In May, a paper was presented at the Association for Psychological Science called “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” by Sara Konrath. Sara is a researcher at the University of Michigan and she has found that college students are “40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, with the numbers plunging primarily after 2000.” For the purposes of this study, empathy was measured across four criteria: Empathic concern, perspective taking, fantasy, and personal distress. Empathic concern is showing sympathy for those less fortunate and perspective taking is about walking in someone else’s moccasins. They are the more important factors and kids these days are scoring 48% lower in empathic concern and 34% lower in perspective taking.
The first thing I love about this “Studied” piece by Pamela Paul is how it begins: “Fed up with the Me-Me-Me MySpace generation?” When I said May, I meant May 2010. “MySpace” is already a relic, but it is so much more alliterative. The next sentence asks if you are “Inclined to believe today’s young ’uns are blindingly self-aggrandizing and entitled?” For one thing, I do not think self-aggrandizement is incompatible with empathy. Come to think of it, I do not think entitlement is incompatible with being empathetic, either—so far, so good.
Narcissism is going up and kindness is going down and the question is asked, “What happened?” This is my favorite part of the article, entirely. The author of the study, Dr. Konrath said, “We don’t actually know what the causes are at this point.” However, in the next sentence, we are told “the authors [emphasis added] speculate a millennial mixture of video games, social media, reality TV and hyper-competition have left young people self-involved, shallow and unfettered in their individualism and ambition.”
It is all scientific stuff; it’s been proved. However, I would like some clarification as to what is meant by “social media.” I mean, are we talking about MySpace—which is so popular that a whole generation has been named for it—or perhaps the less well-known Facebook? Twitter? I assume the “authors” think it is narcissistic for people to post personal updates about their day or their cat or their insufferable children without any regard to how annoying it could be. Or, perhaps, the “authors” assume the narcissism spreads like a crowd-sourced virus–#mememe. Yes, we are powerless in the face of “social media.”
What about “reality TV?” Are we talking ‘The Biggest Loser’ or ‘Survivor’? What if I watched the first three seasons of ‘The Real World’ and then another season of ‘American Idol’? Is that combination going to decrease my level of empathy? Actually, now that I think about it, ‘American Idol’ seems like a study in narcissism and lack of empathy. I mean, how many people have they filmed walking away from the auditions with some profanity-laced diatribe about how Simon does not know what he is talking about and “I’ll show them!” I can see how exposure to those people can decrease feelings of empathy. But that Pedro guy died from AIDS in ‘Real World: San Francisco’ and it was really sad. So, that has to count for something.
We also have “hyper-competition.” Hyper-competition, I assume, is very easy to test in the laboratory. I mean, we all know what it is, right? In my mind, I think of the parents of grade school beauty pageant participants. Perhaps the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, aside from being a tragic spectacle, opened the eyes of parents across the county who thought, “Hey, there’s a way to be famous!” And it did not have to be beauty pageants—soccer, piano, skating, ballet. Anything that the child could be enrolled in, they could be pushed in. After all, it is natural for young children to organize themselves hyper-competitively. Parents are just helping along a natural process.
Really, I think we can end our investigation at video games. The author—or is it authors?—say that the numbers plunge after the year 2000. And I think I know the reason: Pokémon. Game sales show the stark reality. In 1999, there were 5 Pokémon titles among the top 10 sellers. In 2000, there were 6 in the top 10. However, 2001 saw the introduction of the PlayStation2 and games like Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL started dominating sales. Pokémon’s heyday was over.
By the way, Pokémon are “pocket monsters” that live in softball-sized houses. (An electrified yellow mouse, Pikachu, serves as the Pokémon mascot.) When summoned, the little monsters magically assume normal size, attack other Pokémon, and go back to their Pokéball when they are finished battling. They do what they are told without question and will even battle to the death if that is what the trainer wants. The trainer also takes credit for a victory so the Pokémon are humble too.
My point is to show that Pokémon are great role models and without their guidance and influence in our lives, we are doomed to be “self-involved, shallow and unfettered in [our] individualism and ambition.” I kid.
I do not expect any sympathy now, but, I am going to be serious for a paragraph. You see, I have arthritis. At least I have a type of arthritis that they do not have a name for, exactly. It started with my toes and feet, then my spine. The disease has also affected my knees and back and fingers and elbows. They do not know what caused it and they do not know what cures it. All they can give me is some of the same stuff they give cancer patients. They hope that the treatment will shut down my immune system so my body will stop attacking itself. The downside is that my liver will probably fail.
For everything we know, or think we know, there is so much more that we are infinitely ignorant about. We are particularly ignorant of my disease and the causes of decreasing empathy in the world, even when those things have been “studied.”