Shootings: at schools, political rallies, aerobics classes. Terrorism: on planes, in subway stations, in the mail. Loneliness: everywhere. Bullying: kids committing suicide over exchanges on Facebook, or having their sex lives broadcast over You Tube. Have we just stopped caring about other people, or is there another explanation?
In August 2010, a study from the University of Michigan summarized data about the empathy of college students in the U.S. The study found that we care less about others and more about ourselves than we did three decades ago.
The study was led by Sara H. Konrath Ph.D., and Â is a meta-analysis of 72 studiesÂ performed between 1980 & present in which the participants filled out the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a 28 question form that requires subjects to assess their own empathy*. In all, ~14,000 surveys were analyzed. The results showed a decrease in empathy and a rise in narcissism over the last 30 years, but only appreciably in the last decade. 75% of the participants surveyed since the year 2000 rated themselves as less caring. You can take aÂ shortened version of the IRI here and the results will tell you how you compare to theÂ participants in Konrath’sÂ study.
One of the potential issues with the study is that the subjects rated themselves. Self-reported data has obvious limitations, but even with an imperfect method, results can sometimes be useful to identify trends**. When people answer questions about themselves, they may not be honest or accurate, but when theyâ€™re not, theyÂ may stillÂ answer in a way that they perceive as socially acceptable. So, even if the data collected isnâ€™t an accurate representation of the participantsâ€™ actual empathy, it may still be indicative of a trend in the socially acceptable level of empathy. In other words, caring just may not be hip anymore. I also found two articles (1, 2) stating that people who rated themselves as empathic tended to be more empathic, but neither cited a source and I couldn’t find the studies that support this claim.
So, if Â we do care less, why?
Konrath points to social isolation – the fact that people are more likely to live alone nowadays, or to join social groups such as clubs & local sports teams. Another interesting explanation is that the decrease in reading has decreased our ability to understand other people’s feelings & points of view. The percentage of people who read literature for pleasure dropped to an all-time low of <50% over the last decade, and aÂ study done by Raymond A. Mar suggests that readers of fiction tend to be more empathic.
Whether the study results are valid or not, I think it’s true that social isolationÂ may makeÂ it easier for one to only see his or her point of view. Knowing someone personally increases our ability to respect him, even if we strongly disagree with him about something. Not knowing him personallyÂ may aidÂ in the ability to perceive him as a subhuman personification of his ideals,Â making itÂ easier to dehumanize him.
We deal with strong disagreement a lot in the skeptical community, and I believe the perpetually open mind of science, its quest for true understanding, and its willingness to subject its provisional conclusions to criticismÂ is a great antidote to the type of closed-minded dehumanization that causes bullying, terrorism, shootings, etc.
So, what do you think? Is this study flawed or do you buy it? If you buy it, why do you think we might care less than we used to?
* The entire IRI questionnaire is available here.
* * Example: I measure my body fat % with a scale that has up to a 5% margin of error, but if I use it consistently I will know if my body fat is increasing or decreasing, even if the percentage isn’t spot on.