whereas isolation breeds selfishness. What’s more important is that this principle doesn’t just apply to the Indian meal moth. This principle applies across species.

Other species are subject to this type of behavior modification. As local interactions increase, each successive generation selects for traits that decrease selfish behaviors. Rudolf said this is true among humans as well: “In societies or cultures that live in big family groups among close relatives, for example, you might expect to see less selfish behavior, on average, than in societies or cultures where people are more isolated from their families and more likely to be surrounded by strangers because they have to move often for jobs or other reasons.” Put simply, the more we are isolated from each other, the more selfish we become. Whereas, the more we live in community with others, the more we develop empathy, sympathy and compassion for others.

Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion

As I read this article, the problem I was facing came into focus: The reason why so many people in my church are reluctant to volunteer is because they have been isolated by the pandemic. The isolation has caused them to become myopic. Indeed, the more time they spend away from the community, just like the Indian meal moths, the more that isolation will nurture those selfish tendencies. In essence, isolation is a negative feedback loop. The more time people spend alone, the more disconnected they feel and the less likely they are to volunteer, which, in turn, nurtures the desire to become more isolated.

Ironically, the only way to break that negative feedback loop is by duplicating what Rudolf and Boots did in their experiment: by spending time together in community, a person will become less self-absorbed and more willing to give of their time. Again, this is completely counterintuitive to what I would have expected. One would assume that being isolated and having lots of time alone would inspire people to want to dive into a community to donate their time. Whereas the exact opposite is true: being in community is what breeds selflessness.

To understand why this happens, we must appreciate the way humans develop empathy, sympathy and compassion for others. First, let’s define each of these words. The difference between empathy and sympathy is subtle, but important. Sympathy is the feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. An example would be seeing someone who is homeless and feeling bad for them because of their circumstances.

Empathy, on the other hand, is defined as the ability to understand and feel what someone else is feeling. An example would be seeing someone who is homeless and trying to understand what it is like to walk a mile in their shoes. You literally attempt to feel what it is that they are feeling. Sympathy only requires understanding from your own perspective. Empathy requires you to experience the world from another person’s perspective. One must feel either sympathy or empathy for us to demonstrate compassion, which is the motivation to help or alleviate the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another.

Interestingly, one cannot develop empathy, sympathy and compassion in isolation from other people. One has to be in community to really cultivate these important traits. Why? Because empathy, sympathy and compassion are ultimately the result of working through conflict.

You see this a lot with children as they grow up. My sons will often wrestle with each other and, sometimes, they inadvertently hurt each other. When they were younger, and one of them ended up crying, they had little empathy, sympathy and compassion for the other. They were more worried about being punished than the well-being of their brother.

However, as they grew older, and they continued to hurt each other during wrestling matches, they began to understand that the pain they inflict on the other is pain they have personally felt. Now when they hurt each other, particularly if the injury was not intentional, their sympathy and empathy kick in and they demonstrate compassion for their brother by trying to help them.

What’s important to take away from this example is that conflict is what created their empathy, sympathy and compassion for the other. These qualities cannot be formed in a vacuum. Our ability to build empathy, sympathy and compassion is the direct result of being part of a community. When you are living in community with others, you experience friction. Working through that friction is what develops and deepens our empathy, sympathy and compassion for others.

However, just like the Indian meal moths, even if we have developed empathy, sympathy and compassion through our time in community, isolation can cause us to lose those qualities. Hence, the reason why volunteerism is dying is because of the isolation caused by the pandemic. In my circumstance, my parishioners are so disconnected from the church community that they have lost much of their empathy, sympathy or compassion for our challenges.

For instance, almost every single one of our Sunday School teachers has pulled out of teaching for the fall. The reasons span from health concerns, to time, to simply not feeling like they really want to help. We sent out an e-mail plea to our congregation, begging people to volunteer. I am well aware this e-mail will elicit almost no response because the vast majority of people have been disconnected from our community for close to a year and a half.

The isolation from the community has gutted their empathy, sympathy and compassion for our plight. Whereas, if they were present in the church and part of the community, interacting with our staff and kids, then they would experience the friction. They could see how much we are struggling. They would see the needs and develop sympathy or empathy, which would inspire the compassion to volunteer their time.

The Erosion of Empathy

Sadly, this problem is not new. Volunteerism has been on the decline for the past several decades in America. The pandemic has simply exacerbated and accelerated this trend even further. It is no secret that, prior to the pandemic, empathy in America was at an all-time low. Numerous studies were emerging that pointed to the fact that, as a society, we are losing the ability to empathize with one another. If you are interested in understanding more about the science behind how we develop empathy, I would highly recommend listening to The Empathy Gym episode from Hidden Brain. This episode will illuminate the numerous factors contributing to the societal decline in empathy.

Perhaps one of the most important factors contributing to the decline of empathy is likely in your hand right now. The ubiquity of modern communication technology is a heavy contributor to the erosion of empathy. More than ever before, we communicate through social media via text messages. These messages create a distance from the person with whom we are speaking. Because we cannot hear the person’s tone or view their facial expressions, we lack many of social cues that help us to understand a person’s intent with the message they are communicating. As a result, we are forced to imagine all of these indicators, which we often get wrong.

There is also the issue that social media enables us to say things we would never say to someone face to face. When you are standing in front of a flesh and blood human, you would never casually insult someone to their face for fear of retribution. In the online arena, there are no such rules governing our behaviors. The anonymity of the internet inhibits the social filters that normally dictate our behavior. As a pastor, people have made comments about me online that I know they would never have the courage to say to my face.

One key finding among studies of heavy social media users is the degree of loneliness they feel. Therefore, even though social media is supposed to keep us more connected, the exact opposite is happening. The more we engage with social media platforms, the more we feel disconnected from the people around us. The remedy to this isolation is putting down our phones and spending time with other people in-person.

Unfortunately, this solution is easier said than done. Another aspect of our lack of empathy is that we no longer live in close, tight-knit communities. If we were to rewind the clock to the early 1900s, what you would find is that most people lived the whole of their lives in the place where they were born. Although people might have moved away for school or relationships, these were short stints. Often, there was an expectation or desire to return to their community of origin to live out the rest of their lives.

By the latter half of 20th century, this trend was rapidly changing. Thanks to the ease of travel, people were opting to move away from their community of origin for jobs and relationships. Today, there is an expectation that a person will move wherever they can find work. As a result of this transience, our communities have become more fractured. Whereas, at the turn of the 20th century, every resident of town knew each other, today people move so often that you’re lucky if you’ve even spoken to your next door neighbor, let alone formed a meaningful relationship with them.

The point being, humans are social creatures and we need to be living in community with other humans to maintain our mental health. And yet, we live in a world where the connections formed by human social interaction are no longer naturally occurring. Combine this with our modern communication patterns through social media and we have created the perfect storm to destroy our empathy, sympathy and compassion.

Our Fate Hangs in the Balance

It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate how these conditions are at the root of a lot the divisions we are experiencing as a country. If you’ve been asking yourself why it feels like no one seems capable of absorbing a perspective that is not their own through constructive conversation, all you need to do is look at the Indian meal moth. The more we isolate from one another, the more selfish we will become, the worse this problem is going to get. Therefore, the solution to this problem is simple: we need to spend time with each other in community.

If you’ve been staying at home and thinking to yourself, “I just need some time for me and then I’ll get back to volunteering,” that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing. You need to put your phone down, leave your house and spend some time with other people. In fact, you need to spend time with people who are not like you. You need to feel that friction in your life. You need to work through the conflict because that’s the only way you will regain your sense of empathy, sympathy and compassion.

Perhaps it’s at a church or community center. Perhaps it’s at a food pantry or tutoring program. Perhaps it’s simply walking down the street and running into random people. Whatever you decide is right for you, don’t wait. Do it now. We must take control and fight the negative instinct to fold in on ourselves. The fate of our society literally depends on all of us breaking the barriers of isolation that have slowly, and imperceptibly, imprisoned us over the last 50 years. Otherwise, the pandemic will lock the cell and throw away the key.

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