What happened to kindness?

Leads | By Abby Ferla |

Dec. 21, 2011 — Donald G. Davis is pastor of Dover Baptist Church in central North Carolina. His book, entitled The Demise of Compassion, was published earlier this year. Davis says that he sees more hardness and less compassion in people than he used to. “I have noticed that [for] the generation of my son, it’s more about ‘me,’” he told Remapping Debate. “From [my father’s] generation to the present time, they’ve lost a sense of compassion. They’re more concerned about their careers, me-ism than they are about helping their neighbor.”

Why report on kindness?

Kindness — or at least statements that kindness is valued — will make a guest appearance over the holiday season. But it seems anecdotally that the actual practice of kindness has gone down over the years as self-centeredness, acquisitiveness, and “getting ahead” have become more and more celebrated.

We thought (and think) that the question of the pressures militating against the ability or willingness to express kindness deserves much more attention from journalists, so we decided to make a preliminary foray to explore whether there is substance to the impression that kindness is down and, if so, what some of the reasons may be.

 — Editor

His point of reference is his recollections of his own family during the Great Depression. When hobos came through on the train, he says, his family always allowed them to stay and have dinner. “It didn’t matter what color they were…nobody ever left our house hungry,” he says. “That’s just the way you were raised then.”

But is Davis merely engaged in the ages-old practice of remembering the past as better than it was and denouncing the present as worse than it is? Apparently not, according to a range of observers who study issues that relate to kindness. At least in the last few decades, according to those with whom Remapping Debate spoke, a range of factors have conspired to make us, in general, treat both family and strangers with less generosity of spirit than we once did. A relative lack of kindness would be disconcerting in any time, but it has special resonance at a time when dire financial circumstances are widespread and exist side-by-side with unparalleled extremes of wealth.


Studying kindness

Strikingly, I was not able to find social scientists who are quantitatively studying kindness per se. There are, however, researchers studying social behaviors that one would expect to correlate positively with kindness (like the presence of empathy) and those that seem potentially antithetical to kindness (like extreme egotism). Sarah Konrath is an assistant research professor at the Center for Group Dynamics in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. She sees expressions of kindness as actions that require empathy — the ability to identify with the feelings of another.

In a study most recently updated in 2010, Konrath found that empathy — as measured based on the self-reporting of college freshman — has been declining over the past thirty years, with a sharp decline around the year 2000.

Konrath has also found that narcissism — or an inflated sense of self-importance and self-centeredness — has increased from the early 1980s to the present.  The change, measuring between two and three points on a 40-point scale, represented a 30 percent increase over the starting level, a change that she believes is statistically significant.

While Konrath was not prepared to draw firm conclusions about the meaning of this trend, Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina and author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement, however, believes that a change that may appear modest on average can have large effects on many individuals. “What happens,” he says, “is when you raise everyone up a little bit, on any scale –– obesity is a class example of this — the number of people on the extreme end go up a whole lot.”

Campbell points to a National Institute of Health study that found that the incidence of people with narcissistic personality disorder (or an extreme preoccupation with oneself) was almost three times higher for people in their thirties than for people in their sixties.

Because some of the change appears to be generational — most pronounced in those coming to age in and around the year 2000 — Konrath suggests that looking at the social changes of that time period could provide insight into phenomenon. “People born after 1980 are more likely to score higher in narcissism and lower on empathy. It zeroes in on something going on in the early 80s.” She thinks it is significant that the period was marked by rapid changes in technology, from the increasing popularity of cable television to the invention of video games. “People [began to spend] much more time in solo interactions with technology.”


Television as a mirror on the culture

Randy Lewis, professor of american studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of “The Compassion Manifest: Corporate Media and the Ethic of Care,” was interested in the frequency with which kind or compassionate acts were portrayed on television.

In a study most recently updated in 2010, Sarah Konrath found that empathy — as measured based on the self-reporting of college freshman — has been declining over the past thirty years, with a sharp decline around the year 2000.

When he started looking, he found that these portrayals were few and far between. “You’re not coming across a lot that you would describe in any way of celebrating compassion or representing compassion.”

“As an American Studies scholar who looks at film and media, I feel like there has been a kind of hardening and coarsening of our culture.”

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parent’s Television Council, agrees with Lewis’s assessment. She believes that a lot of television programs today place a value on violence, name-calling, and gossip. “What we don’t see in these shows is someone tuning the other cheek…or encouraging kind behavior.”

As for what is advertised as reality television, “You see modeled some of the worst behaviors,” she says.

Henson believes that what is shown on television “absolutely does” influence how people act. “Television helps to define people’s expectations of what human interaction does and what it should look like. If their experience doesn’t match what they see on TV, they modify their behavior. As much as people like to poke fun at ‘Leave it to Beaver’…and as much as it may not have represented reality, it did set normative expectations of what people should do and should act,” she says.

Lewis, while acknowledging that there is substantial scholarly disagreement over the extent to which patterns of behavior shown on television are actually internalized by viewers, calls attention to the fact that advertisers spend massive sums based on the belief that messages on television can affect behavior. “So why,” he says, “wouldn’t all the other stuff have some kind of stickiness in our minds?”

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