Empathy in the twenty-first century


Detail of Boston Globe Staff photo illustration, October 17, 2010Take a note: Empathy, apparently, is on the decline in American society.

The data are sketchy insofar as defining empathy is itself a tough question, and a new study raises in its wake some questions about its dimensions.

But the story from Keith O’Brien, for Boston.com:

Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers — “Quiz tomorrow…gotta study!” — about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. And there are signs that Generation Wi-Fi is also interested in connecting with people, like, face-to-face, in person. The percentage of high school seniors who volunteer has been rising for two decades.

But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.

According to the findings, today’s students are generally less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends’ whereabouts, but all that connectedness doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.

The first question that strikes me is one of definitions; some might resent the suggestion that they are less (or not) empathetic, and this issue could have some root in how we define empathy. Is it simply that one cares about an event, issue, or person? Or does empathy require some sort of demonstration?

And from there, of course, we stumble into the realm of empowerment. That is, sure, one might care about an issue, but what does that really matter?

    Sometimes I watch the TV news;
    I want to say, what’s the use in trying?
    ‘Cause, come on, what kind of difference can one man make?
    Yeah, but how much more can I take?

    (Styx, “Together”)

Now here’s a twist: Such questions only skim the surface. The question of empathy is one that ties to almost everything about our human social endeavors. Indeed, we are as a species stronger together than individually. We tear down mountains, bring fire from the sky, slay one another with remarkable efficiency, stride the heavens, raise oases in deserts, challenge nature itself, and, ultimately, may hold the power to permanently alter the evolution of a planet—and countless species roaming its face.

And empathy is an element very close to the heart of our social instinct. It is an evolutionary tool that has served us tremendously through aeons.

Which raises the possibility that the current state of human empathy is a mere blinking of some cosmic eye; what is a sharp decline asserted over ten years compared to the whole of our history?

It is, of course, a sticky and complicated issue. If few answers suggest themselves, it is because we have not begun to explore the true dimensions of the asserted phenomenon. The first thing, of course, should be to establish its existence. Certes, we might nod sagely and recall various episodes from our own lives, observing in others or reflecting of ourselves specific dearths of empathy. But what does it equal in the larger scale, and what are the implications of that sum?