Apathy (also called impassivity or perfunctoriness) is a state of indifference, or the lack or suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest or concern to emotional, social, or physical life. They may also exhibit an insensibility or sluggishness.

Often, apathy has been felt after witnessing horrific acts, such as the killing or maiming of people during a war. It is also known to be associated with many conditions, some of which are: Alzheimer's disease, Chagas' disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, dementia, excessive vitamin D, general fatigue, Huntington's disease, Pick's disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), schizophrenia, and others. Some medications and the heavy use of drugs such as marijuana may bring apathy as a side effect.


Apathy etymologically derives from the Greek απάθεια (apatheia), a term used by the Stoics to signify indifference for what one is not responsible for (that is, according to their philosophy, all things exterior, one being only responsible of his representations and judgments). Another way of understanding the way that the Stoics saw apathy was as "the extinction of the passions by the ascendency of reason."

Many Christians believe that the concept was then reappropriated by Christians, who adopted the term to express a contempt of all earthly concerns, a state of mortification, as (they claim) the gospel prescribes. The word has been used since then among more devout writers. Clemens Alexandrinus, in particular, brought the term exceedingly in vogue, thinking hereby to draw the philosophers to Christianity, who aspired after such a sublime pitch of virtue. Macaulay referred to "The apathy of despair." Prescott described "A certain apathy or sluggishness in his nature which led him . . . to leave events to take their own course." The concept of apathy became more well-known after the First World War, when it was called "shell shock". Soldiers who lived in the trenches amidst the bombing and machine gun fire, and who saw the battlefields strewn with dead and maimed comrades developed a sense of disconnected numbness and indifference to normal social interaction.

In 1950, US novelist John Dos Passos wrote that "Apathy is one of the characteristic responses of any living organism when it is subjected to stimuli too intense or too complicated to cope with. The cure for apathy is comprehension." US educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins summarized the concerns about political indifference when he claimed that the "death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Relationship with illnesses


John McManamy argues that although psychiatrists do not explicitly deal with the condition of apathy, it is a psychological problem for some depressed people, in which they get a sense that "nothing matters", the "lack of will to go on and the inability to care about the consequences". He describes depressed people who "...cannot seem to make myself do anything", who "can't complete anything", and who do not "feel any excitement about seeing loved ones". He acknowledges that the "bible" of psychiatry, the DSM does not discuss apathy. In a Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences article from 1991, Dr Robert Marin MD claimed that apathy occurs due to brain damage or neuropsychiatric illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson's, or Huntington’s, or else an event such as a stroke. Marin argues that apathy should be regarded as a syndrome or illness. A review article by Robert van Reekum MD et al from the University of Toronto in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry (2005) claimed that "depression and apathy were a package deal" in some populations.

Other illnesses and marijuana use

In an article entitled SHOULD APATHY BE INCLUDED IN THE DSM-V?, Michelle Stephenson described how the proposal to put apathy as its own disorder in the DSM-V were debated during 16th Annual Meeting of the American Neuropsychiatric Association. Dr James D. Duffy argued that apathy should be considered a disorder, while Dr Michael B. First argued that such a proposal would face many hurdles. Dr. Duffy pointed out that people that have apathy may not feel any distress, and so they slip between the cracks of the health care system. Dr. Duffy claimed that apathy can occur alone or with other disorders. He claims that about 27% of stroke patients (after their stroke), 80% of people with Alzheimer’s, between 38% to 45% of people with Parkinson’s disease and 50% of all patients with HIV infection developed apathy. People who smoke high quantities of marijuana can show signs of apathy. Dr. First argued against apathy being a stand-alone disorder, pointing out that it is only mentioned 15 times in 943 pages of the DSM-V.


  1. Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

External links

Search another word or see apathyon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature