The Mysteries of Apathy

Researchers from University of Oxford and University College London have just published a new scale for measuring apathy. But who really cares, right? Whatever.

Apathy is one of those basic emotions we all know about that still isn’t very well understood from a scientific perspective. Part of the problem is that psychologists haven’t really had a good way for measuring apathy in the general population.

According to the authors of the new scale for measuring apathy: “Whilst many tools have been developed to assess levels of apathy in clinical disorders, surprisingly there are no measures of apathy suitable for healthy people.”

(Maybe it’s just that no one could be bothered to make one.)

Despite the limited research on apathy as a general phenomenon, we do know that apathy seems to play a prominent role in several different brain disorders. For example, apathy has been studied as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease and as a precursor to Alzheimer’s. And although apathy is distinct from depression, the former can be a symptom of the latter.

Apathy can also be related to psychosis, and it has been linked with certain brain changes in schizophrenia.

However, high levels of apathy aren’t necessarily symptomatic of anything other than apathy. One study of 2751 adults between the ages of 18 and 40 found that 1.45 percent of them experienced abnormally elevated levels of apathy. These people didn’t differ from their non-apathetic counterparts in terms of depression, feelings of self-efficacy, or perceived social skills, but they did end up with lower quality of life.

Of course, we all experience apathy sometimes, some of us more than others. A 2015 study from Oxford linked how apathetic people were to how willing they were to exert physical effort to obtain rewards. The results suggest that more apathetic people are less willing to exert effort to obtain smaller rewards while less apathetic people more readily exert effort for both small and large rewards.

The new scale developed for measuring apathy should make it easier to do more research like this in the future. That in turn could give us a clearer idea of what apathy is and what role it plays in disorders ranging from neurodegenerative conditions to schizophrenia.

As if any of that even matters, though.

Image: Flickr/Lee Gwyn