College students after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to analysis presented to at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers.
Today's children play outdoors much less--and they spend far less time in unstructured activity with others than prior generations.Without unstructured free time with playmates, youngsters simply don't get to know each other very well. And you can't learn to connect and care if you don't practice these things Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003--right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up. Worse, much of the time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now spent in front of screens. Television, obviously cannot teach empathy. Even nonviolent kids' TV, research finds, is filled with indirect aggression and linked to increased real-world bullying. Though social media is an improvement on passive TV viewing and can sometimes aid real friendships, it is still less rich than face to face interaction. This is especially important for the youngest children whose brains are absorbing social information that will shape the way they connect for the rest of their lives.
Another factor is the "self esteem movement" and its pernicious notion that "you can't love anyone else until you love yourself." Today's kids grew up with parents who were taught by therapists and self help groups attended by millions that caring too much for other people or having your happiness tied to theirs was "co dependence,"--and that people should be able to be happy on their own, needing no one.
In reality, we need each other to be both mentally and physically healthy. Solitary confinement, in fact, is one of the most stressful experiences someone can undergo: this wouldn't be true if most people were happy without social contact. Normal people kept in complete isolation can become psychotic in as little as a few days.
Perhaps an even larger factor is the merging of the liberal's "do your own thing" individualism with the right's glorification of brutal competition and unfettered markets. You wind up with a society that teaches kids that "you're on your own" and that helping others is for suckers. A country where the mystical new age "Secret" is that the rich deserve their wealth and got it by being positive and good--while the poor, too, get what's coming to them because they didn't try hard enough.
Empathy requires an ability to understand others. Economic inequality, however, by radically separating the rich from the poor and shrinking the middle class, literally physically isolates us from each other and provides few opportunities for connection or understanding. If you spend your time in limos and gated communities and first-class travel, you aren't likely ever to meet poor people who aren't there to serve you; outside that context, you won't know how to relate to them. And then, if you know nothing about someone's real situation, it's easy to caricature it as being defined by bad choices and laziness, rather than understand the constraints and limits the economy itself imposes. Seeing yourself doing so well and others doing poorly tends to bolster ideas that "you deserve your wealth," simply because guilt otherwise becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable.
In reality, self esteem doesn't come from thinking positive or telling yourself that you are special or worthy--though telling kids they are rotten and selfish can surely destroy it. And, sadly, you can be optimistic all you like in an economy with 20% unemployment and still not get a job through no fault of your own.
If the split into "us" v. "them," "haves" v. "have nots," continues the empathy decline will undoubtedly continue and it will be a meaner, nastier world in which ideas about humans being selfish and competitive rather than caring become a self fulfilling prophecy by crushing the tendency toward kindness with which we are all born.
In another study of 500 Norwegian schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 19, researchers from the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration found that children start out as strict egalitarians, preferring to divide resources equally among peers. But as they grow older, by late adolescence, they come to prefer a more meritocratic method of resource distribution — based on individual contributions or performance. used a modified version of the dictator game, a classic experiment used to measure attitudes toward fairness. Children were randomly divided into pairs by age-group. One member of each pair was assigned an amount of money to distribute between him or herself and the partner.
Alexander Cappelen, one of the authors of the study, says it's not clear what triggers the change in philosophy, but he believes it may be the result of increasing exposure to achievement-based activities, such as sports and standardized tests. "Young children are rarely rewarded for individual achievement. There is an extremely egalitarian culture in their school life. But as they get older they are exposed to more meritocratic institutions, and that might change their views on equality," he says.
It begs the question: Are we all born communists? After all, the finding seems to suggest that people's innate inclination is toward income equality, a view that changes only when they are influenced by market-based values. Is strict egalitarianism our state-of-nature preference?
"I don't think so," says Cappelen. "You could turn it around and say that people who have a communist view lack maturity and hold a childish view. Maybe communists lack the cognitive ability to make the distinction between different types of equalities."
But Cappelen acknowledges that a society's values can have a profound impact on the formation of fairness view — and, hence, economic beliefs. Mainstream economic theories are predicated on the principle that people always act in their self-interest. But the pure version of the dictator game disputes this: in a variety of settings and among different ages and groups, people almost never take all the money for themselves.