Sunday, June 27, 2010

follow-up to previous discussion

My son, Zack, sent me this e-mail in response to my query as to whether young people are really less empathetic than their predecessors:

Without knowing the details of the study, it's really hard to judge how accurate it is. If it's empathy for the struggles of minorities, I think young people are much more empathetic, if for no other reason than minorities are more integrated than in past generations. And with the increased ratio of minorities in this country, that too should make young people more empathetic.

However, when it comes to having empathy for opposing points of view, especially political views, the study may be right. It is my general feeling that people are, on average, not very interested in even hearing opposing points of view, let alone trying to empathize with them.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Are young people less empathetic?

I read about a new study that claims that college kids are about 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago. This was a large study analyzing data on 14,000 college students. The results were obtained by asking students pretty straight-forward questions like how much they agree with the statement, "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective". I answered the questionnaire myself, and it seemed hard to get a low score.

A 40% drop is huge, and the article in Science Digest speculated on why this might have occurred, fingering everything from violent video games to reality shows (which make entertainment of real humans' problems) to Facebook as the culprits.

But I have to wonder if the results are right. All of the young people I know, from my sons' friends to my nieces and nephews to people I work with, seem quite empathetic. Yes, they connect on Facebook in a somewhat superficial way, but that doesn't mean they don't connect with each other in real life, and they still seem to share and listen to each other as much as ever. Maybe I'm wrong. But I hope not.

I read about the study in New York Times' columnist Charles M. Blow's account of how he isn't as personally connected to his neighbors as people used to be. But then, he lives in New York City. Maybe it's different here in Minnesota. After all, Minneapolis is the number one city in the U.S. in terms of number of people who volunteer. And you don't voluntarily give up your time and money to help someone else, whether it's a child who needs help with reading in school, or a homeless family who needs a free meal, or a sick and lonely old person in a nursing home who needs a friend, unless you feel empathy for that person you're helping.

Maybe young people today just self-report differently than they did in the past. Maybe when asked how much a statement such as "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them" describes themselves, they chose the second-highest option on the five-point scale, for some reason. Maybe they're more cynical about being surveyed. Maybe they're more honest. Maybe they're thinking, "It depends on why that person is being taken advantage of."

I would really love to hear from young people: how accurate do you feel this study is?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gay stigma fading away

Good news on the empathy front! New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow reports on the Gallup research organization's findings that the percentage of Americans who feel that gay and lesbian relations are "morally acceptable" has passed the 50% mark. Further, the increase comes about because men have dramatically increased their acceptance of homosexuality in others, bringing them up to the same level of acceptance as found among women.

This is particularly true for young men. In general, it seems the youth are leading the way on this front. They've been exposed to gay characters on TV and in the movies their whole lives; they've seen increasing numbers of famous people come out and say "I'm gay, this is who I am, but it doesn't define me"; they personally know more people who are openly gay. Remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV in 1997 and it was considered so brave? She helped break the ground for Adam Lambert to be able to come out in a very casual and natural way 12 years later. Adam Lambert is the new normal for young people. One of my son's best friends is gay, and it certainly hasn't adversely affected their close friendship.

I'm not saying it isn't still difficult for a gay or lesbian person to tell the world--their families, friends and co-workers--about their sexual orientation. I don't want to make light of the prejudice and hostility they still face. But the stigma seems to be falling rapidly, as even the military is now on the verge of repealing its "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. And now we're seeing state after state open up marriage to same-sex couples, further decreasing the "us" vs "them" mentality of the past. I suspect that when Gallup does a follow-up poll in 10 years, young people in 2020 will say, "Who cares if someone's gay or not? No one I know."