Showing no empathy

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, August 10, 2011, at 2:14 pm

Some have argued that since the 1960s, baby boomers have destroyed every cultural institution in America they have touched: marriage, family, public education, government, financial markets, healthcare, and more. Many argue that one of the most tragic legacies of the baby boomer generation is its narcissistic offspring who now dominate high schools, college campuses, and the world of 20-somethings. Children of boomers, who tend to have been raised under the delusion that the world revolves around them, have recorded the lowest rates of measured empathy in American history, according to new research.

This is not the typical generational angst over youth coming of age; there is something quantifiable and different about the children of baby boomers. Paul Anderson and Sara Konrath, both professors at the University of Michigan, report "that American college students have been scoring lower and lower on a standardized empathy test over the past three decades." They add:

"In fact, a research paper published in May in Personality and Social Psychology Review shows that since 1980, scores have dropped 34 percent on 'perspective taking' (the ability to imagine others' points of view) and 48 percent on 'empathic concern" (the tendency to feel and respond to others' emotions). The standardized empathy questionnaire included questions like, 'I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,' or 'I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.'"

While researchers are not certain of the causes, Anderson and Konrath point out a combination of factors that may play a role, including delaying adulthood's traditional markers like marriage and family in order to attend graduate school, popularization of reality TV shows and the narcissistic exhibitionists who appear in them, the focus of primary education on the problem of low self-esteem rather than low empathy, and the relative decline of face-to-face interaction and emotional communication due to increased online socializing.

The lack of empathy for others confirms what psychologists have reported about the implications of baby boomers treating their kids like royalty, raising them to think about themselves and their success above anything else. In The Narcissism Epidemic Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell write:

"A focus on individual achievement that leaves out feelings, love, and caring is a recipe for narcissism. The missing piece of caring for others cascades into many of narcissism's negative outcomes, such as lack of empathy, incivility, entitlement, and aggression. In raising superachievers, today's parents may have, perhaps unintentionally, raised super-narcissists."

Although America's young narcissists have radically changed college culture, Anderson and Konrath have not given up hope, citing that many young people today do have empathy and suggesting that change is possible as professors teach empathy in the classroom through role playing and doing exercises that develop interpersonal skills.

But change through behavior modification will have limited long-term success because, in my experience, true empathy only comes from the humility resulting from an encounter with the Triune God. In fact, the only way to correct how baby boomers have raised their children is to have a society with a vibrant and healthy church. Nothing destroys narcissism and establishes true empathy better than staring at the cross of Jesus Christ.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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