Empathy down, narcissism up

via What, Me Care? to be published in January’s issue of Scientific American, a study finds a decline in empathy among young people in the U.S.

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.

An individual’s empathy can be assessed in many ways, but one of the most popular is simply asking people what they think of themselves. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a well-known questionnaire, taps empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” People vary a great deal in how empathic they consider themselves. Moreover, research 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.

The authors of the study have been trying to determine the cause of this drop in empathy and they cite several possible reasons, amongst them social isolation, and a decline in reading habits.

As I’ve said before, I am not a sociologist (or a psychologist, for that matter), so I am not professionally qualified to make scientific assumptions in this field but, I do spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing media and trends in media/ popular culture so, I have to wonder if this decline in empathy is not somehow related to a raise in the most brutal kind of capitalist discourse that has been taking place for the past 20 years or so. This narrative which, funny enough, only got worse after the Cold War was supposedly over, qualifying any kind of welfare and solidarity as a direct threat to our individuality and our right to pursue our material desires in detriment of anything or anyone who dares to interfere. There are even political parties running on platforms that are pretty much the opposite of empathy and solidarity. This is not limited to the US, even though this study is localized there, I would dare say this is probably a phenomenon all over the so called Western World. If we keep hearing that we have no responsibility for the well being of others, we might end up believing so.

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