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.
Whereas the sources of empathic decline are impossible to pinpoint, the work of Konrath and Twenge demonstrates that the American personality is shifting in an ominous direction. Still, we are not doomed to become a society of self-obsessed loners. Konrath points out that if life choices can drive empathy down, then making different choices could nurture it. “The fact that empathy is declining means that there’s more fluidity to it than previously thought,” she says. “It means that empathy can change. It can go up.”