Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, May 30, 2010

why aren't you more emphatic about my lack of empathy?

Psychology Today:

College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new meta-analysis presented to at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers. It includes data from over 14,000 students. . . .

Previous research done by psychologist Jean Twenge had measured what she labeled a "narcissism epidemic," with more students showing selfish qualities and with increases in traits that can lead to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. That is a condition in which people are so self-involved that other people are no more than objects to reflect their glory.

But I was less than convinced by that data because some of the measures of narcissism — statements like "I am a special person," — might reflect a lifetime spent in classrooms aimed at raising self-esteem rather than a true increase in self-centeredness.

The survey on empathy used in this study — which you can take for yourself here — however, is another matter. While it so obviously measures empathy that you could easily game it to make yourself look kinder and nicer, the fact that today's college students don't even feel compelled to do that suggests that the study is measuring something real. If young people don't even care about seeming uncaring, something is seriously wrong.

Online life gets a lot of blame. Plausibly?

UPDATE: Via Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket, a curious and thoughtful essay on this topic by Roberto Greco.


  • Also, this was the generation whose early social life sometimes revolved around (sometimes competitive) accumulation, of beanie babies and Pokemon cards, in place of narratives and pick up games and Sunday company on the porch.

  • Well, we also are the generation who saw the increase in mental disorders among our peers sky-rocket, and had to learn to keep our distance; we were raised with the language of "boundaries". but my main problem with the study/quote is this:
    back in the day americans REALLY were more empathetic? sure, if throwing around the phrase, "Ohhh! I am SO sorry to hear that" to our neighbors counts as empathy, then sure. But really? Maybe they felt like they were more empathetic back in the day, but i would like to see some stats on college students' charitable giving or volunteering over the decades

  • What's to say that our forebears weren't overly empathetic, and that we've adjusted to a more reasonable standard?

  • Is narcissism the inverse of empathy or can one lack empathy w/o being a narcissist? If young people lack empathy, it's only because they are products of an environment created by their parents and teachers, which is characterized by some imbalance. The blame often goes to permissiveness and neglect coupled paradoxically with esteem-building without foundation. The spoilage and entitlement that results in what is variously call the strawberry generation or the little emperor syndrome. There are a lot of cooks stirring this particular broth, however, and casting blame inevitably narrows the complexity of the problem.

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