Is Less Reading Making Americans Less Empathetic? [View all]
December 29, 2010 • 3:00 pm PST
A new study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor shows that Americans' levels of empathy have dropped significantly in the last three decades.
Using a questionnaire called The Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which asks to what degree student respondents agree with statements like "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me," researchers were able to ascertain that almost 75 percent of today's student have less empathy than students 30 years ago.
Scientists have long considered empathy an inherent trait, with infants barely a year old offering assistance and sharing their resources during lab tests. But a decline in empathy proves that even inborn tendencies can be profoundly impacted by social situations. The question now is what those empathy-depleting social situations are.
In the past 30 years Americans have become more likely to live alone and less likely to join groups—ranging from PTAs to political parties to casual sports teams. Several studies hint that this type of isolation can take a toll on people’s attitudes toward others. Steve Duck of the University of Iowa has found that socially isolated, as compared with integrated, individuals evaluate others less generously after interacting with them, and Kenneth J. Rotenberg of Keele University in England has shown that lonely people are more likely to take advantage of others’ trust to cheat them in laboratory games.
Other scientists theorize that people reading less has contributed to the decline in 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.