The Empathy Paradox: Increasing Disconnection in the Age of Increasing Connection

The Empathy Paradox: Increasing Disconnection in the Age of Increasing Connection

Sara Konrath (University of Michigan, USA & University of Rochester Medical Center, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch012
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The purpose of this chapter is to summarize changes in personality traits that have co-occurred with the rise of new social media, and to evaluate the plausibility of the hypothesis that new social media are a partial explanation for these dramatic changes. Studies have found a rise in social disconnection among recent generations of young Americans. Self-esteem and narcissism have been rising in college students from the late 1970s to 2010, with simultaneous declines in empathy. Scholars and lay people alike blame the rise of the internet, and in particular, self-oriented and self-promoting “social” networking sites. This new media landscape could lead to increasing social disconnection even as it superficially increases our social connections, and several studies suggest a direct link between social media use and social disconnection. However, since most research thus far is correlational, interpretations are limited, leaving open more optimistic possibilities for new social media.
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We suffer today I believe from a lack of connection with each other. This is common knowledge; so common in fact, that it may not even be true. It may be that we are overconnected, for all I know. -(Barthelme, 1965, p. 50)

In this chapter I summarize recent empirical studies documenting changes in the self-perceptions of Americans in the past 30 years (from the late 1970s to 2010). The overarching purpose of it is to weigh in on the role of new social media in causing these changes. I will attempt to answer such questions as: How have Americans changed in the way they see themselves across the past 50 years? How has the media landscape changed in America across the past 50 years? Could there be a link between the two types of changes? If so, what kind of research has been conducted to help us answer that question?

Whenever possible, I will rely on empirical or quantitative studies to answer these questions. Many of us have interesting stories to tell about changes that are occurring in how people relate to each other and in the new media landscape, and many of us can easily cite examples of how these two may be linked. I rely on empirical research in order to attempt to avoid biases that might occur because of our limited knowledge or perspective. However, since empirical research without these types of stories can be a bit deadening, I also intersperse anecdotes throughout.

Before reviewing research on changes in self-esteem, narcissism, and empathy over time, it is important to first discuss two inevitable targets of widespread prejudice: young people and new media. There is a long history of older adults criticizing younger generations for ways in which they are different from them. Older adults often complain that youth today are selfish, irresponsible, and have no sense of shame. Here is an example of a quote taken from the popular media. Can you guess when this was written? 1 “The worst part is that they don't care what people--their mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts--think of them. They haven't any sense of shame, honor or duty … they don't care about anything except pleasure.” This kind of stereotyping has been occurring for a very long time.

Currently, almost half of all television stories about young people present them in a negative light (Amundson, Lichter, & Lichter, 2005; Gilliam & Bales, 2001). Obviously young people are not the only group to face such stereotypes, but it is still unfortunate that audiences crave such stories. In fact, reading negative news stories about young people boosts older adults’ self-esteem (Knobloch-Westerwick & Hastall, 2010), which may explain why they are so popular. In any case, since there is a prevalent bias against young people that has existed for generations, it is important to critically and skeptically examine the empirical evidence concerning generational differences in self-views, social attitudes, and social behaviors. Thus, in Part I of this chapter I will review the research on changes in self-perceptions among American young people in recent years. Importantly, these data are obtained from young people’s self-reports, which hopefully eliminates some of the biases from older adults.

Another human tendency appears to have at least as long of a history, which is the tendency to be suspicious of new media in whatever form it might take. One such new medium was described as: a cause of “negligence and folly,” a “non-entity” that only “vulgar” people enjoy, a “poison,” a “casual disorder,” a “national evil,” “the reflection of our own weakness,” and a “vicious affection.” Again, you may be surprised which new media is referred to by these nasty names.2 This is just one example of the predictable discomfort people have in the presence of major changes in media and technology. From our smug perspective, it seems laughable that novels were ever seen as such a threat, but future generations may find our endless debates about the perils of the online world equally amusing. It is with this historical lens that I will discuss recent research tracking changes in the individual and social identities of young Americans and linking these changes to the rise of new social media. In Part II, I will briefly review the history of major types of media available throughout the 20th century, and will then settle on a deeper discussion of new social media and its potential role in causing increased social disconnection in the past several years.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-Esteem: Self-esteem involves people’s global evaluations of themselves and their deservingness or worthiness. People who have high self-esteem see themselves as having intrinsic worth, at least as much as anyone else. They are confident, assertive, and have a positive view of others. On the other hand those with low self-esteem see themselves in a more negative light, and exhibit low confidence across many domains in their lives.

Experimental Study: Experimental studies involve the random assignment of -participants into different groups (e.g. experimental, control) in order to determine the causal effect of a certain condition (independent variable) on a certain outcome (dependent variable). An example of an experimental study on the current topic would be to randomly assign some participants to spend 10 minutes on their facebook page (experimental treatment), and the other participants to spend 10 minutes on other websites (control group). Experimental studies are considered the gold standard in social psychological studies because researchers are able to determine causal effects with more confidence than when using any other research method.

Narcissistic Personality: Narcissism involves an inflated sense of self-worth (i.e. grandiosity) combined with a devaluation or disinterest in other people. It is a personality trait that varies in normal (sub-clinical populations), and as such, the narcissistic personality is distinct from the clinical disorder of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Although it is likely that those with NPD score high on measures of the narcissistic personality, the disorder is more severe in terms of day-to-day functioning (e.g. at work, in relationships) than the trait.

New Social Media: New social media are defined as networked (i.e. Internet-based) technologies that allow users to interact with other people in some way, whether in real-time or after some sort of delay. Not all social media exist for the sole purpose of social interaction; many exist for some other purpose (e.g. to create knowledge) and allow for social interaction in pursuit of that goal. These media are characterized by their relatively open access (most are free to join), user-generated content, high user controllability and editability, and their usually instantaneous nature.

Correlational Study: A correlational study (also known as a cross-sectional study) is a research method in which participants are asked to complete a series of questionnaires or measurements at a single time point. For example, participants may be asked to complete a standardized measure of narcissism and also asked questions about their social network usage. Although these types of studies can be useful, they make interpretations about causality difficult. First, it is impossible to determine the direction of causality with such studies. For example, does social network usage cause narcissism to rise, or do people who score higher in narcissism simply use these types of technologies more? Second, correlational studies suffer from the third variable (or confound) problem. For example, it is possible that there is a correlation between social network use and narcissism because people from higher income economic backgrounds are higher in narcissism and also use such technologies more frequently. In other words, income could best explain this correlation.

Adult Attachment Style: These are fundamental ways that individuals view others, and are divided into positive versus negative views of the self and others. People with positive views of the self and positive views of others are described as having secure attachment styles, which means that they tend to be good at balancing their own needs with the needs of relationship partners. People with negative views of the self but positive views of others have a preoccupied attachment style, and tend to be overly clingy and anxious in relationships. People with positive views of the self and negative views of others have a dismissing attachment style, and tend to avoid deep interpersonal bonds. Finally, those with negative views of the self and others have fearful attachment styles, desiring to have relationships with others but not being trusting enough to engage in them. See Bartholomew & Horowitz (1991) for more information.

Individualism: Individualism (or independent self-construal) is the tendency to see oneself as a unique individual, who is distinct and separate from others. Typically people scoring high in individualistic traits value assertiveness, achievement, and personal abilities. Individualism is usually discussed in contrast with collectivism (or interdependent self-construal), which is the tendency to see oneself as more interconnected with others and part of larger relational and group contexts. Western cultures are typically found to be more individualistic compared to Eastern cultures, which are more collectivistic.

Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis: A cross-temporal meta-analysis (CTMA) is a research method popularized by social psychologist Jean Twenge in which researchers track scores on standardized psychological tests over a period of time (usually several decades). In order to be effective, scores must be taken from widely used and highly valid measures, from similar populations across all time periods (e.g. college students), and from both published and unpublished sources. CTMAs can examine cohort effects because they compare similar-aged people at one time point (e.g. 1980) to similar-aged people at another time point (e.g. 2010).

Longitudinal Study: This is a type of research where the same group of participants is followed for a period of time. Longitudinal studies (also known as panel studies) allow researchers to make inferences about the direction of causality because one variable (e.g. social network usage) is measured before the other one (e.g. narcissism). However, these types of studies still leave open the possibility for third variables, or confounds, that might better explain why a certain relationship exists.

Dispositional Empathy: Also known as trait empathy, dispositional empathy is the tendency for people to imagine and experience the feelings and experiences of others. Researchers typically discuss dispositional empathy in contrast to state or situational empathy, which is an immediate response to a specific eliciting situation. Dispositional empathy is typically divided into more cognitive (e.g. Perspective Taking) and more affective or emotional (e.g. Empathic Concern) components. Moreover, most researchers distinguish between more other-oriented empathic traits and states compared to more self-oriented ones (e.g. Personal Distress). See Davis (1983) for more information.

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