Empathy Isn’t Ending, For Crying Out Loud

Ok, I really, really wasn’t planning to write another post relating to data right after the first two. And then NPR, a source I usually enjoy for its content, published a piece called “The End of Empathy”. And I read it, and got annoyed. So now I have to write about it.

But this is only partly about data. Empathy is a really important topic to me, and I think it deserves better.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to call out how our media misuses data in service of an attention-grabbing headline. It’s easy for me to pick on Fox News for misrepresenting data, because I loathe their messaging. However, we should never let any media organization off the hook, including ones we support.

In this article on the supposed end of empathy, the author Hanna Rosin, quotes a statistic from a survey of studies done at Indiana University. “By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s a very shocking statistic. It’s what you’ll see most people quoting on social media when they post the link to the article and shake their heads about “these kids today”.

And I don’t believe it.

Now, I don’t want to come across as one of those people who will look at peer reviewed science and dismiss it. Studies are important when it comes to recognizing things like the efficacy of vaccines. But like I’ve said before, context is important. And drawing a conclusion about the entire population based on a study needs to be done carefully.

"Nuance? I can't get page views with nuance!"

Let’s break down some of the details of this study.

So for this particular study, the researchers collected data from 72 other studies that used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). According to their paper, this is “the only personality scale that follows a multi-dimensional theory of empathy”.

Wow, a multi-dimensional theory of empathy! Sounds great!

Snark aside, psychology and sociology have a number of indexes and other tools for measuring what happens internally for human beings. And this is helpful, because we need to be able to study and compare human thought and behavior. But remember, this isn’t taking a temperature. This isn’t a hard and fast number. It’s not objective. It’s a theory, and it’s used and interpreted by human beings.

Secondly, when you are pulling together the data of a number of different studies, dating from different decades, there’s a lot of information you don’t have. You may not be able to verify the validity of each study, to double-check the methods of research, or how participants were selected. You have no window into the biases or beliefs of the researchers. There’s a huge number of variables that may be unknown.

Thirdly, in this study, the researchers are collecting this IRI information to examine the change in college students over time. The researchers make deliberate mention of how they feel that this is a valid group to use, because college student populations have not changed much over time for “important demographic variables”.

So in the actual study, we are told we have 13,737 college students, of which it is estimated that 63.1% are female, and 69.0% are Caucasian, although the researchers admit that not all the studies they used included racial demographics.

And to be clear, when they say college students, they exclusively mean 4 year institutions.

And all of this would be fine, if the NPR article had bothered to make a distinction between “young people” and “college students”. But the author doesn’t. She uses these terms interchangeably.

She takes this information about a certain subset of the population, makes the broad generalization that it applies to everyone, and to top it off, makes some huge assumptions about what this means for our society as a whole.

"So based on the author's conclusions, we should be in total anarchy in about twenty years."

Now, my problem is not with the study itself. Sara Konrath and her associates wrote a really interesting paper. They talk about alternative theories, they acknowledge the limitations of their study, and are very clear on their data collection and analysis methods. They speak to the lack of similar studies being done in other countries, and a corresponding absence of cross-cultural information.

My problem is in the representation. I understand that all writers want a lot of clicks. I love getting clicks myself! And of course we love to come up with catchy headlines.

But what we say matters. If you’re talking about college students, you are not talking about people in the demographics that are less likely to go to college. You’re not including people in certain socioeconomic groups. You’re not talking about how attitudes may change for people at different stages in their lives. That is not everyone.

And if you’ve looked at 13,737 college students over the past few decades, that’s great. That’s a lot of information. But we have over 300 million people in this country right now. You may have an interesting piece of the picture. You cannot say it is the entire picture, not honestly. Not enough to conclude that “Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.”

There’s nuance to be had here. And this article shows none of it.

"If kids today have no empathy, clearly I am part of a much superior generation! Ha!"

I also want to take a moment to address something else from the article. The author is talking to a writer who is promoting his book on empathy, and includes this quote: “Breithaupt is alarmed at the apparent new virus of selective empathy and how it’s deepening divisions. If we embrace it, he says, then “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy. Because if you feed into this division more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous.“.

I’m trying to think of a really polite way to say that I’m really tired of this kind of BS.

First of all, this “deepening divisions” rhetoric is being used so frequently, and I’ve seen it from a number of writers and creators that I respect. And it bothers me so much.

Because to me, speaking about deepening divisions is a huge red flag that we are dealing with someone who has not engaged with or read much about human history. To be blunt, If you think people are more divisive now than ever, you need to learn more.

And to me, it’s a double red flag when the word “civil” is used. Because telling people they need to be civil is a literal supremacist technique. I’ve written about this before, but claiming that oppressed people will get all their rights if they just ask “nicely” is a strategy of dominant culture to get everyone to sit down and shut up, and just accept the status quo.

Oppressed people finding their voice isn’t divisive. It’s empowering. And yes, to those who don’t want to hear those voices, or haven’t done the work to understand their own privilege, it is unpleasant. It does feel “uncivil”. It feels divisive when you want people to just go away, and they insist on continuing to exist, and even (*gasp*) being treated like full human beings. And many are attempting to deal with this by frowning and writing articles and publishing videos that bemoan how our society is just going down the tubes.

But there is always more to the story.

"No, there's no reason I have so many quotes from someone promoting a book. Why do you ask?"

Finally, it’s also a good reminder to be cautious in reading articles like this when the author finishes her piece with the declaration that the quoted Breithaupt has an “ingenious solution”, when he is oh-so-coincidentally selling a brand new book on empathy.

No bias there, I’m sure.

In the end, yes, we can look at studies like this, and have interesting discussions about the data. I think talking more about empathy is a fantastic thing. Studies that reveal some insight into how people think are great. But using data responsibly matters. And how you talk about things matter.

Empathy isn’t ending. There have always been those who have been cruel, and those who have been kind. Change happens, and attitudes and beliefs ebb and flow. Nothing is constant.

But let’s cut it out with the grand pronouncements, ok?

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