Have we Lost That Lovin’ Feeling?

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  is a meta-analysis of 72 studies 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 a shortened version of the IRI here and the results will tell you how you compare to the participants in Konrath’s 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 they’re not, they may still answer in a way that they perceive as socially acceptable. So, even if the data collected isn’t an accurate representation of the participants’ 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  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 a 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 isolation may make 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 personally may aid in the ability to perceive him as a subhuman personification of his ideals, making it 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 criticism 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.

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  1. Hmm, you’re empathic if you think there’s always two sides to every question? There are rarely two sides to a question. Many questions have only one answer, such as “Does astrology have any meaning whatsoever?” Many others have lots more than 2 sides, like most political questions.

  2. @Buzz Parsec: Maybe, but I would characterize empathy in that scenario as taking the time to understand how the other person arrived at that conclusion, which takes a measure of respect & caring. For example, you could say “That person is just dumb for thinking that”. Or you could say “They may be wrong, but everyone can’t know everything. I’m sure there are topics I’m wrong about as well.” Or “It makes sense that s/he would believe that given their upbringing – maybe s/he hasn’t been exposed to the scientific method or taught critical thinking skills.”

  3. I had difficultly with the wording of some of the questions, much like Buzz did. I disagreed with the
    “two sides” question because I know that all too often that view is a simplistic vision of how the world works. Things are often more nuanced than just two sides. While your interpretation of the question is correct it would produce a more accurate response to restate the question as you did, instead of making a vague question whose answers are unreliable due to participants interpreting it differently.

    I also willingly acknowledge that my belief that I am always right and to talk over or ignore people who I feel are wrong cost me most of my empathy points in this quiz. It’s a bad habit that I recognize but is very difficult to change.

  4. @Siveambrai: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I agree that the questions should leave little open to interpretation to get the most accurate result. I read that question as – “Would you make an effort to understand the other person’s POV”, instead of “Is the other person’s POV correct.” The meaning of the question should be more clear.

  5. I believe that technology has made it easier to socially disconnect from the rest of the world. We certainly talk more through mediums like social networks, but we still miss nuances from conversing with someone face to face. These may include physical touch and nonverbal communication.

    It appears to me that we are more afraid of what our neighbors might do. Will they harm my kids? Will they rob me in my sleep? Will they ask for my tools and not return them? The easiest way to deal with this is to disconnect from them instead of engaging the issue.

    It may be that we are just lazy in that it’s easier to not care.

  6. I’m perfectly willing to listen to other people’s points of view, especially on subjects I know little about or have never personally experienced. But I have little patience for people spouting nonsense. Also, like @Siveambrai, I’m always right. (I thought I was wrong once, but turned out to be mistaken.) But the “2 sides” question was the only one on the short version of the quiz that cost me anything on my score because of that. Maybe the long version has more questions along the lines of “Are you willing to listen to people spout off even when you know they are wrong or illogical?” I am very patient with people who come from “I don’t understand this” or “How does this work” (even fundy YECs!), than with people who assert bogus claims. (The difference, of course, is when I do that, I’m right.)

  7. @Buzz Parsec: I lose my patience with people who won’t listen to reason. People who persist in their point of view regardless of being exposed to a ton of solid evidence.

  8. More on the “2 sides to every question”, in the interview with Seth Mnookin linked to in today’s quickies, he says And I think it’s an absolute cop-out for reporters to say, “I’ve fulfilled my responsibility by presenting two sides.” Sometimes there aren’t two sides.

  9. @Buzz Parsec: I think the confusion on this question stems from interpreting it as a topic question as opposed to a person question. Of course there are “right” answers to many questions. But that’s not the point of the quiz. The quiz wants to know how you react to the person, not whether the topic at hand has been settled or not. Are you open-minded/respectful/caring/humble enough to try to understand where someone else is coming from?

    I do agree, though, that there is (and should be) a limit. Some people will persist in irrationality no matter how much evidence is presented. Others just aren’t an expert on the subject at hand, haven’t honed their critical thinking skills, or something else. It takes a little empathy to understand which of these is the case.

  10. I think it’s true. And although you shouldn’t take my word for this as I can give no cite I seem to remember other research showing a cause may be that our lives are too good and that having more problems leads to more empathy. Empathy to some extent requires comprehension of other people’s situations and having no real problems make us less emotionally competent.

  11. I’ve always been the empathetic oddball. My parents tell me a story about a time when I was 3 years old and we were on a day trip to the Smithsonian, and I wanted to give half my sandwich to a homeless man. I’d probably even give Hitler himself a sammich if he were starving and we were in a situation where he wasn’t an immediate threat to me or others. But even I didn’t score 100% on that quiz, I guess because I don’t think there are two (valid) sides to every argument.

  12. Well, the empathy quiz seems quite ambiguous and poorly constructed to me. I’d even worry that anyone who scores really high might have some personality issues or lack a reasonable sense of self. My personal recollection is that there was a lot less empathy in 1988 and perhaps 1973 as well, but that’s just me.

  13. As someone studying to be an ER nurse, I found it interesting that a lot of the questions in that survey were about seeing people in emergency situations and “going to pieces”, for example. I’ve never felt *less* empathetic for wanting to remain calm when someone nearby is going through an emergency. After all, freaking out freaks them out too. An empathetic person would remain calm, right?

  14. @Luthien: I think many valid criticisms of the questionnaire have been brought up, from ambiguous questions to impractical phrases like “go to pieces”. I’d be interested to hear the test manufacturer’s response.

    I wonder if the IRI was the only empathy test that enough subjects had consistently filled out over the 30 year period to create a meta-study of that size. I think comparing people’s responses to the same tool over a period of time could be useful in identifying trends, regardless of the tool. But I agree with the criticism of the test itself.

  15. @Stacey: Actually, there wasn’t really any confusion about the question, at least on my part. I knew what they were getting at. The “2-sides” thing is a pet peeve of mine, and I was just looking for an opportunity to inject a little dickishness into the proceedings because otherwise I would totally fall into the 60’s commie-hippy granola-head category. As it was, I still ended in the 90th percentile, at least compared to current college kids. I guess I just didn’t try hard enough. :-)

    Being a non-confrontational wimp, I rarely get into fights with people I disagree with, even on issues where there is a clear correct answer supported by evidence, but if they are willing to listen to me, I’ll generally listen to them even if it is obvious that we’ll never agree. Otherwise I usually just walk away or remain silent while pretty much tuning them out.

  16. In addition to the issue of question design, I have 2 concerns with this study:

    1) Selection bias. The study covers college students right? Well, are the same kind of people at college now as there were 20 year sago? Because if not, that’s some serious confounding potential.

    2) Narrow scope. Even assuming you fix the other problems, the question this research can raise isn’t “why are people less empathetic?”, but rather “why are college students less empathetic?” You would need a bigger and better study to infer a wider effect.

  17. Well, issues with the study aside, I do feel as if there is less empathy these days. I want to add a disclaimer here that there is a very confounding variable in my observations – namely, 10 years ago I was halfway across the world, in an entirely different cultural environment. So it is entirely possible that the difference I see has nothing whatever to do with time.
    I have also observed the trend towards less empathy. I haven’t made a study and I can’t discount such things as confirmation bias or availability heuristics, but the “temperature” seems to be down.
    Was it Twain that said that a big city is like a cancer, growth out of control? I don’t remember who said it, but I think this is part of the explanation. There are too many of us, we constantly get on each other’s nerves, for good reason as well as no reason at all. We have to be more competitive for resources. Things are more tense, and that makes us more suspicious, less tolerant, to the point that if we see someone trying to help out, we are more likely to assume ulterior motives than anything else. Most people will only put up with that so often before they stop trying to help/care.
    But I think a lot of it is that we feel more powerless, overall. Too often people don’t reach out to each other because they don’t think they can.
    Empathy can hurt you if you’re like Marley’s ghost, watching and caring when there’s nothing you can do to ease the pain. We retreat from things that hurt us. That’s self-preservation. So we retreat from empathy, because it hurts too much to care.

  18. Maybe it isn’t that they are less empathic, maybe they are more honest? Maybe they have more confidence in themselves? Maybe they are more modest?
    There’s all sorts of positive spins you can get out of this in my view.

  19. @Buzz Parsec: “60’s commie-hippy granola head” made me laugh. We want to avoid that at all costs! :)

    @James K: Totally agree. The study doesn’t claim to study anyone other than college students.

    @gwenwifar: My husband is always saying “the world has gotten too big”. I never thought about the lack of power point you brought up, but the fact that we’re aware of so many problems that are beyond our control to solve does mean we have to dial down our empathy a degree in order to survive emotionally. Very interesting.

  20. Like @Bjornar I can’t cite sources for what I’m about to say (or I could but it would take me far longer to look for it then I’m willing to spend on this).

    But anyway, there used to be a time, perhaps not even as long as 60 years ago, when you married a girl from your town and your neighbour was your best friend because … those were the only people you had any real contact with.

    Living in the US and having a lot of really good and even close friends in the Europe, Australia, South America, Africa, etc… just didn’t happen because you had no way of getting into contact with those people.

    And by extension, if you are into a very specific hobby or have particularly weird fetishes, you can now go online and get into contact with a whole bunch of people just like you, who you’ll no doubt get along with brilliantly simply because you have everything in common.

    As for your neighbour? He just keeps getting on your nerves and his dog keeps barking and his kids keep climbing over the fence or trampling the flowers in your front garden and you wish you could just sue their asses.

    You just didn’t think along those lines in the 50’s, and the trend towards selfishness and apathy has continued through the 80’s until today.

    The thing is you no longer HAVE TO get along or even deal with people you don’t like. You can just put them on ignore.

  21. Given that the Internet has only come into widespread use relatively recently, wouldn’t any study currently done fail to grasp any of its long-term effects on socialization?

  22. Vineeto has a critical take on this subject:

    Love and compassion, sympathy and empathy are our usual ways of relating to family and friends and through the same emotional ‘channel’ we also invite the their fears and worries, sorrow and resentment, anger and hatred. There is only one way when one relates to people affectively and that is within the rules and ways of the Human Condition. The moment I feel sympathy for someone I am also swamped by their fears, the moment I am empathic for someone’s suffering I plug into the collective misery of mankind. The need to belong makes one susceptible to everybody’s feelings, be it anger or fear, greed or suffering.

    I began to understand that the ‘good bits’ – love – are only there to heal, cover up and balance out the ‘bad bits’. Once I really get rid of the ‘bad bits’, the ‘good bits’ are redundant as well.

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