I’m very skeptical of the studies suggesting empathy has “dropped dramatically” for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they seem to be very regional, and particularly associated with “scientists” (not actual science-scientists in most cases, soft-science-types) on the US West Coast (and to a lesser extent East Coast). Secondly, there frequently seem to be agendas surrounding it, including, bizarrely and chillingly, an agenda that was expressed a fair bit in the last five years that empathy is basically “a bad thing” or “a problem” (seemingly on the basis that it made people want to band together with other poor people against rich people, and people generally caring about social issues that don’t directly affect them, I wish I was joking).
Re: reading and empathy, yeah you’re right to mention “causation or correlation?”. Looking back through people I’ve known who read/don’t read, there is a correlation between reading books about people, people particularly people who suffer and go through a lot, and having lot of empathy, but I know a number of cold individuals who read a ton of fiction, and just don’t give a shit about the characters, and/or particularly read crime fiction (or read non-fiction). I suspect there’s a bit of both - having empathy makes you more likely to actually enjoy books about people and feelings and so on, and reading those books will likely open you up to issues you might never personally have considered/experienced, widening your empathy. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible for people to sneer their way through Inspector Badass putting away (or more likely, killing) some serial killer (whilst also sneering at the killer’s flawed victims, of course).
I think quality is an important issue. Most writing you find online, because it costs basically nothing to publish it, and it doesn’t have to get through any kind of editors at all, let alone trained, experienced or even basically competent editors, is staggeringly low-quality. Even stuff you’d expect to be lower-quality, like forum posts and so on, is lower-quality than letters and so on of old, because people can just type it up in seconds and press “post”, rather than having to say, plan it, write it, check it, get off their arse and send it if good enough and so on. Education and spell-checkers and so on have helped make people basically better writers, but everything else has helped degrade it a lot more. Further, even places where you would expect higher standards, like, say, the NYT, are so desperate for readership that they put of tons of faux-controversial trash-reasoning clickbait-y opinion pieces, which whilst they might have good grammar, are wholly intellectually void (the writing of NYT columnist Ross Douthat is a good example).
And this, I think, is part of why people skip so much, and then skipping and skimming becomes an ingrained habit. If 90% of what you’re reading turns out to be trash, why not skim it to see if you can immediately dismiss it.
Another issue, one created by our academic system, and college educations specifically, ironically enough, is that it doesn’t pay, in most cases, to “deep read” in most subjects. Most universities, good and bad, in the West and East, wildly overload their students with reading materials, and wildly overstate what the students need to read, typically with very poor guidance as to what actually matters. This is supposed to be a good thing, but what it actually teaches people is twofold:
It makes a lot of people absolutely loathe reading and cease or dramatically reduce their “reading for pleasure”, sometimes just for a year or two afterwards, but sometimes for decades or permanently.
That everything should be skimmed until/unless you identify it as important.
So some of the best-educated and hardest-working people, who we want to love reading/writing, end up loathing it, at least temporarily.
Academics, as they’re directly responsible for this problem, often try to pretend it doesn’t exist, but it’s not like it’s obscure or unknown - it’s been well-documented for a long time (at least thirty years). There is occasionally recognition of it by some university or department or another which then takes measures to “fix” it, but such fixes typically last a couple of years at best.
I’m guessing the latter Sleep deprivation is a HELL of a drug, especially as you get even slightly older. It’s a lot worse to miss sleep at 41 than 21, that’s for sure!
< looks around nervously, adjusts collar, a bead of sweat appears on his forehead >
That said, as bad as I am for that, you should see my wife’s law textbooks, and some judgments, good god!