Humans Are Far Less Empathetic Than They Used To Be

“Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.” —Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

In A Nutshell

According to a comprehensive study from the University of Michigan, we care about others 40 percent less than people in the 1980s did, with the biggest drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000. Reasons for this drop in empathy is anyone’s guess, but the increase in media (both social and mainstream) and violent video games have been trotted out as the likely suspects.

The Whole Bushel

Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing surveys completed by close to 14,000 college volunteers over the past 30 years. The surveys asked simply, in various ways, how much somebody cared about the predicament of another. One question, for example, asked how much volunteers agreed with the statement, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” Another was “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Students in 1979, when the study began, were far more likely to agree, whereas students in 2009, well, weren’t into the whole “concern for others” scene as much.

Sarah Konrath, the lead on this study from the University of Michigan, suggests that the most recent generation really isn’t as empathetic because they are simply more self-absorbed than previous ones. She believes that the most recent wave of youth is “one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.” Constant concern for themselves, in other words, comes at the cost of being able to think about the problems of others.

But the terribleness of youth isn’t entirely their own fault, according to researchers. The increase of social media and the Internet, they believe, has reduced face-to-face interactions. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, except for the fact that these online relationships are easier to ignore whenever it’s convenient. An online friend stating their problems or asking for help on Facebook, for example, is as easy to dodge as clicking the mouse or shutting off the computer. Face-to-face interactions, you might be surprised to know, aren’t as convenient; the equivalent, maybe, would be physically running away, while your friend stares at your back with tear-filled eyes. The urge to run away or ignore your friend’s problems, even in face-to-face interactions, might be increased in young people because they’ve gotten used to this “convenience” online.

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But also, researchers suggest, the expectations of modern society have changed—and not necessarily for the better for college students. Competitiveness and a must-succeed-at-all-costs philosophy is far more prevalent than in previous generations, according to Edward O’Brien, another member of this study. Feeling empathy for others takes time and effort, which could be better spent, at least in the minds of young people, on achieving their own goals.

Other possibilities for the downgrade in emotional sympathy? Being brought up on a steady diet of violent TV and video games, says Konrath, may deaden our feelings for others, probably in the same way our apathetic attitude toward friends carries over from the Internet. Oh, and there’s also the increasingly limited interaction between parents and their children through the decades that could be to blame for the decline of empathy.

Of course, all of these are just theories trying to explain the empathetic nosedive. The truth could be one of these things, some combination of them, or something completely different (e.g., aliens). Or the study itself could be flawed and we really don’t ignore the occasional message from friends or share every detail of our lives on the Internet like some narcissistic reality TV star. Yeah, that never happens. So what do you think is going on here?

Show Me The Proof

Generation me students have less empathy than 20 years ago
Empathy: College Students Don’t Have as Much as They Used To, Study Finds
NY Times: From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?

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