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'The Empathic Civilization": Narcissism Or Empathy? The Me Generation Or The We Generation?

Posted: 02/10/10 07:30 AM ET

Not that long ago, the goal of raising children was to socialize them -- to replace the natural narcissism of children with restraint and consideration for others. These days, we instead build further narcissism, an inflated sense of self characterized by overconfidence, entitlement, unbridled competitiveness, and lack of empathy.

Empathy is inherent to human nature and, at least until recently, was carefully nurtured by society. Though children are inordinately focused on their own needs, the littlest Homo empathicus -- a term coined by Jeremy Rifkin in his new book "The Empathic Civilization" -- still connects with others. Newborn babies will cry when they hear another baby cry. Toddlers instinctively respond with affection toward people who appear sad. But the more complex adult empathy, the ability to feel another's pain and to feel better yourself when you alleviate it, only develops with socialization. Children believe that helping others leads to sadness, perhaps because it often involves self-sacrifice; it is not until adulthood that individuals begin to derive happiness from helping.

Empathy evolved as a fundamental human emotion because, in the long run, it benefited the survival of humans as a group. Yet to have a truly empathic civilization, a culture must raise its young citizens to consider others' needs to be just as important as their own. This is where American parents, occasionally myself included, have fallen down on the job. Across three studies, young people's narcissism is at an all-time high, with almost 1 in 10 Americans in their 20s afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And it's no wonder: Children are told they are special, asked their opinions before they can talk, and believe that they can do anything they want to do (thank you, Blue's Clues).

We strive to raise our children's self-esteem in the belief that confidence leads to success, but often err on the side of too much self-focus as we favor competition over consideration. Ironically, self-esteem is unrelated to success, and narcissism leads to eventual failure -- so our obsession with supreme self-confidence doesn't even benefit individuals. And it harms others: though it's commonly believed that aggression arises out of low self-esteem, the most aggressive people are those high in both self-esteem and narcissism, most likely because they lack empathy. In our rush to teach self-love, we have forgotten that it's both harder, and more valuable, to love others just as much.

Of course, parents didn't just make this stuff up. As W. Keith Campbell and I argue in "The Narcissism Epidemic," extreme self-centeredness has seeped into every aspect of our culture, from routine plastic surgery to reality TV to the massive debt that allows us to look better off than we actually are. According to a slick website, February 13, 2010 is "Madly in Love with Me" day. To celebrate, people are encouraged to write a song about how great they are. Having a basic sense of self-esteem doesn't routinely compromise empathy, but once self-esteem bloats into narcissism, other people's needs become irrelevant. If you love yourself too much, you won't have much love left for anyone else.

Modern life also undermines human empathy through our increasingly lonely lives. My colleagues and I recently published a series of experiments showing that people who felt rejected or lonely were significantly less likely to help others. We also tested eight possible explanations for why lonely people won't help -- for example, bad moods or lowered self-esteem -- and the only one that worked was empathy. Caught up in their own pain, lonely people no longer felt empathy for others and thus had no compelling reason to help.
If we apply these results to recent cultural trends, we're in trouble. More Americans now live alone than at any point in our history, and 40% of babies in the U.S. are now born to unmarried mothers (and fathers, for that matter). Generation Me, those born after 1980, increasingly delays marriage, parenthood, and adulthood in general well into their 30s. This, too, has its roots in our self-focus: I don't want to be tied down, we think; I like being able to focus on myself.

The problem, of course, is that self-focus is ultimately an empty experience. Just as a life lived without others is but a shadow of a deep, meaningful existence, a society without empathy is a shallow and troubled one. If we are to move forward as a culture and as a nation, America must stop being the Madly in Love With Me Civilization and start being the Empathic Civilization.