The Rutgers University student who allegedly videostreamed over the Internet, without permission, scenes of his roommate having sex with another man probably never thought his action would trigger the roommate’s suicide. But this seeming invasion of privacy and its fatal consequence raise the question of whether this was merely a random incident, seized upon by a tabloid press ever hungry for sensational stories, or an indication of the jaded sensibilities and self-absorption of today’s college students in general.
In a series of studies and books, social psychologist Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, has argued strongly that today’s younger people score considerably higher on narcissistic scales than previous generations at the same age. As causative factors, she points to three cultural trends: the rise of electronic communication, which has drastically cut down on face-to-face social interaction; increasingly violent and more sexually saturated mass media, which desensitize kids to others; and an avalanche of consumerism and materialism.
Social psychologist M. Brent Donnellan and developmental psychologist Kali Trzesniewski, however, insist that Twenge’s use of birth cohorts is rife with methodological problems that compromise her conclusions. Using different statistical analyses, they find that today’s 12th-graders score about the same as 12th-graders in the 1970s did on measures of egotism. Other critics point out that it’s difficult to determine what a high score in “narcissism” means in day-to-day interactions, or what the term actually refers to. While narcissists’ primary motivation may be garnering greater approval, their vehicle for doing so may be generosity and socially desirable actions.
Now a study by University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath, who coauthored one of Twenge’s previous narcissism studies, looks more precisely at empathy among college students. Among 13,739 college students who took the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) between 1979 and 2009, her study finds, empathy has plummeted. In Twenge’s studies, narcissism rose steadily from the early 1980s through 2006. Konrath finds that empathy stayed stable and then started declining after 2000. “Taking those studies together,” she says, “it looks like the narcissists grew up and had kids.”
The IRI breaks empathy into several subscales, and the subscale in which students showed the greatest drop, 48 percent, was in empathic concern—feeling sympathy for others. The second-highest drop was in perspective taking, a measure of people’s innate tendency to imagine others’ points of view, which fell 34 percent. Of the four IRI subscales, these two are the likeliest to lead to prosocial behavior, she says.
Despite the downward tendencies her studies revealed, Konrath notes that the definitive research about which environmental factors influence narcissism and empathy remains to be done. While there’s a genetic component to narcissism and empathy, we know that cultural trends can oscillate and reverse. As Konrath puts it, “We dare not conclude that empathy is declining and nothing can be done about it.”
Excerpted from Psychotherapy Networker, an accessible vocational publication that covers the everyday challenges of clinical practice while also offering perspective on social issues, cultural phenomena, and therapeutic innovations.www.psychotherapynetworker.org
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.