Apathy, or the absence of emotion, is a feeling of generalized indifference and unaffectedness. The term can be used in a variety of contexts. For example, an apathetic voter is one who has not committed to any candidate because they are uninterested in the election. In psychology, apathy can be a symptom of several mental health conditions.
What Is Apathy?
When people discuss apathy in a psychological context, they may still mean several different things. For example, there are a few commonly referenced types of apathy such as bystander apathy and social apathy.
While bystander apathy refers to the bystander effect, in which witnesses of stressful or violent events do not intervene to stop them, social apathy has historically referred to a lack of interest in social activities. Today, the term social apathy may also be used synonymously with societal apathy to describe a lack of empathy for or interest in social or community causes.
Apathy has also been conceptualized as a syndrome. Although apathy syndrome is not listed in the DSM-5, some experts argue for the importance of its recognition. A person who experiences apathy syndrome may display a group of symptoms which include:
- Reduced productivity and perseverance
- Less motivation to achieve goals
- Less consideration of goals
- Disinterest in self-care
- Reduced participation in social activities
- Flat or blunted affect
- Emotionally unresponsive to positive or negative events
- Lack of excitement, sadness, or anger
Most research differentiates apathy syndrome from apathy when it presents as a symptom of another condition. Apathy syndrome, however, may reduce cognitive function over time and, according to one study, could have a particularly harmful effect on elderly individuals.
What Causes Apathy?
Most people experience apathy from time to time. Sometimes apathy is simply an indication that a person does not care about a particular topic. An English major may feel apathetic about a new math theory, and a person who dislikes animals may feel apathetic when meeting someone’s pet. There is some evidence that people who experience a significant amount of apathy tend to be less happy because they find the world less intriguing.
Chronic or extreme apathy in several areas of life may indicate an underlying health condition. For instance, apathy can be common in those who experience the following conditions:
- Depression: Apathy is a common symptom of depression. Individuals who experience depression may suddenly feel uninterested in activities they once enjoyed.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): People with obsessive-compulsive tendencies may experience indifference toward their hobbies when their compulsions take over their lives.
- Anxiety: Those with anxiety may be so focused on their fears they are unable to take interest in the hobbies and social interactions they previously enjoyed.
- Dementia: Current research links apathy to conditions that cause dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. Apathy may also worsen preexisting dementia.
Severe apathy can make it difficult for people to succeed in the workplace, keep healthy relationships, and maintain good physical and emotional health. Additionally, sudden or unexplainable apathy could be a sign of an underlying mental or physical health problem. Talking to your health care provider or therapist is a good first step toward overcoming apathy and feeling more like yourself.
Treatment for apathy is most often dependent upon whether it exists by itself or as a symptom of another condition. Apathy caused by an underlying health issue may be most effectively addressed by your physician or health care provider.
People experiencing apathy may struggle with defeating their feelings of indifference. An important first step in combating apathy that occurs alone or as a symptom of a mental health condition is to identify any possible triggers or causes and make adjustments to eliminate those triggers from one’s life. Changing a daily routine by adding new activities and scheduling enough events to fill the day can also help keep the mind busy and help prevent apathy. A person can also make small goals and direct personal areas of strength toward those goals or make a larger goal to work toward slowly.
Therapy can help people identify what is triggering their apathy. Once a therapist helps a person determine some potential causes of apathy, they may work with their client to develop strategies for overcoming apathy. For example, someone may attend therapy for apathy brought on by social anxiety. They might determine that in their case, apathy is caused by avoiding and blocking out uncomfortable feelings that arise when they attend social events, and they may then work with their therapist to learn skills for processing difficult feelings associated with social anxiety.
Apathy in Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is a field of psychology dedicated to building upon a person’s strengths and focusing on the positive aspects of personality rather than scrutinizing and labeling the negative aspects. In positive psychology, apathy is indicative of a person’s uncertainty about the capacity to complete a task. A positive psychologist might argue apathetic voters feel ill-equipped to identify the proper candidate or be unsure their votes will count.
- American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Davenport, B. (2013, April 28). 10 ways to snap out of apathy. Retrieved from http://www.barriedavenport.com/2013/04/28/10-ways-to-snap-out-of-apathy
- Fry, T. C. (1892). Some causes of social apathy. The Economic Review, 3(2), 318-329. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/openview/0066f5548815fe3b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2316
- Ishii, S., Weintraub, N., & Mervis, J. R. (2009). Apathy: A common psychiatric syndrome in the elderly. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 10, 381-393. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2009.03.007
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Marin, R. S. (1991). The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 3(3), 243-254. doi: 10.1176/jnp.3.3.243
- Schuyler, D. (2007, October 1). Recognition of apathy as marker for dementia growing. Psychiatric Times, 3. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/dementia/recognition-apathy-marker-dementia-growing
- Societal apathy. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://publicsphereproject.org/content/societal-apathy
Last Updated: 04-24-2019
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Wendy H.June 23rd, 2015 at 10:08 PM
Apathy seems to be a factor my partner of 4+years. We moved in together about 6 month ago and he seems very rigid black and white thinking and I feel as if I have no voice . Contemplating ending the relationship.
ANdypANdyOctober 16th, 2019 at 10:25 PM
Not sure if I can bother commenting..
Sam CNovember 24th, 2020 at 9:20 PM
Apathy has effected a good portion of my life, I believe those who are going through an apathetic episode in their life should seek counseling. It affects every aspect of your life from your eating habits to career choices. And those in a serious relationship will experience hardships, which would effects the mental health significantly. I advise those who come across this with extreme or prolonged periods of apathy to seek professional help through therapy, or sit down with your significant other and try to express yourself ,even if you feel it would not help.
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