Empathy and self-centredness: A couple of graphs

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9 Responses to Empathy and self-centredness: A couple of graphs

  1. conrad says:

    Aside from the size of the effect in the first graph being tiny (which the authors note), I find trying to interpret these sorts of results almost impossible. There are many problems, but an obvious confounding variable is that people are relentlessly surveyed these days — and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they responded differently because of this on factors that have nothing to do with the survey. For example, people may not think as much about the questions, they may be willing to give more culturally inappropriate answers, and they may simply be more willing to use extreme answers. Personally, I’d much prefer hard data on what people actually do before I would believe something like that.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:


      Strongly agreed. If one did find data on behaviour my guess is that you’d find an increase in empathy (though it would really be reflexive cooperativeness which is not necessarily driven by empathy).

      Nevertheless I think it’s still an issue – and a problem – that at the level of cultural expression there’s so much more emphasis on the self and not collective benefit. There’s a nice stat on the way US students responded to the proposition which was something like “having a high income is very important to me”. From the 1970s to the 2000s the number of students who agreed or strongly agreed with that statement went from 45% to 82% (This is a factoid from an RN interview with some person pushing an anti-narcisism barrow – but there’s quite a lot of data on this.)

  2. john Walker says:

    “people are relentlessly surveyed these days” Well those who have the time and patience are, relentlessly surveyed these days .

  3. Chris Lloyd says:

    I cannot find the second graph in the linked document. I don’t know how they measured relative self interest in 1790.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Apologies Chris – I mucked up the link – repeating the first link. The link should have been this one. (I’ll go and correct it now!) I presume the prevalence of self-interest in the State of the Union speeches is identified using automated text mining.

  4. paul walter says:

    I think that is a fascinating notion, that empathy and perspective taking can be definitively measured and take on board other comments here.

    I’ve tried to make sense of the graphs against the eras involved and I’d tentatively suggest that self interest seems to become sublimated during times of war and take off between wars.

    Does the increasing level of self preoccupation coincide with longer life spans, better nutrition and more leisure time?

    Think tanks, advertisers, spinners and others interested in opinon and consent formation must love this sort of stuff.

  5. Phil Clark says:

    As a side note, I would like to share an interesting insight to the nature of self interest and empathy in Jeremy Rifkin’s RSA Animate “The Empathic Civilisation”, link below.

    Although Roman, in his paper The Empathy Effect, covers the concept of Homo Empathicus his focus on short term social engineering to achieve pragmatic goals seems to lose focus on what it means to be human and the basis of empathy and its effect on socio economic constructs.

    I think Rifkin paints a better picture, one that’s a little less dependant on graphs and stats and more on real life feeling, with a bit of science for good measure.

  6. paul walter says:

    Phil Clark, many thanks, inc. the film clip…will sleep on concepts like empathy V Survivalism as the necessarily broad brush terminology is gradually worked through in my unconscious.

    But, a gift, all in all.

  7. Interesting material. Did the data explore gender differences over time? Any thoughts on this aspect?

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