Is Casual Sex Destroying Empathy?

October 19, 2010

A recurring theme in conversations about dating is the general lack of empathy between the sexes. Women feel that men just want to use and discard them, with little consideration of their emotional needs. Men feel that women focus on just a few alpha males, ignoring all the good guys who are relationship material. (The alpha males have no complaints.)

At the same time, both sexes complain about narcissists. Women like the Holmes sisters in the recent Washington Post article about dating dealbreakers demonstrate a sense of entitlement with a long checklist about what men need to have to date them. Men like Tucker Max view women as little more than “ejaculatories;”  warm, wet receptacles designed for male pleasure.

I’d never thought specifically about empathy vs. narcissism but it turns out they’re technical opposites. The Empathy Deficit, an article in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, explores the rise of narcissism in relation to the decline of empathy among college students. Keith O’Brien begins by pointing out that despite young people being more wired to one another than ever before, there’s a lack of emotional connectedness showing up in studies. We know more about one another than in any previous era, but we care less. A new study at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that college students are 40% less empathetic than they were 30 years ago, with most of the decline occurring in the last ten years. (As an interesting aside, HUS regular Mike made this exact observation just a few days ago.)

The Michigan study looked at 72 previous studies conducted since 1979 that looked at measures of how students feel about “other people’s misfortunes” and whether they have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. Mark Davis, a psychology professor who studies empathy, explains why it matters:

As awful a species as we can be — and we certainly have the capacity for terrible things — we’re also capable of some pretty wonderful things, noble things, self-sacrifice. And the fear would be, if there really is a genuine decline in our ability to act on this capacity we have, the world becomes meaner.

Studying empathy is a relatively recent phenomenon – the word didn’t even enter the English language until about a hundred years ago. Furthermore, there’s not firm consensus in the scientific community about its precise definition. O’Brien points out that “psychologists studying empathy still disagree on some basic questions about how it should be defined: Is it feeling for others? Feeling as others feel? Understanding how others feel? Or some combination of the above?” There is agreement, though, that there is an emotional component. Aaron L. Pincus, a professor of psychology at Penn State University says:

It’s not just putting oneself in another’s shoes. It’s truly grasping what they’re experiencing….Your emotional state will move in a direction more similar to the person you’re empathizing with.

Empathy is difficult to study because subjects tend to give answers that make them seem more empathetic (just as they tend to fudge the numbers on the number of sexual partners they’ve had). However, researchers have found that survey results are fairly accurate in predicting behavior. Pincus continues:

Spouses who score higher on empathic concern are more likely to offer emotional support to their partners. People capable of seeing another person’s perspective are more likely to help and less likely to exhibit aggression. And those who are narcissistic are probably going to be less empathetic. Generally speaking, there’s a lack of empathy as narcissism increases.

The contemporary narcissism epidemic is well documented. My Are You Dating a Narcissist? post is one of my most frequently read, and still receives comments after more than a year. I also get many hits on the 20 Identifiable Traits of a Female Narcissist post. And we know that male narcissists are often very successful with women – in a sexual marketplace that rewards narcissism without limits, it is hardly surprising that men would respond to those incentives by cultivating traits that women find sexually attractive. It should be noted that a degree of narcissism is useful and even necessary in society – it drives achievement and provides motivation for innovation. The problem occurs when narcissism metasticizes into the prevalent modus operandi.

The Michigan researchers found that the ability to think about how someone else might feel, or cognitive empathy, is declining, but there has been a much greater decline in empathic concern, defined as the “ability to exhibit an emotional response to someone’s else’s distress.” In other words, college students may recognize someone is suffering, but they don’t care very much. This measure of empathy dropped 48% between 1979 and 2009, and most of that drop has happened since 2000.

Researchers can only speculate about why.  Many are focusing on the role of technology in making relationships less personal – young people are connected, but not deeply. Others cite the media/culture, and the high divorce rate. Today’s young people have been raised to compete aggressively, and it’s not difficult to see how viewing a classmate as an opponent might stifle empathic concern.

I am interested in the potential intersection between narcissism, or lack of empathy, and casual sex. Since the definition of hooking up means “having zero expectations of  further contact,” there’s little incentive to know one’s sexual partner, and if we don’t know them, we can hardly be expected to have an emotional response to their distress. For starters, we’re unlikely to even be aware of their distress, drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Being drunk:

  • Inures us to the awkwardness of selecting a sexual partner we don’t know.
  • Inures us to potential rejection.
  • Masks personal feelings of rejection, i.e. distress.
  • Emboldens us to behave without inhibition.

The result is that we prevent ourselves from feeling distress, and from recognizing it in someone else. The remorse that many women and men feel after hooking up usually doesn’t arrive until the next morning, and by then we’ve separated, blissful in our ignorance of another person’s feelings, focused only on our own.

Researchers don’t believe that college students have lost the capacity for caring. It’s more a case of the incentives rewarding not caring. A woman who finds herself an emotional wreck after hooking up may either opt out of the practice or succumb to the rather addictive need for male validation. Over time, she learns to manage her distress by dismissing it, denying it, and adopting the persona of someone who prefers sex without expectations. Having low expectations is one way to minimize the distress of disappointment.

From The Empathy Deficit:

In recent years, W. Keith Campbell, a narcissism expert professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, has run a series of experiments where he places four people in charge of forestry companies harvesting an imaginary 200-hectare forest. He gives them permission to cut down 10 hectares a year, stipulating that 10 percent will grow back. The question before the participants is: Will they limit their short-term gains for the long-term good of the group? Or will they cut down as many trees as possible, thereby exhausting the resource for everyone much faster?

The narcissists — those focused primarily on themselves — always do well, Campbell said, harvesting more trees than the others in the group. But soon enough, the system is destroyed and everyone is worse off.

“So if you have a society where a lot of people are narcissistic, the whole thing blows up,” he said. “It implodes.”

This strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the current sexual marketplace. Women, who control access to sex, are greedily harvesting the male attention being offered. Most of that attention is sexual in nature. They’re going for the hookups with attractive guys, believing that they’re better off with the short-term gain of male validation than they would be if the whole female group was judicious in its distribution of sex. The most narcissistic females (see Karen Owen) aggressively target the highest status males, taking them off the market for at least the duration of a hookup, and providing strong incentives for men to offer sex without commitment, or indeed without empathy.

What are the implications of all this sex without emotion? How far will we go in order that we may feel something? Karen Owen felt gratified upon discovering that her body was covered with bruises after sex. Stuart Schneiderman has written about the feminist guilt of Jessica Wakeman, a writer for The Frisky, exploring her desire to be dominated in the bedroom by having a man hit her. Is this desire to be not only sexually submissive, but also physically struck a way of feeling something? Does physical distress serve the purpose of crowding out feelings of emotional distress? In some perverse twist, is seeking physical aggression a narcissistic act, in that it assures that all of our emotional concern will be focused on ourselves?

College students have not lost the capacity for empathy, but they seem to be getting rusty. Averting our eyes from the distress of others as well as ourselves reduces communication, introspection and understanding. All critical skills for successful relationships. It makes each of us an island, and being disconnected makes us lonely.

I’m not sure whether low empathy for others draws us to casual sex, or casual sex reduces empathy as we focus only on our own pleasure. I suspect both are true.

Practice empathy.

Look for signs of emotional distress in others, and seek to mitigate it.

Focus on sex as an experience of sharing yourself emotionally, and seek partners who exhibit the same orientation.

The truth is that lacking empathy for others and from others feels like crap. And that means we need to find another way.