photo © 2010 Aaron | more info (via: Wylio)University of Michigan researchers are set to release a study reporting a sharp decline in empathy over the last decade, with the trait steadily sputtering out over the past 3 decades. As reported in a recent Scientific American article, “almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.”
Journalist Jamil Zaki suggests that a decline in fiction reading may be a contributing factor to this downward shift in sensitivity:
The types of information we consume have also shifted in recent decades; specifically, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. 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.
Instead, might we consider the number of hours young adults spend in front of television screens? In late 2009, the average American watched 4 hours and 49 minutes of programming each day, which is 20 percent more viewing than the decade prior. Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that children, ages 8-18 years old, average 7 hours and 38 minutes of entertainment consumption each day, including 4 hours and 29 minutes of television.
Aligned with the recent plunge in empathy is the explosion of reality programming in the past decade. In 2010 alone, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and Survivor: Heroes and Villains took 5 of the top 10 slots for prime time ratings; just 3 scripted shows made the list. From American Idol and The Biggest Loser to the Jersey Shore and Hell’s Kitchen, the revamped reality genre captivates audiences with its harsh treatment and criticisms of contestants. Creative editing makes enemies and underdogs of participants. Friendly, innocuous reality shows like Trading Spaces and What Not to Wear don’t stand a chance against the often brutal depictions and set-ups taking place on network television.
The Snookies and Situations of the world are overdrawn caricatures of real people left behind on the cutting room floor. The Jillian Michaels-esque coaches and insult-handy judges earn their livings punishing those caricatures for an hour each week on screen in your living room. The predominant characters aren’t there as relatable reflections of our lives; they are objects for our entertainment. They are the gladiators in the collosseum headed toward mass graves as their winning streaks come to an end.
With literature, people experience the richness of characters whose lives are very different from our own. From the beginning to the end of a great book, you can put yourself in that time or place and share in the struggles and successes of protagonists meant to draw you in and connect with your innermost insecurities, dreams and emotions. It’s a multi-dimensional slice of life across a variety of classes, races and cultures that allow you to see how seemingly unsimilar people’s lives aren’t so different after all.
Instead of PBS and the umpteenth BBC adaptation of yet another Jane Austen novel, Americans are choosing to watch fundamentally fake, carefully constructed, over-the-top behavior on reality programming, week-after-week, inspiring applications from those who seek entrenched Kardashian-level celebrity or the repeat of an Elizabeth Hasselbeck career transition. Can reality programming also explain the increase in college student narcissism that coincides with the decline in empathy?
If reality television is but a fickle trend, like our shift from zombies to vampires, we can impatiently wait for its replacement and hope better stories are on the way. But if it’s here to stay, we need to find the conditioning anecdote to remedy the disconnect experienced.
How do you view participants of reality programming that you watch? Do they feel like relatable three-dimensional people to you? Or do you recognize them as media constructs in place to entertain you?