#246      24 min 21 sec
Where's your compassion? Generation Y and the new empathy deficit

Social psychologist Dr Sara Konrath discusses intergenerational differences in empathy, and how this important social attribute seems to be diminishing in Generation Y. Presented by Dr Dyani Lewis.

"We found actually that narcissism is associated with actually pretty high cortisol which means that although on self-report measures they're saying they're fine inside their bodies things are not fine." -- Dr Sara Konrath




Asst Prof Sara Konrath
Asst Prof Sara Konrath

Sara Konrath is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, with affiliations in Social Psychology (University of Michigan) and Psychiatry (University of Rochester Medical Center). Konrath is the director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEAR), a research lab with a primary focus on empathy, altruism, and other-focused behavior. Her work examines causes, consequences, and changes in empathy and related traits (e.g. narcissism, individualism) from a variety of perspectives, including their underlying physiology. Her recent research has found that empathy has been declining in recent years among younger generations, and that these changes might have a health cost. Her work has been published in top scientific journals and has been featured in several media outlets (e.g. New York Times, Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and CNN).

Credits

Host: Dr Dyani Lewis
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param, Dyani Lewis
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer & Tony Brown
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

Download file Download mp3 (22.3 MB)

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis thanks for joining us.  Humans are extraordinarily social creatures and our ability to form complex communities, where we exchange goods and services as well as knowledge, has no doubt been essential to our success as a species.  Empathy is central to our desire to care for and connect with our fellow human beings, whether they are close friends or family or others in the community who rely on the generous donations of strangers.  But are all humans empathic by nature or are there some amongst us who struggle to see any perspective other than their own?  Are we as empathic as our parents and grandparents, and what are the implications for society as a whole if empathy is on the wane?  To enlighten us on these issues my guest today on Up Close is social psychologist Sara Konrath, who joins us from the WUOM Michigan Radio studios.  Sara is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.  Welcome to Up Close, Sara.

SARA KONRATH
Thanks for having me. 

DYANI LEWIS 
Sara, one of the main areas that you research is empathy.  Why is it important for us to understand the nature of empathy?

SARA KONRATH 
Well as you said in your introduction, empathy is essential to healthy societies and that's at the bigger level.  But in our everyday interactions with people, just day-to-day social interactions; when we wake up, our roommates, our spouses, our children, our animals even, empathy helps us to care about their perspectives and make things more smooth in our relationships.  But also, at the same time, we're less likely to be aggressive or take from them and so overall there's just more positive relationships, which translates to better societies ultimately.  

DYANI LEWIS 
Most of us have a reasonable understanding of what empathy is and what it means to be empathic, but do social psychologists define empathy in a particular way?

SARA KONRATH 
It's funny that empathy researchers can't always agree on the definition but we do listen to each other. And what we end up with is most of us agree that empathy has emotional parts and also cognitive parts.  So, the more emotional parts of empathy are the actual emotional experiences that other people are having.  We call these Empathic Concern.  So when you're sad if I feel sad in response that's me showing you Empathic Concern, which is kind of like compassion.  Then the cognitive empathy is more like an ability it's the ability to take the perspective of others and imagine what they might be thinking and feeling.  And sually these two go together but sometimes people can be high in one or the other and that could be very interesting.  

DYANI LEWIS 
Is empathy something that everyone feels or are there some people that lack empathy altogether?

SARA KONRATH
Well I believe that empathy is actually something that every human being can feel, and also even some animals.  But there are degrees of empathy that are natural for some people compared to others.  So there are some people who are especially good at empathy, are more empathy experts, and then there are people who have more difficulty with it whether it's because they aren't motivated or they don't really want to try to be empathetic or whether they just have true difficultly, and its ability – related.

DYANI LEWIS 
You mentioned that some animals experience empathy, is that the animals that we would suspect, the primates and those kinds of animals?

SARA KONRATH 
That's what we know the most about based on work for example by Franz de Waal and others.  There are interesting studies where they examine how primates respond to someone taking something away from someone else.  They don't just react when someone takes, say a grape away from themselves but also if someone does it to somebody in a cage next to them.  It's interesting that you can see similar responses that we would have if someone took something away from one of our loved ones. 

DYANI LEWIS
So what kind of response is that?

SARA KONRATH 
Well the videos are actually really great if you've ever seen a talk by him because he'll show these videos of chimpanzees giving a similar facial expression as you might see in a person.  Like this face of ah that's not fair and a little bit of anger, annoyance.  Sometimes they grab the bars of the cage and jump up and down a bit, kind of like toddlers. 

DYANI LEWIS
You mentioned toddlers, but at what stage of human development do we develop empathy?

SARA KONRATH 
Well because empathy has these various components, most people - or most researchers - think that empathy starts actually very young, in babies even - newborns.  The way it works within newborns is when you would make say a face to them, like a smiley face, they will actually empathically mimic that.  Also, if they hear other babies crying they tend to also start crying.  So that's sort of basic empathy called Emotional Contagion which is a basic, simple almost like mirroring response.  But it starts to become more developed, as kids get older as their cognitive abilities increase I think it does take some cognitive ability.  Especially when you're thinking about the perspective taking one, because you actually have to have the imagination to step inside somebody else's mind and see the world from their perspective.  So that tends to be more fully developed by adolescence.  

DYANI LEWIS 
And you've mentioned some of these observational studies on young children and animals, but in terms of when you're looking at adults, are there other ways that you can measure empathy?

SARA KONRATH 
Well the most common way we measure empathy, and even among children sometimes depending on their age is just self-report scales.  So we just ask people questions that would assess to what extent they respond in a certain way, when other people are emotionally responding that way.  The most common measure right now is by Mark Davis and is called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.  It has items such as I have tender concerned feelings for people who are less fortunate than me, which measures Empathic Concern: that emotional empathy.  It also has items such as perspective taking items: when I'm upset at someone I usually try to put myself in his shoes for a while.  So you can kind of see the distinction there but these are just people's beliefs about themselves and these beliefs tend to predict later behaviour: so whether they're going to volunteer or donate money to charities or help others in everyday ways and so on.  So there's some validity in terms of the self-report but of course obviously some people want to believe they're this way and may not be. 

DYANI LEWIS 
Right, so it's more an indication of what their intention might be or even what they expect is the societal expectation how they should act?

SARA KONRATH 
Yeah, I think that that's part of it.  In order to better understand who truly is empathic you can look at the physiological responses.  So when they see somebody in pain whether they also show a facial pain response or some sort of cortisol response to that pain.  Also, whether they can perform well on various tasks so for example whether they're good at identifying people's facial expressions of emotion.  I think when you look at all of those together you can get a picture of a person as being more or less empathic. 

DYANI LEWIS 
Cortisol is a stress hormone.  How do you measure that?

SARA KONRATH
You measure that by asking people to spit in tubes, it's actually pretty fun.  We do that in our lab a lot.  It's not as disgusting as you think but luckily we have wonderful participants who are willing to go along with us.  

DYANI LEWIS
Right, and then you can just track an immediate or a fairly immediate response to a particular situation?

SARA KONRATH
Exactly, you can look at people's chronic levels of cortisol by having multiple assessments at similar times of day, or you can look at how they respond to situations. So for example you can have them maybe see another person in pain and then see what happens to their cortisol levels in response to that.  

DYANI LEWIS 

I'm Dyani Lewis and you're listening to Up Close.  In this episode we're talking about empathy with social psychology researcher Sara Konrath.  Sara, you have looked at changes in college student empathy over the years.  Why did you decide to do this and what did you find in your study?

SARA KONRATH
Well the study on empathy was actually a response to some work I had done in my dissertation with some colleagues: Jean Twenge, Brad Bushman, Keith Campbell and Joshua Foster.  We had looked at actually the personality trait narcissism which is - I think of it as kind of the opposite of empathy, it's people who are really self-focused and always worried about whatever they can get and how they can benefit.  We had found that American college students in recent generations, recent years, were scoring higher on these self-reported measures of narcissism which we thought was really interesting.  But I wanted to see what happens if we actually use a different measure with totally different participants to see if this is a real effect.  So along with my students, Ed O'Brien and Courtney Hsing, we did a similar study but this time we used the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index and we tracked people's empathy scores over time and found that empathy has been declining in the same time period: which is from the 1980s to basically to 2009.

DYANI LEWIS 
So college students taking this exact same test in 2009 scored quite a bit lower than those taking the same test in the 1980s?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, so just looking at it, if you think from 1980 to 1990 to 2000 to 2009, there were declines over time.  Actually it was especially around the year 2000 that empathy started declining.  

DYANI LEWIS
Society has obviously changed a great deal since the 1980s, so how much are your measures applicable to more general changes in the levels of empathy at the community level?

SARA KONRATH
Well it's hard to know with the particular study that we're talking about right now but we have also looked at cross-sectional study which means that we just ask a bunch of people at the same time who vary in age what their empathy scores are, so they measure empathy based on that.  And in those studies we find some parallels, so that people who are born in the '80s - so those would be the 20 year olds in the 2000s that we were studying - those people have one of the lowest empathy scores in the United States.  So there's some parallel in a broader population, and that's a population that includes people from various educational backgrounds, racial backgrounds and equal gender.  So, we've become more confident that probably something is going on, at least with people in that generation.  

DYANI LEWIS 
So who - in that cross-sectional study - who were the high empathy people?

SARA KONRATH
Well the other day I actually looked up the exact age group because I was curious.  I went to the original data sets - and these are from the General Social Survey - and the Empathic Concern Scale was included in 2002 and 2004.  So I did a statistical analysis, where I looked up exactly who was the most empathetic group of people in the United States, and can you guess?

DYANI LEWIS 
Females, I'd guess.

SARA KONRATH
Females aged 66.  It pretty much starts off pretty low because we're looking at adults from the ages of 18 to 90.  It starts off pretty low and it starts to rise and rise and rise until they hit the age of 66 after which it starts to decline again surprisingly.  

DYANI LEWIS
So these are, I guess, young grandmothers, is that the kind of demographic that you're looking at?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah.  I think the peak empathy is around the age of caring for grandchildren. 

DYANI LEWIS 
Again this could be a generational effect.  So something that is not necessarily indicative of the age stage that they're at, but perhaps something that happened during their upbringing?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, exactly and we can't tell with that study but it's interesting either way I think. 

DYANI LEWIS 
So does your experimental data on age and sex differences correlate with some of the stereotypes that we have about who might be most empathic in our society?

SARA KONRATH
Well yeah I think so to some extent and I think that showed up in - when I asked you to guess.  At least you were quickly able to guess it was women of some age group and probably if I would have pushed you a little bit you might have guessed older women or grandmothers.  So I think that that fits in with our idea of who is the most empathetic.  Pretty much empathy, although we have the formal scientific definitions for it, it's also kind of known as being touchy-feely.  You can see the stereotypes where they go there.  But I think with the gender it's really interesting because what happens is when you have people look at say a video of somebody who's in pain what you're going to see is that the males in the study, they're not really responding that empathetically, no big deal.  They're the ones who say they don't cry for the commercials, right.  But, the females are saying okay fine, I do.  But when you actually measure their physiological responses - and studies have done this - you actually find there's no difference between the genders.  So I think some of what's going on in the self-report measures is people maybe are trying to fit into what they think they should be like based on their age group and gender. 

DYANI LEWIS
Right, you said their physiological – so their cortisol levels would be equivalent?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, or they would respond the same in the heart rate or maybe they didn't realise it but their face actually automatically adjusts and they start to mimic the pain expression.  So that's something that's harder to control than what you write on a self-report scale.  

DYANI LEWIS
So the other obvious question is how much does culture affect empathy?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, and this is something that we don't know too much about right now, there's not many studies examining this but we would like to.  But the thing about empathy is because it's partly about willingness to express and experience emotion vicariously, or through other people's experiences, because of that cultures might have different responses and norms about whether it's okay to even be emotional to begin with.  So, there might be surprising places that are seen as high empathy compared to low empathy.  

DYANI LEWIS 
Surprising places?

SARA KONRATHWell for example, the cultures that are the most empathetic might not be the ones we expect because they might just be the ones in general that are open to emotion.  Whereas there might be - certain people from certain cultures might be scoring low on empathy but it might not be because they aren't empathetic, it could be just because in their culture it's not really appropriate to be emotionally expressive.  So for example, some East Asian cultures have been shown to be less comfortable with just emotional expression.  In those cases people might seem to score low on empathy but it might be because of cultural differences and whether emotion is something that's even appropriate to talk about. 

DYANI LEWIS
We're also far more exposed than we used to be to new stories of people, many of whom are in countries that we might never visit.  Does this have any influence on our ability to empathise?

SARA KONRATH
Well I think it can have a good and a bad influence.  It's possible that seeing those types of stories can actually activate our empathy responses or our compassion.  For example, when there was that earthquake - was it 2011 - in which there was a massive worldwide response in terms of donations, because we were quickly able to find out what had happened and see images of people suffering and respond to them.  But at the same time, there are a lot of types of natural disasters and other negative things that happen all over the world.  If we're constantly exposed to the news, and hear about these things and see these things, at a certain point we might actually kind of turn ourselves off and be less likely to help.  So I'm not sure what the net effect is but I think it could go both ways. 

DYANI LEWIS 
I'm Dyani Lewis and my guest today is social psychologist researcher Sara Konrath.  We're talking about empathy here on Up Close.  Sara, not all people are terribly empathic towards others and you mentioned before that narcissism is somewhat on the other end of the spectrum to empathy.  Could you explain a bit more about narcissism?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, narcissism is in an extreme, it's considered a personality disorder.  So you can actually be diagnosed with it by a psychologist.  But the narcissism I'm talking about is below that level, it's the everyday people who are self-focused, who try to take whatever they can from others and have - one of the symptoms is actually having relatively low empathy, so they don't really care or have the ability to care for other people's perspectives.  Pretty much we have an everyday word for it it's kind of like, jerks.  I think all of us think of - we all have one or two people in mind when we talk about narcissism and I just think generally narcissism is going to be associated with low empathy.  Although at times they can have surprising skills.  

DYANI LEWIS
So, given how beneficial empathy is in generating that social glue that's so important for society, why do you think narcissism exists at all?

SARA KONRATH
Well the research shows that narcissists when they first meet people, actually people are charmed by them and they're evaluated as being impressive and smart, like pretty positively.  But it's over time, over multiple interactions that when you interact with a narcissist you start going wow that's too much for me.  People tend to back off in these interactions because they're being exploited and the feeling you have when you're interacting with a narcissist, you're not actually there.  It's just all them.  So at first it might seem amazing that you get to be graced with the person's presence, but over time it doesn't work well.  So it's kind of good I guess for short-term strategies like they tend to be seen as attractive and have no trouble meeting dating partners, but where they have trouble is staying with those partners.  

DYANI LEWIS 
So there are certainly some benefits but there must be drawbacks as well for the narcissists themselves?

SARA KONRATH
Well what's interesting about it - so on self-report measures - we're back at measurement problems - they look so mentally healthy.  Pretty much they have high happiness, low depression, they're creative, they're low in anxiety.  There's all these ways that narcissists look like the ideal mentally healthy people, but in our recent research we actually thought something's not right here because these are people who think they're awesome so of course they're going to say that they're also mentally healthy and whatever.  So we actually looked at their cortisol levels: we'd wanted to go below the skin in a place they actually couldn't control.  And we found actually that narcissism is associated with actually pretty high cortisol which means that although on self-report measures they're saying they're fine inside their bodies things are not fine.  

DYANI LEWIS
So it's actually taking a toll on them to put up this front in a way?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah because in the long term if you have high cortisol levels and they're just always high, that leads to later health problems.  It basically eats away at your body and is associated with, for example, heart disease later on and other illnesses.  So it's really important to try to regulate those levels.  And narcissists, I think, don't have what most of us have, which is they don't have the natural way of dealing with stress, which is having other people nearby and sharing with them and caring for them and having these strong, healthy relationships.  

DYANI LEWIS
In recent years there's been an explosion of social media which, on the one hand connects us much more with our friends and our family and what they're doing, but on the other hand it does encourage us to shape and manipulate the image that we project to the world.  So, how does this play into our tendencies towards empathy, and also towards narcissism?

SARA KONRATH
Well I think that there's a couple of ways to think about this.  One is that of course so many people use social media now that of course there are people who are empathetic and using it in empathetic ways, and also narcissistic people who are using it in narcissistic ways.  But, overall - there's quite a bit of research actually on this topic and the finding is that people who are narcissistic tend to - for example with Facebook - they tend to post a lot of statuses.  They tend to have self-focussed statuses, you know lots of attractive pictures of themselves and they're really working hard at shaping other people's views of them.  Whereas people who are scoring lower in narcissism probably are on Facebook for other reasons.  They use it as a connecting tool probably or connecting with their loved ones, the closest others, and less about trying to make a good impression or showing off.  So I think that this tool could actually fuel narcissism because it's basically a hall of mirrors.  You can pretty much post whatever you want and see yourself in a certain way without having anyone ever, like, give you real feedback.  And if somebody would dare comment for example and say something rude you can just delete them off your friend list.  So, it's actually the ideal platform for a narcissist.  

DYANI LEWIS
But it's really then making those people more extreme in their tendencies rather than making everyone tend towards a particular direction?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, that's what I think.  I think this is such an interesting area of research that we have to learn a lot more about still because one of the problems with it is it's simply correlational and so we can only look at narcissism scores and then what they do on Facebook.  But there hasn't been research that actually says okay well what happens to people as they're using Facebook or Twitter or whatever, like, does it change them.  So we don't know that yet but probably your guess is right that it probably makes narcissists more extremely narcissistic. 

DYANI LEWIS
So speaking of an individual being able to change, can you learn empathy or can you teach people empathy to make people, or make society more empathic?

SARA KONRATH
Yeah, there's a lot of research on this.  So first the parenting styles even in children affect how much empathy they're going to have.  So parents who are responsive to their children's needs, willing to talk about emotions and open to emotions, and also who, when they're responding to the child's behaviours, focus on imagining how that behaviour affected others.  So, for example, those parents might say - after a child hits another child - they might say well how did that other person feel when you hit them; what was it like for them.  They might say what would it be like also if you felt that or somebody hit you.  And those parents tend to raise empathic kids.  So at that level we can have a lot of impact, but also even adults can be affected by different environmental changes.  So for example there's a lot of research showing that our empathy scores can change based on just being trained to be more empathetic: like having programs or classes or experiences or interacting with really empathic mentors.  So I think there's hope for this, I mean it is changeable.  The fact that it's declining over time in college students tells me that something in our environment is affecting it.  

DYANI LEWIS
But it can be rectified hopefully?

SARA KONRATH
Hopefully and we're working on, in our little tiny way in our lab, we're trying to find ways to increase people's empathy and we're trying to actually use text messaging and smart phones.  If that's part of the cause of declines in empathy we're seeing if it also could be part of the solution.  

DYANI LEWIS
Sara, I think that's a great place to end.  Thank you for being my guest today on Up Close and talking about your work on empathy. 

SARA KONRATH
And thanks very much for inviting me. 

DYANI LEWIS
Sara Konrath is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found on our website at Up Close.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on 11 April 2013.  Producers for this episode were Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel and myself Dyani Lewis.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer here in Melbourne and Tony Brown at Michigan Radio.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Until next time goodbye.  

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  We’re also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info, visit Up Close.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2013.  The University of Melbourne. 


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf