Are Americans losing their capacity for empathy?

Yet another finding that points to an ominous conclusion: Americans are losing their capacity to identify emotionally with the plight of their fellow beings.

Given that the United States is the biggest global bully known to history, armed with the mightiest remote control weaponry ever seen, the decline of empathy in young people of fighting age bodes ill for the world.

We reported earlier on a University of Michigan that tracked the degree of empathy among 14,000 college students over the last three decades, which reached the conclusion that “[c]ollege kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

Jamil Zaki offers more detail on the study in the January issue of Scientific American, along with findings of a second study by a California researcher:

The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.

Self-reported empathy on standardized tests correlates strongly with observable conduct. Including helping people, Zaki reports.

[R]esearch confirms that the people who say they are empathic actually demonstrate empathy in discernible ways, ranging from mimicking others’ postures to helping people in need (for example, offering to take notes for a sick fellow student).

Since the creation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in 1979, tens of thousands of students have filled out this questionnaire while participating in studies examining everything from neural responses to others’ pain to levels of social conservatism. Konrath and her colleagues took advantage of this wealth of data by collating self-reported empathy scores of nearly 14,000 students. She then used a technique known as cross-temporal meta-analysis to measure whether scores have changed over the years. The results were startling: almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.

There’s plenty of evidence that the capacity for empathy is hard-wired into the human nervous system. It’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise, given that human infants are helplessly dependent on others of the species far longer than other mammals, as Twenge and Konrath both observe, citing students which are mentioned in the Scientific American article.

That said, Zaki writes,

[T]he new finding that empathy is on the decline indicates that even when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses. Precisely what is sapping young people of their natural impulse to feel for others remains mysterious . .

There are theories, however. Konrath cites the increase in social isolation, which has coincided with the drop in empathy. In the past 30 years Americans have become more likely to live alone and less likely to join groups—ranging from PTAs to political parties to casual sports teams. Several studies hint that this type of isolation can take a toll on people’s attitudes toward others. Steve Duck of the University of Iowa has found that socially isolated, as compared with integrated, individuals evaluate others less generously after interacting with them, and Kenneth J. Rotenberg of Keele University in England has shown that lonely people are more likely to take advantage of others’ trust to cheat them in laboratory games.

Zaki also points to a radical shift in the way people look at the world, particularly the rapid abandonment of reading as a leisure activity. He notes that for the first time since measurements have been taken, Americans are abandoning the book, with less than half of adults now reading for pleasure — with the drop even greater among people of college age.

In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.

Zaki concludes that “the American personality is shifting in an ominous direction.”

Twenge has also uncovered another disturbing finding. At the same time empathy is declining, America’s young have become overconfident, as she explains in this brief interview:

Finally, here’s another angle on modern media culture from Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, presented at the June 2009 Personal Democracy Forum and titled The Machine is (Changing) Us; YouTube Culture and the Politics of Authenticity:


One response to “Are Americans losing their capacity for empathy?

  1. michellefrommadison

    Yes, they are losing empathy and any fan of Nancy Grace is proof. Although that can simply be confused as them being uneducated and uninformed, I still believe the show proves just how stupid some people can be to disregard both reality and the facts and still feel confident in their wrongful opinions.

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