As empathy dies and narcissism thrives, will culture survive?

I know it’s shocking and unexpected, but the evidence—both data-driven and anecdotal—indicates that people increasingly care less about others and more about themselves.

In fact, in a survey that has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has found that college students’ self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision”) have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago,” Konrath reports.

More worrisome still, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is that, during this same period, students’ self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof. “Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called ‘Generation Me,’ ” Konrath continues, “as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history.”

That is from Kevin Dutton’s article, “Psychopathy’s Double Edge” (ht: C.F.), published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dutton writes, “Precisely why this downturn in social values has come about is not entirely clear. A complex concatenation of environment, role models, and education is, as usual, under suspicion.” He then goes on to point to new studies of the brain, neural pathways, and such. Interesting. And I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that new technologies, the drop in literacy levels, and social upheaval are major factors in the demise of empathy and the steady growth of “self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic” attitudes and behaviors.

But, in the end, it won’t suffice. Humans are are made for an ultimate and transcendent purpose, imbued with a desire for truth, meaning, love, and communion with others. However, the dominant culture today is a combination of materialistic secularism, which denies the transcendent, and self-serving spirituality, which offers plenty of vaporous clichés but little or no objective substance. One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Walker Percy, spent much of his life reflecting upon and diagnosing this tragic state of affairs. And he, like Bl. John Paul II, Msgr. Romano Guardini, and many others, located the heart of the problem in an anthropology that is ultimately anti-human. From an essay about Percy that I wrote many years ago:

Man’s existential crisis –– his confusion and despair over his own existence –– can only be satisfactorily addressed by Catholicism and its incarnational, sacramental vision. In “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” Percy writes,

“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening––and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding. Such a view of man as wayfarer is, I submit, nothing else than a recipe for the best novel-writing from Dante to Dostoevsky.” (“The Holiness of the Ordinary,” p. 369)

Percy explained that his anthropology is “scriptural” and embraces “Gabriel Marcel’s Homo viator.” (“An Interview with Zolta´n Aba´di-nagy,” p. 375). Man’s search is for himself and for the Other. In the end, finding one means finding the other, for we cannot see our humanity rightly unless we see ourselves in relation to the Creator. In several of Percy’s novels, the main character begins to see himself more clearly at he embraces unexpected love. This human love eventually points him beyond himself to the ultimate source of sacrificial love. Percy’s depictions of these moments of recognition and transition are masterful, always understated, quietly observing the ordinary nature and commonness surrounding such significant (and sign-filled) events.


Percy often noted the paradoxical fact that man can form a perfect scientific theory explaining the material world –- but cannot adequately account for himself in that theory. Man is the round peg never quite fitting into the square hole of scientism. “Our view of the world, which we get consciously or unconsciously from modern science, is radically incoherent,” Percy wrote in his essay “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind.” Again, science must either recognize its own limits or create confusion: “A corollary of this proposition is that modern science is itself radically incoherent, not when it seeks to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks to understand man, not man’s physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human. In short, the sciences of man are incoherent.” (“The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault In The Modern Mind,” p. 271). In a self-interview, “Questions They Never Asked Me,” he put the matter more bluntly:

“This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i.e., God.” (“Questions They Never Asked Me,” p. 417)

True empathy, authentic love, and the gift of self are rooted in a particular understanding of man and God, creature and Creator, sinner and Savior. Without that fixed reference point, narcissism and greed and other sinful behaviors will thrive; they can even destroy a culture and society altogether. Which is why, more than ever, the world is in desperate need of the robust, life-affirming humanism of the Catholic tradition.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.