The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.
You have to take these things with a grain of salt, of course, but it does give one pause. Though there’s no way to ascertain its etiology with any certainty, the article notes that empathy’s downturn correlates with a decline in reading.
The types of information we consume have also shifted in recent decades; specifically, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults. And reading may be linked to empathy. In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.
A year before they started asking students to fill out empathy questionnaires, back in 1979, I wrote my senior honors thesis about the theories of art and beauty that Stephen Dedalus propounded in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Before we can apprehend an object as something “beautiful,” he explained, we must see it as “that thing which it is and no other thing. [Its radiance] is the scholastic quiditas, the whatness of a thing.” I believed that he was reaching towards something bigger than esthetics, that his argument led to an ethical and existential imperative as well. To appreciate an object, an artifact, or a person as irreducibly beautiful on its own terms, as I saw it, is to confer a kind of unconditional grace upon it. For the fiercely apostate Catholic Joyce, art wasn’t a substitute for religion–it was its realization. The artist was a “priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”–something far more miraculous than what goes on at any church altar.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure I made a hash of things philosophically and theologically, but I still believe that, by compelling us to inhabit another person’s point of view, to think somebody else’s thoughts and feel someone else’s feelings, reading provides us with the only surefire antidote to solipsism that we have.
Though I fear that the Internet bears some share of the blame for the decline of print culture, I still believe that it’s brought more good than bad into the world. But interactivity is another story. When Wordsworth climbed Mount Snowden, he didn’t spray paint his name onto a cliff-face; when I struggled through Ulysses for the first time, I didn’t post public comments in its margins, rate it for Amazon, cut and paste chunks of it into my own stories, or try to strike up a dialogue with its author. Everything isn’t a collaboration. Reading Joyce was a solitary labor, but it wasn’t lonely at all–it gave me the opportunity to share psychic space not just with Stephen Dedalus and Mollie and Leopold Bloom, but with the genius who brought them to life.