Hard Times for Empathy

October 13th, 2010 by Ethan Watters

Sara Konrath’s research has shown that today’s college-aged kids are finding it tougher to care for others – but why?

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Sara Konrath, a social psychologist and empathy researcher at the University of Michigan, grew up in a bustling working-class family of eight in which there often wasn’t enough attention or other resources to go around. Konrath remembers she was about 8 years old when an older woman from the community -- a kind of volunteer grandmother -- began to show up and pitch in with childcare. The woman, Ruth, wasn’t a family relative and wasn’t paid for her help. “She’d do things like take a bunch of the kids to the playground or to get ice cream so that my mother could have an easier Sunday afternoon,” Konrath recalls. “She was just one of those rare people who have an incredible capacity to care for others, including near strangers -- like my family.”

That example of selflessness stuck with Konrath as she went to college and then graduate school and became a formal student of social psychology. There, she set about trying to understand the social and individual dimensions of empathy and its flipside, narcissism. In particular, she wanted to learn if there had been a change in the general desire and ability to help others; she wanted to know whether her generation was producing as many Ruth’s as her parent’s generation had.

What Konrath found, and recently published, is startling. Among college students, it appears that empathy has significantly declined in recent decades, while narcissism has been steadily on the rise. The insight wasn’t easy to come by. “Every generation is prone to making generalizations about ‘kids’ these days,’” says Konrath. “But when you’re comparing fifty-year-olds to their children, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re measuring differences in life stages or true differences in attitudes and behaviors.”

To get around that issue, Konrath’s method examined each generation at a moment in time when they’ve been most studied by psychologists and sociologists: their college years. (A number of standardized tests for traits like altruism and narcissism have been in use for decades.) To understand trends in empathy, for instance, Konrath analyzed the results of 72 studies that used a questionnaire called the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index on various groups of college students between 1979 and 2009. The index is designed to gauge an individual’s degree of empathy for others, and studies consistently find that the people who score highest on it are the most likely to help others in need or give of their time and money.

The results of Konrath’s meta-analysis showed that college students today score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students of 20 or 30 years ago; the decline has been particularly steep since 2000. Meanwhile, scores on tests measuring narcissism, a trait associated with self-centeredness, have risen by 30 percent since the late 1970s and early 1980s, Konrath found. For instance, students today are significantly less likely to endorse statements like, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” And they were more likely to agree with statements like, “Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal.”

Since her studies have come out, Konrath has attracted a lot of press, not all of it accurate. One headline announced “The End of Empathy” and warned that if not arrested the decline in empathy would “erode everything we truly care about: family, friendship, our very future.” Konrath insists the news, while troubling, isn’t quite so dire. “Empathy may be sick,” she says, “but not ‘you have six months to live’ sick.” Empathy is scored on a five-point scale, Konrath notes, and the most recent college-student averages are just above 3. While that score does indicate a decline from recent generations, we haven’t bottomed out by any measure.

The rise in narcissism is an equally complex phenomenon. Despite the word’s negative connotations, narcissism is related to a particularly American belief in the power of the individual spirit to overcome obstacles. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, for example, when more people (particularly those from formerly oppressed or disenfranchised groups) endorse statements like, “I can live my life any way I want to.” Statements that may be suggestive of narcissism aren’t so far from ideas enshrined in our founding documents, like having the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But even with these caveats in mind, Konrath admits that the generational shifts are troubling and worth understanding. So what’s behind these trends? Her list of culprits comes from casual observation, not from the data, and she’s quick to note that she’s only speculating. Our growing penchant for communicating electronically may be one factor at play, Konrath says. Although we may interact with dozens or hundreds of people in online social networks, the fact that we rarely see people face to face may dull our instinct for empathy. “These physically distant online environments could functionally create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.”

The increasing speed and demands of college life may simply limit the time and energy modern college students have to share with each other, Konrath adds. Another possibility is that, where earlier generations married and had families in their twenties, college students today often put off settling and instead live for a decade or more in social circles relatively devoid of infants and children. “I think empathy in humans is very biological and likely originates in parental care,” she says. “Empathic feelings are elicited by signals of need, and infants are the poster child of needs, so to speak. When neither you nor your friends are having children, some of your empathic abilities may stay dormant.”

This last observation comes from personal experience: Konrath recently had her first child. “Perspective-taking, imagining one’s self into another perspective, is usually considered a basic aspect of empathy,” she says. “The experience of being a new parent has made me think a lot about empathy and perspective-taking as something like a muscle that needs practice -- one that can atrophy if not exercised regularly.” That’s a hopeful thought: that the potential for empathy remains, even if its expression has declined. Perhaps it’s not too late to give that muscle group a workout and get back into shape.

Ethan Watters is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, and other magazines, and is the author most recently of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, which was published in January by Free Press.