Who cares?

Not college students apparently.

Scientific American reports that “college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights.”

“How can they measure empathy?” you may ask.

The Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a well-known questionnaire, taps empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

After analyzing 14,000 students, University of Michigan researchers conclude: “75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.”

More honest?
Well, we all know students who buck this trend. I certainly do. And, of course, the stats may be interpreted more favorably – maybe today’s students are simply more honest!

Or maybe the figures reflect a societal rather than a generational trend. The latter seems to be the conclusion of the researchers who have linked the decline in empathy with the increase in social isolation, with today’s Americans much more likely to live alone and much less likely to join groups.

In a fascinating paragraph, they also trace the decline in empathy to a decline in reading.

The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults. And reading may be linked to empathy. In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.

I’m sure that the fast and frequent electronic communication that passes for friendship today has also taken a huge toll on inter-personal relationship skills.

Ominous direction
The authors share their fears “that the American personality is shifting in an ominous direction” and offer some suggestions to change this – but you have to pay $5.99 for the rest of their article!

So here are my thoughts for free.

This research certainly has worrying implications for the church and for those of us who are involved in training future pastors. The last thing we need is more Reformed Robots wreaking havoc on the church of Christ.

But taking off my Scottish pessimist hat and putting on my optimistic American hat, this problem also presents the church with a great opportunity. Here is a way for Christians in general, and pastors in particular, to distinguish themselves from the rest of this fallen world.

Surely isolated and suffering people will gladly welcome contact with Christians and pastors who have imbibed the comforting Spirit of our sympathetic and empathetic Lord Jesus. He was/is moved with compassion at sheep without a shepherd; he was/is touched with the feeling of our infirmities; and he was/is acquainted with our grief. He’s given us a vivid example of interaction, involvement, and immersion in the lives of needy sinners. What a difference it would make to see waves of pastors with the Shepherd’s heart sweeping across the nations.

Reformed Recovery
I rejoice in the recovery of some Reformed doctrines in the past decade. As I look forward to the next decade I want that Reformation to continue, deepen, and widen. But I would also love to see much more tenderizing of Reformed preachers’ spirits, much more connection with people in preaching, much more pastoral visitation, much more ability to apply the doctrine to people’s deepest needs. I pray all that for myself as well.

O for a new generation of Empathetic Evangelists. The world has enough Reformed Robots.

  • Susan_Wilkinson

    Thank you for this. I love the term Empathetic Evangelicals or as I call it Warm Reformed.

  • Dan in GR

    David, this is an intriguing post!Re: “reformed robot”, it’s possible I’m one of these at times. Perhaps that’s a backlash against previous anti-intellectual or touchy-feely forms of evangelicalism to which I’d been exposed. Reformed theology is new to me within just the past few years.Re: “adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic”. Again, my reformed leanings may have something to do with this. There is so much to catch up on – reading Scripture itself, as well as church history, doctrinal works, and views of what the church should be and do. Reformed theology literally shakes the foundations of every expression of the Christian faith. Frankly, I’ve never been one to read much fiction, and I’ve never been a terribly empathetic person, either! I AM, however, empathetic toward other newly reformed folks who feel as alone in this American evangelical stew as I do!

  • Ted Heaberlin

    This is a great article, and a little convicting to me personally, not so much on the empathy aspect, but in the aspect of isolating and reading less for pleasure. Then again, it’s hard to be objective regarding one’s own level of empathy.