Are We Losing Empathy – Studies Show Narcissism is on the Rise

According to a 2010 study by the University of Michigan, today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s.

Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research, explained the significance of the 30-year study which analyzed data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students. The results of the study were presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Konrath, "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”What has happened to our society over the past few decades? It seems to me that we used to care more about others. In the first decade of the 21st century, researchers began to observe signs that young people might have less empathy than in previous generations."

Scholars have disagreed over the years on the best way to measure—or even define—empathy. Is it an intellectual activity or an emotional one? When we empathize with someone, are we taking on that person’s exact emotions, or are we just having sympathy for their emotional state? Or maybe, scholars speculated, we empathize to reduce our own stress about what other people are going through.

Regardless of how you define it, there were signs that the younger generation was heading in the wrong direction. Their analysis revealed that from 1979 to 2009, there was a significant decline in perspective-taking—in other words, considering things from another person’s perspective and have an empathic concern. These are the most central components of empathy and the loss of these traits was particularly sharp in the last decade covered by the review. The researchers speculated about why this trend was occurring. They pointed to a parallel rise in narcissism, meaning excessive or exotic interest in oneself and in one’s physical appearance. Narcissism polar opposite from empathy.

It’s hard to maintain an excessive interest in your domain when you’re not able to share the perspective of other members of your herd. The researchers also saw some signs that violent acts, violent media, binge drinking, and bullying were on the rise. And they took note of societal changes in parenting and families.

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Numerous things are going on in the world simultaneously that contribute to breeding the don’t Give a Damn attitude. Most interesting to me were the researchers’ observations of media and technology.

“Media consumption appears to be increasingly popular as technological developments continue to advance,” the analysts said. “Most obvious is the explosion of ‘social’ media.” The Konrath team’s review noted that today’s teens aren’t just using their phones for talking. Nearly all use smartphones for playing games, listening to music, and interacting on social media. More Americans than ever are using television and the internet simultaneously.

These personal technology trends, the researchers said, may be affecting empathy by damaging our real-world relationships and our attention spans. And they are influencing us to prioritize self-expression over the welfare of others.

The researchers further theorized that, during the last decade covered by the review, reality TV may have been partly responsible for the findings. In the early 2000s, reality TV was rapidly gaining popularity and reality TV characters—the “less than empathic role models” that they are, as the review noted—grew into pop culture stars.

“Reality programming exploded with ‘Survivor,’ starting in 2000, and ‘American Idol,’ beginning in 2002. Both shows revolve around single winners, many losers, aggressive characters, and rugged competition,” the Konrath analysis said. Basically, in my eyes, these shows broadcast a self-centered attitude. Similarly, reality programming often depicts characters with “unfettered narcissism,” according to the researchers.

Because these two traits cannot co-exist, the decline in empathy coincides with a sharp rise in narcissism and self-oriented goals. In other words, before the significant increase in mobile devices, reality TV, and social media, conscientious thinking was more prevalent. I don’t mean to imply that the world was perfect before 2000. There has always been bad behavior, and there have always been selfless people. But good deeds and a strong work ethic were much more highly valued before this quick change in media and technology. Cheating, lying, laziness, bad language, and greed were more likely to be frowned upon before, whereas now these behaviors are more likely to be tolerated, even among our leaders. Many individuals get away with them because they have no fear of repercussions should they be caught in the act. Surprisingly, these traits are now admired!

Our society has deteriorated over the past several years because of our self-serving attitude. Society has transitioned into a me-centered culture. And I’m not just basing this off my intuition; there are scientific studies to back it up! In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that 64 percent of 18-years-olds surveyed said that making money was the most important goal of all!

These studies highlight two trends—a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism—which affect us all. We have become a greedy culture. These qualities not only breed laziness, negativity, and disrespect, but also cruelty, crime, and violence. Who doesn’t think that we have become a more selfish and violent society? I certainly do.

Over the past 20 years, we have progressively cared less for others than we used to, especially for people we don’t know. Why is it that society generally does not give a damn? There are three primary reasons:

1. There is no foundation for how to GIVE A DAMN. There is not nearly enough attention or focus on it in our schools or at home. The education system and the degradation of family values are primary contributors here.

2. Technology, the media, and pop culture promote and reinforce selfishness.

3. Society and government are negatively affected by particular interest groups and a flawed legal system. 

These three reasons, and the institutional and societal elements that feed into them explain how we got to our current state. I am sure there are others, but I firmly believe that these elements, which are intertwined, have had the most profound effect on the degradation of our society. The combination of these elements is the feeding mechanism for most of the others.

If there is hope for Americans to move forward together as a country, it lies in the promise that the philosophy behind GIVE A DAMN can bring people together from different cultures and disparate viewpoints. Once we can come together with one mission in mind, we can work collaboratively for the greater common good.

Whether it is an unexpected act of kindness, providing extraordinary customer service, or being sincerely interested in every word that a friend says, this is your chance to make a tangible difference in your community and America.

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