What happened to kindness?

Leads | By Abby Ferla |

Multiple factors

Experts caution against oversimplifying the question of causation. “The way that I have been thinking about this,” offers Konrath, “is to think about it on multiple levels: family, neighborhood and community, and larger levels like society and culture, including the media. Each of those different levels can contribute to a trend.”

Oftentimes, changes occur simultaneously on all levels. “There are several factors, and when you talk about any cultural change, everything feeds back on itself, so you get a change in one area and that cues changes in other areas, and it works to make it hard to [pinpoint] a cause,” Campbell says.

Both Campbell and Konrath, for example, note that the decrease in empathy and increase in narcissism has coincided with a greater number of single-child families, but neither would suggest that this change is somehow the critical or master factor.


Too much self-esteem and self-expression?

Questions are being raised about the impact of the self-esteem movement in schools that started in the 1970s and 1980s and that is still happening today. Campbell says that the increase in narcissism could be related to this “change in parenting and educational system that focuses on self-esteem.” “They did self-esteem in terms of specialness with a lot of focus on kid’s uniqueness,” he says, “awards, grade inflation, making people feel good about themselves all the time.”

More wealth yielding less kindness?

Paul Piff is a doctoral student and researcher at the University of California Berkeley. Working in the Institute of Personality and Social Research, he has been studying social behaviors like helpfulness, altruism, and empathy in relation to socioeconomic factors such as income, background, and individual perception of financial status. He and his colleagues have found that, controlling for factors like political beliefs and religiosity, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more willing to be giving of what they have (be that time or money) than their wealthier counterparts.

In one experiment, researchers would invite a participant into the lab individually and gave that participant $10. The researchers then showed the participant a “partner” participant whom the participant would never meet. The participant was offered the option of giving some of the $10 to the partner. “People who made on average, say, over $150,000 a year would gave away two or three dollars. People who made on average $15,000 or $16,000 gave away six or seven.”

“People who are less well off have had more experience in their surroundings with people who are in more need. They live in a more interdependent social environment where they rely on people, and people rely on them, to get by. So they’ve had more practice,” Piff hypothesized. Their more privileged counterparts, he continued, have lived in environments that do not encourage them to practice these kinds of pro-social behaviors.

Piff says that in another study, he and his colleagues put subjects into an environment with a “trained confederate,” (a person hired to act in a specific way in the experiment). This confederate’s role was to arrive late to the study, and act distressed. The confederate was then sent to another room. The leader of the experiment would ask a participant if he would be willing to take on some extra research tasks to help his distressed partner so that this person will not have to stay an extra hour. As with the previous experiment, “less wealthy people were willing to take on much more time” than their wealthier counterparts.

However, when all participants were asked to watch a video about childhood poverty before the experiment, Piff adds, the deviations in behavior between those with differing class backgrounds almost completely disappeared.

In studies conducted elsewhere, Piff says, people of higher social strata have been shown to be less empathetically accurate — which is to say that are less likely to accurately interpret the feelings of other people.

The presence or absence of empathy or other “pro-social” behaviors, does appear to be fixed and immutable. According to Piff, there is some evidence, for example, that, “If you take relatively less privileged people and make them feel in the lab as though they are better off [than other participants], they show the same patterns as [more privileged] individuals do.”

The more that a model of individualistic success is prized over all other values, Piff says, there will “almost necessarily” be “decreased other-oriented patterns. It attunes people to their own well-being.”

He says that an increased contact between people — between neighbors and between those of different social strata and cultures — is necessary to increase empathy and kindness. “The essential difference is not that people are not kind, but that people are almost inherently kinder to people of their own kind.” The more contact between people, he posits, the less likely people are to think of others as different and separate and not worthy of acts of kindness.

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