The Psychology of Indifference

What causes the psychological condition of “indifference?” Indifference or apathy is a state in which we don’t care and/or don’t take action on something happening around us. People who are indifferent can be seen as cold, aloof, disinterested, unmotivated, and lacking in passion. There may be several reasons for indifference.

One cause may be that we are overstimulated, which is easy to happen in today’s culture. We receive information on our cell phones and from all of our friends instantly any time of day or night. We are bombarded with horrible news from around the world at the very moment it occurs. On TV we can watch crime shows all day long showing the terrible things that people do to each other. All of this information can be somewhat traumatic, and so we may shut down emotionally and mentally as a coping mechanism.

Indifference may occur when the problems of our life, our families, our communities, our country, and our world may seem so overwhelming that we feel quite powerless to do anything about them. This means that even when we notice what is going on around us, we may feel unable to make a difference. Instead of trying, we simply shrug our shoulders and move on.

There can be group and bystander effects causing indifference. When we see others being indifferent and apathetic, then we may be tempted to go along with the crowd. But the opposite may also be true. The worst time and place for our car to break down is on the side of a freeway during rush hour because hundreds of people will pass us by thinking to themselves “somebody else will stop and help” or they may think “I’m not going to stop because nobody else is stopping.” Whole parishes, schools, and communities can become apathetic or indifferent as a group. Apathy and indifference are contagious.

Certain drugs such as marijuana and narcotics may cause people to be indifferent. People can also be apathetic because of illnesses such as depression or other brain disorders. However, there may be a more insidious cause.

There is good evidence that people are gradually becoming more narcissistic. We find a growing sense of selfishness in the world. Our pride and unrestrained egos cause us to place ourselves first and everybody else a far second. The result of this self-indulgence is that we are indifferent to everything else that may be going on around us. We end up not caring about the suffering of others.

In summary, the causes of indifference can vary and they are powerful. Pope Francis recently expressed his concern about a growth of indifference not just in Western cultures but all around the world. Christ challenges us to be passionate, not lukewarm (see Revelation 3:15-16). When we read the lives of the saints we may learn that they did what seemed like small good deeds, but many of these small actions have had a big effect over time. Consider the impact of the humble nun Sr. Maria Kowalska who became known as St. Faustina, delivering the simple message of divine mercy that has now spread around the world. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta probably at times was overwhelmed by the suffering sick and poor all around her, but she did what she could for them with what she had.

If we become willing to do our own part of God’s mission in building His Kingdom and if we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in order to find what our work might be, we might see where and how we can take action on it. We don’t have to save the whole world because God has and is taking care of that. We just need to do our part. Let’s not wait for someone else to do the work. We need to believe that helping the poor and sick and marginalized is important. Let’s do it with fire and spirit. Passion is infectious.

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