A Growing Empathy Deficit

Zoë Pollock at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish linked to an interesting article in Scientific American about the measurable decline in empathy among young people in the US.

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.


3 thoughts on “A Growing Empathy Deficit

  1. “It remains that the largest and richest store of reflection on all questions of importance about the good life for humankind is literature – the novels, poems, plays, and essays that distil and debate the experience of mankind in its richest variety. It does not matter whether a literature work is tendentious or not, that is, urges a point of view or enjoins a way of life; from that point of view literature is a Babel of competing opinions and outlooks. For the earnest enquirer that is a good thing, because the more viewpoints, perspectives and experiences that come as grist to his mill through the medium of literature, the more chance he has of expanding his understanding, refining his sympathies, and considering his options. That is the great service of attentive and thoughtful reading: it educates and extends the moral imagination, affording insight into – and therefore the chance to be more tolerant of – other lives, other ways, other choices, most of which one will probably never directly experience oneself. And tolerance is a virtue which no list of virtues could well be without, and without which no human existence could be complete or good.” – A.C. Grayling, What is Good?

    1. “Art cultivates and kindles the imagination, and quickens the conscience. It is by imagination that we put ourselves in the place of another. When the whigs of that faculty are folded, the master does not put himself in the place of the slave; the tyrant is not locked in the dungeon, chained with his victim. The inquisitor did not feel the flames that devoured the martyr. The imaginative man, giving to the beggar, gives to himself. Those who feel indignant at the perpetration of wrong, feel for the instant that they are the victims; and when they attack the aggressor they feel that they are defending themselves. Love and pity are the children of the imagination.” – Robert Green Ingersoll, from Art and Morality

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