Empathy on the decline

Empathy is one of the finer human traits. We like to think of it as a hard-wired aspect of our humanity and one of the things that sets us apart from some other species – our ability to understand and care about the feelings of others.

Certainly, it is very important in the function of a fair and compassionate society. If we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, we are more likely to help that person out during a difficult time and when we do this on a large scale we can raise the quality of life for all.

This is why some recent data is concerning. One US study out of the University of Michigan examined data from 14,000 college students who had filled out a self-report questionnaire between 1979 and 2010 and found young people today are considerably less empathic than they were 30 years ago.

According to this study, 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than their peers of 30 years ago. Empathy has declined in each of the last three decades with the sharpest decline occurring since 2000.

At the same time, other research points to a significant rise in self-reported narcissism and emphasis on the self. The lead researcher from this empathy study reported that many consider the current group of college students to be the most self-centered, competitive and individualistic in recent history.

It does seem to follow that a growing emphasis on self would correspond with less concern or care for others.

So what is making people have less empathy today?

Although a definitive answer is not available, there are several theories being posed by those in the field. Mostly, an increase in social isolation is blamed for the recent drop in empathy. People today are more likely to live alone and less likely to be part of groups than they were in the past. Social isolation has been linked to having less empathic feelings toward others.

Increased media exposure to violence through news, television and video games is also posited as one way in which we have become numbed to the pain of others.

Of course, no modern theory would be complete without the effects of social media playing into it as well. Some believe social media such as Facebook contributes to the problem because we can have the illusion of many friends with not much depth of relationship while also being able to ignore or tune out if a person’s problems make us feel uncomfortable.

People today are also far less likely to read than they were in previous decades. In the US, some recent data suggests less than 50 percent of today’s adults read literature for pleasure with the sharpest decrease occurring in young adults. A study out of York University suggests reading is connected to empathy – children who read more stories are better able to understand the emotions of others and those who read less fiction tend to report themselves as less empathic.

Still, empathy has been shown as a trait that is somewhat in-born among humans – and researchers from this study find a silver lining to the decline in recent years to show that our social context and environment can have a large impact on even innate traits.

If we can have a sharp decline, we can surely also make changes and choices that will have a positive effect on empathy. These are where the research should lead so that we can foster a caring, compassionate society where we are not solely concerned about number one.


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