According to a University of Michigan report that combined the results of 72 different studies, “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” Self-centeredness, being concerned solely or chiefly with the interests of the individual, is a growing plague.
Parents can also be egoistic with regard to their children, their genetic extensions. And children can be engrossed in the self-interest of their parents and their extended family. Selfishness can go beyond the self.
Bruce Springsteen articulated that loyalty-to-family perspective in his song “Highway Patrolman” about a cop who lets his brother escape after committing a violent crime that may have led to death:
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way…
Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’
Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood…
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.
On this issue , the Trump phenomenon is revealing. David Brooks hit the nail on the head with “The Politics of Clan: The Adventures of Jared Kushner.” Brooks argues:
All his life he’s been serving his father or father-in-law…. Jared interrupted his studies to take over the family business. He lived out his family-first devotion, his loyalty to kith and kin…. We tell young people to serve something beyond self, and Kushner seems to have been fiercely, almost selflessly, loyal to family. But the clannish mentality has often ill served him during his stay in government….
Clannishness …is about tight and exclusive blood bonds. It’s a moral approach based on loyalty and vengeance against those who attack a member of the clan. It’s an intensely personal and feud-ridden way of being…. The essence of clannishness is to build a barrier between family — inside the zone of trust — and others, outside that zone….
Our forebears have spent centuries trying to build a government of laws, and not of hereditary bloodlines. It’s possible to thrive in this system as a member of a clan — the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes — but it’s not possible to survive in this system if your mentality is entirely clannish….
The same traits are seen in the Trump family. Loyalty, automatic allegiance, is prized above all else. It seems Donald only trusts his family.
Social media has likely contributed to the increase in selfishness. When confronted with a challenging need face-to-face, it’s hard to run away. But when it happens online, it’s easy to disconnect.
Another factor may be that communicating online entails more time devoted to self-expression than to listening. That pattern may establish a habit that contributes to a growing imbalance between talking and listening.
Those tendencies have become more ingrained and have spread into daily life. If you get so wrapped up in yourself (and perhaps your family) that you fail to be present, attentive, and responsive to others when you have the time to do so, you have a problem (as I do often).
People act the way they do for many complicated reasons. They may be suffering so much or have so many responsibilities they may not have the time or energy to pay attention to others — although a bit of authentic dialog can liberate energy for life’s other tasks. Or they may not trust the person standing in front of them to be nonjudgmental.
Regardless, I figure all we can do is be of service as best we can and be available if and when others choose to engage in soulful, mutual dialog.
Prior to the 2016 election, the co-author of one study on selfishness, MarYam Hamedani, suggested another strategy: “Currently, if we want to inspire Americans to think and act interdependently, it may work best to actually emphasize their independence to motivate them to do so, Tell them, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ instead of ‘We’re all in this together.'”
Trump’s success indicates the need for an alternative to Clinton’s compassionate “together we can” approach. It seems many Americans identified with his family loyalty, his unabashed selfishness, his self-centered affirmation of “America First” rooted in strong military action, and his rejection of humanitarian nation-building. America’s tsunami of selfishness may have been too much for Clinton to overcome.
Once again, as I discussed in The Backfire Effect and “Reactance” and How to Talk, it seems we need to learn better what language to use. Otherwise, we may never reverse what seems to be a downward spiral of increasing selfishness.