social values self-respect security individualism

Today's College Students Lacking in Empathy
college students empathy social networking sites

Self-Respect Tops List of American Social Values

If you want to reform society, you must deal with people as they are. A couple of surveys try to show readers what Americans are now like. Are these the kind of people who will warm up to economic justice and efficiency in general, to geonomics in particular? We trim, blend, and append two 2010 articles from Miller-McCune, (1) May 20 on self-respect by Tom Jacobs and (2) May 31 on empathy by Erik Hayden.

by Tom Jacobs and by Erik Hayden

The social values of Americans have changed dramatically over the past three decades, with self-respect surging in importance and a sense of security mattering far less. That is the conclusion of a group of scholars writing in the Journal of Advertising Research.

In 2007, a research team led by Eda Gurel-Atay, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business, commissioned a survey in which 1,500 Americans were asked to rate the importance of eight social values, and to identify the one they considered most important. The scholars then compared the results with those from similar surveys taken in 1976 and 1986.

The values were self-respect (“to be proud of yourself and confident in who you are”), security (“to be safe and protected from misfortune and attack”), warm relationships with others, a sense of accomplishment, self-fulfillment, being well-respected, a sense of belonging, and fun-enjoyment-excitement (“to lead a pleasurable, happy life; to experience stimulation and thrills”).

Self-respect led the list in all three surveys, with a greater percentage of Americans ranking it as the most important value with each new survey. By 2007, 28.8% ranked it No. 1, compared to 21.1% in 1976 and 23.0 in 1986.

Security, on the other hand, plunged in importance, from 20.6% of respondents placing it first in 1976, to 16.5% in 1986 and 12.4% in 2007. That most recent survey was taken before the onset of the recession, which raises the question of whether security would rate higher if the question were asked today. However, even in this post-9/11 atmosphere, the importance of security continued to decline.

“Warm relationships with others” steadily grew in importance, from 16.2% in 1976 to 20.9% in 2007. But a “sense of belonging” dropped from 7.9% in 1976 to a mere 3.3% in 2007. It was overtaken by “fun-enjoyment-excitement,” which doubled from 4.5% in 1976 to 9.3% in 2007.

“A sense of belonging (social connectedness) appears to have steadily eroded for all age groups, both genders, all education groups, and most income groups in the United States,” Gurel-Atay and her colleagues report. “If a person looks to him- or herself as the ultimate arbiter of most things, a need for belonging ought to correspondingly diminish.”

From documenting a decline in personal responsibility for the environment to finding a link between Facebook and narcissism, data-crunchers are beginning to paint a less rosy picture of an age group cocooned by social-networking sites and helicopter parents.

The newest such study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, finds a precipitous decline in the past 30 years in the percentage of college students who report having empathetic concern for others and who are willing to take on another person’s perspective.

The results, which indicate that these declines have primarily occurred over the last decade, aren’t merely an indictment of Millenials. With the advances in personal technology, such as popular social networking sites, and such increases in competition -- especially in college -- it’s so easy now to spend your time in college isolated in personal experiences, noted researcher Edward H. O’Brien in a University of Michigan podcast.

The study, which analyzed 72 samples of academic research from 1979 to 2009, asked 18- to 25-year-old college students if they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” During the 30-year period there was a 48% decrease in empathetic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking among these students.

Researcher Sara Konrath, who used the nearly 14,000 responses to the Interpersonal Reactivity Index to evaluate empathy among the next “great” generation, speculates that one likely contributor may be that “people simply might not have time to reach out to others and express empathy in a world filled with rampant technology revolving around personal needs and self expression.”

Pundits charge Facebook with undermining privacy and changing how humans interact. As anyone who has “liked” a charity or nonprofit group on Facebook can attest, showing support for others is a far cry from tangible action (i.e. donating money to the organization).

Researchers reference numerous studies on volunteerism (an outward manifestation of empathy) echoing their results. Once study, published in 2007 by Kelton Research, finds that while more than 90% of Americans reported “it was important to promote volunteerism. … Given the choice, over half chose reading, watching television, and even visiting in-laws over volunteering for or donating to charity.”

To be fair, and ironic, Millenials and college students represent a huge swath of America’s volunteer force. A 2009 policy paper from The Higher Education Research Institute found that nearly 70% of college students reported the belief that it is essential to help others in need -- the highest rate since 1970.

JJS: Another possible interpretation is that the terminology of the credentialed generation and that of the youngsters that neither understands the other. Whatever, reformers targeting youth need to interpret these results correctly in order to draft proposals and recruit for campaigns. Something as scientifically solid and politically neutral as geonomics can be spun to resonate with any intended audience.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

Also see:

A look at mass protests during the past 500 years

If 60 is the new 50, what do the poor or bored do?

Mirrored values make for uncritical feedback

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