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What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic

Susan Notes:

Why is it that the popular press never provides links to articles they are discussing?
Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time by Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O'Brien and Courtney Hsing

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Huffington Post piece by Jean M. Twenge.

I had some extraordinary encounters with empathy when teaching 7th and 8th graders who just as self-centered as pre-adolescents and adolescents are supposed to be (recounted in Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum)--to the degree that whenever the self-contained class which included children with Down's Syndrome put on a play, we were asked to come be the audience. My classes were the kids segregated as the worst readers in the school: behavior problems, kids on probation--you name the social ill--they had it. But they could be relied on to behave courteously and even enthusiastically toward the Down's Syndrome students.

When he was a junior in high school, Michael came back for a visit. "Did you see The Acorn People on TV? I made my whole family watch it. . . but the book was better." He grinned, "I bet you never thought you'd hear me say that.

The Common Core standards don't include The Acorn People on their list for 7th and 8th graders. And somehow, I don't think Little Women would do the same job. If reading fiction helps people become empathetic, then what does a teacher do when the required reading list makes students wish they were dead?

In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Here's how the people in the Common Core Curriculum Mapping Project want kindergartners to spend their time:

Using different colored index cards representing three common rimes (/-ill/, /-ock/, /-ate/) and other colored cards for first sounds (/l/, /d/, /m/), show in a pocket chart that the first sound(s) might change, but if the last part is the same, the words rhyme (d-ock, l-ock do rhyme; l- ock and l- ate do
not rhyme). (RF.K.2a,c)

Say a word slowly in syllables and have students say the whole word: tooth-paste; bath-tub; but-ter-fly; ba-na-nabread. (RF.K.2b)

With students looking in mirrors and feeling their throats, model the difference between /p/ and /b/; /f/ and /v/; /k/ and /g/; and so forth; with students, classify consonant sounds as voiced or unvoiced. (RF.K.2d)

Try it at your next social event

Reader Comment:

Unfortunately, as a high school English teacher, none of this is surprising. First of all, that reading fiction makes us more empathetic (that's one of the main reasons many of us decide to teach literature--because we realize the power it has to ignite compassion), but secondly, that levels of empathy are decreasing as narcissism rises.

In the classroom, I increasingly see kids who are completely detached from the rest of the world, largely because they don't read or watch the news and aren't exposed to it at home (I wrote about this here ). This detachment seems to spread into their personal relationships, which are fast and frequent through electronic means, but often leave the students' interpersonal skills cold ( another topic I broached.

These are certainly generalizations, as I know many empathetic young people, but the trend outlined in your article, as I said, has been witnessed and discussed by educators in the lunch room for the five years I've been in it.

Reader Comment: Reading may be linked to empathy, but natural empathy may drive people to read, rather than the other way around. In my own case, when I was in school (long before the Internet), I remember being bored by the stories I was forced to read. For example, Wuthering Heights was full of characters and plots that were basically not my problem. If I had met these people in real life, I would have kept walking.

As an adult, I might now be able to appreciate the book. At the time, however, it was torture. Those who believe that the cure for low empathy is more reading in school should not be surprised when they find their student wishing even more fervently that they were dead.

by Jamil Zaki

Humans are unlikely to win the animal kingdom’s prize for fastest, strongest or largest, but we are world champions at understanding one another. This interpersonal prowess is fueled, at least in part, by empathy: our tendency to care about and share other people’s emotional experiences. Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate. A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years.

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.

What's to Blame?
This information seems to conflict with studies suggesting that empathy is a trait people are born with. For example, in a 2007 study Yale University developmental psychologists found that six-month-old infants demonstrate an affinity for empathic behavior, preferring simple dolls they have seen helping others over visually similar bullies. And investigators at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have shown that even when given no incentive, toddlers help experimenters and share rewards with others. Empathic behavior is not confined to humans or even to primates. In a recent study mice reacted more strongly to painful stimuli when they saw another mouse suffering, suggesting that they "share" the pain of their cage mates.

But the new finding that empathy is on the decline indicates that even when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses. Precisely what is sapping young people of their natural impulse to feel for others remains mysterious, however, because scientists cannot design a study to evaluate changes that occurred in the past. As Twenge puts it, "you can’t randomly assign people to a generation."

There are theories, however. Konrath cites the increase in social isolation, which has coincided with the drop in empathy. In the past 30 years Americans have become more likely to live alone and less likely to join groups--ranging from PTAs to political parties to casual sports teams. Several studies hint that this type of isolation can take a toll on people's attitudes toward others. Steve Duck of the University of Iowa has found that socially isolated, as compared with integrated, individuals evaluate others less generously after interacting with them, and Kenneth J. Rotenberg of Keele University in England has shown that lonely people are more likely to take advantage of others' trust to cheat them in laboratory games.

The types of information we consume have also shifted in recent decades; specifically, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults. And reading may be linked to empathy. In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.

Whereas the sources of empathic decline are impossible to pinpoint, the work of Konrath and Twenge demonstrates that the American personality is shifting in an ominous direction. Still, we are not doomed to become a society of self-obsessed loners. Konrath points out that if life choices can drive empathy down, then making different choices could nurture it. "The fact that empathy is declining means that there's more fluidity to it than previously thought," she says. "It means that empathy can change. It can go up."

— Jamil Zaki
Scientific American


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