…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….
What’s to Blame?
This information seems to conflict with studies suggesting that empathy is a trait people are born with. For example, in a 2007 study Yale University developmental psychologists found that six-month-old infants demonstrate an affinity for empathic behavior, preferring simple dolls they have seen helping others over visually similar bullies. And investigators at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have shown that even when given no incentive, toddlers help experimenters and share rewards with others. Empathic behavior is not confined to humans or even to primates. In a recent study mice reacted more strongly to painful stimuli when they saw another mouse suffering, suggesting that they “share” the pain of their cage mates.
But the new finding that empathy is on the decline indicates that even when a trait is hardwired, social context can exert a profound effect, changing even our most basic emotional responses. Precisely what is sapping young people of their natural impulse to feel for others remains mysterious, however, because scientists cannot design a study to evaluate changes that occurred in the past. As Twenge puts it, “you can’t randomly assign people to a generation.”