This article got me thinking about how psychological studies apply to generational theory. When assessing the direction of a very general personality trend—like empathy, or idealism, or trust, or whatever–you can always come up with some survey instrument that says anything you want it to say. How are they measuring empathy? In what sense and in what context? I don’t know. I discuss the actual survey further down.
When it comes to empathy as a desire and willingness “to help those in need,” the Millennial (born 1982-200?) score higher (per the UCLA survey) than any earlier group of college freshmen measured. They’re also volunteering more. The Millennials are indeed focused more on actions than on feelings, so maybe the study faults today’s kids for not “feeling” as strongly. It’s also true that Millennials have been surrounded by a lot edgier media at an earlier age than older generations, so maybe this has emotionally inured them to disturbing images—and maybe this gets them labeled as less empathic. I just don’t know.
But I do strongly disapprove of taking one rifle-shot survey instrument (Twenge does the same) and using that to characterize the fundamental personality of a generation. You need to look at lots evidence, behavioral and attitudinal, across many disciplines and across many social situations, before arriving at any sweeping verdict.
As for the actual survey, this is what I found after a few minutes of googling. Although I believe the study is not yet published, its basic results were presented and discussed at the APS annual meeting and a nice summary of its method and conclusions can be found here: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/skonrath/files/empathy_decline.pdf
A few comments. First, these findings are entirely based on survey questions from something called the “Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index,” and, more particularly, on a subset of questions from that survey called “Empathic Concern” questions. Second, this is a “metastudy,” meaning that the authors did not actually give this survey to anyone. Rather, they collected and aggregated the results of many other surveys over the years as reported in published articles. The advantage of a metastudy is that it allows comparisons over time and increases the number of observations (the “n”), allowing for better statistical accuracy. The disadvantage is that, by aggregating lots of different studies with different subjects and using different procedures etc., it often mixes apples with oranges, introduces biases over time, and makes it impossible to apply “controls” to the findings. We have no idea, for example, whether the more recent studies were focusing on somewhat different issues than the earlier studies. Remember, we are mixing the results of surveys conducted at different times by different researchers. And finally, Jean Twenge’s fingerprints are all over this metastudy. For background on the “hypotheses” being tested here, a list of articles is cited. Twenge is the author or co-author of just about every article.
Finally, what exactly is the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity (DIR) Index? Well, for a full history and explanation, you can read the article by Davis (1980) here: http://www.eckerd.edu/academics/psychology/files/Davis_1980.pdf. I have appended (below) a full printout of the DIR survey, with all of the “Empathic Concern” questions marked in red.
A couple of important questions I would ask. To begin with, Davis constructed the DIR Index primarily to distinguish between different kinds of individuals at any one time. The underlying assumption is that all of the people surveyed have been shaped similarly by history, the media, IT, cultural mores, and so on. With the DIR Index, in other words, you can sort people into meaningful categories because the social context for all of them is the same (the index is probably even more meaningful if you restrict its use to one generation at any one time). Davis does not seem to have contemplated using this measure to determine population-wide changes over time. Is this trend-over-time use legitimate at all?
Twenge does this a lot in her own work. She uses a “narcissism” index whose statistical robustness etc has been demonstrated on studies at one time and then uses that index to point out trends over decades. Many famous psychometric exams show this problem, btw. While they work well at one time, they generate weird and anomalous results when trended over time. The most famous example are the IQ tests (Wechsler, Stanford, just about all of them), which show a strong genetic component during any one testing year (roughly 0.5 correlation) but also show a steady population-wide rise decade over decade (the so-called “Flynn Effect”). The positive trend over time is so steep that IQ tests would demonstrate, if they were valid over time, that today’s population as a whole could not possibly be genetically related to our grandparents as a group. So what explains the paradox? Undoubtedly, the steady shift over time toward a more urbanized, literate, test-oriented, media- and IT-rich social environment. This shift enables today’s youth, though endowed with the same “natural intelligence” (whatever that is), to perform much better on these tests than yesterday’s youth.
Why might this be important? I think it’s plausible, or at least possible, that today’s kids, being immersed in a media and cultural environment that literally bathes them in world news 24/7, may give different answers to some of the Empathy Questions listed below. I don’t know. Just a thought.
The other feature of these Empathy questions worth pointing out is that they all reflect youth people’s *feelings* about others rather than what people would actually *do* for others. Indeed, this is the whole purpose of the measure as Davis designed it: to focus purely on subjective response. In other words, these questions are expressly designed to be touchy-feely. As many of us have suggested, such questions naturally put Millennials at a disadvantage. This generation pays more attention to collective outcomes than personal reactions, to results over motives, to “works” over “faith.” If their empathy profile were identical to that of Boomer (born 1943-1960), they probably would have voted for Hillary rather than Obama in the 2008 primary.
Actually, the more I look at the Empathy questions below, the more I sympathize with Millennials for not responding well to them. Am I the only one who finds them cloying and annoying? I’m sure if Davis looked at my responses, he’d call me a sociopath.
Here’s a shortened version of the survey questions:
INTERPERSONAL REACTIVITY INDEX
The following statements inquire about your thoughts and feelings in a variety of situations. For each item, indicate how well it describes you by choosing the appropriate letter on the scale at the top of the page: A, B, C, D, or E. When you have decided on your answer, fill in the letter on the answer sheet next to the item number. READ EACH ITEM CAREFULLY BEFORE RESPONDING. Answer as honestly as you can. Thank you.
A B C D E
DOES NOT DESCRIBES ME
DESCRIBE ME VERY
1. I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me. (FS)
2. I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me. (EC)
3. I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of view. (PT) (-)
4. Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems. (EC) (-)
5. I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel. (FS)
6. In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease. (PD)
7. I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I don’t often get completely caught up in it. (FS) (-)
8. I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision. (PT)
9. When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them. (EC)
10. I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation. (PD)
11. I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their
12. Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (FS) (-)
13. When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm. (PD) (-)
14. Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (EC) (-)
15. If I’m sure I’m right about something, I don’t waste much time listening to other people’s
arguments. (PT) (-)
16. After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters. (FS)
17. Being in a tense emotional situation scares me. (PD)
18. When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes don’t feel very much pity for them.
19. I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies. (PD) (-)
20. I am often quite touched by things that I see happen. (EC)
21. I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both. (PT)
22. I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person. (EC)
23. When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of a leading
24. I tend to lose control during emergencies. (PD)
25. When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to “put myself in his shoes” for a while. (PT)
26. When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me. (FS)
27. When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces. (PD)
28. Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place. (PT)
NOTE: (-) denotes item to be scored in reverse fashion
PT = perspective-taking scale
FS = fantasy scale
EC = empathic concern scale
PD = personal distress scale
A = 0
B = 1
C = 2
D = 3
E = 4
Except for reversed-scored items, which are scored:
A = 4
B = 3
C = 2
D = 1
E = 0