LONDON – If you have been planning a shopping trip with the kids, you might not want to read any further, because teaching your children consumerism is helping to turn them into selfish, immoral creatures without a streak of empathy, according to a new study.
You may be making them just like stressed-out adults, whose potential as human beings is killed off as genuine altruism is suffocated by their greed and anxiety.
In a book that suggests that social changes and the shift toward an ever more unequal society are making us cold-hearted and mean, psychotherapist Graham Music says we are more likely to be born big-hearted and kind but then be pushed toward being selfish and cold than the other way around.
“We’re losing empathy and compassion in dealing with other people in our society,” said Music, a consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman clinics in London.
“There is a lot of evidence that the speed of life and the resultant anxiety have an enormous impact on how we deal with other people. We all know it anecdotally. You live in a dog-eat-dog world, and it makes sense to be highly stressed and vigilant to cope with it, but vigilance doesn’t breed kindness. From that stress come some really fundamental shifts in behavior, along with pretty poor outcomes in everything from health to life expectancy and happiness.”
A study last year by Michigan University showed that exposure to the cruelties of reality TV — where nasty spats along with the vicious judgments of others is the entertainment — made adolescents more socially aggressive. Music says the casual meanness on shows such as “The X-Factor” is an example of how cold-hearted we are becoming.
His book is “The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality.”
The latest in a series of publications to suggest an imbalance in the U.K. and elsewhere, it collates decades of social experimental research and draws on Music’s experience as a consultant to paint a grim picture of a Western society undermining its natural tendency toward empathy and tipping dramatically toward nastiness.
Music disputes the notion that children are born selfish.
He points to a series of experiments at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, when a group of 15-month-olds were placed in a room where an adult pretended to need help. “There is a proven urge to help. The toddlers love helping, they get an intrinsic reward just from the act, until they start to reward them for that behavior with a toy. The group of toddlers rewarded ‘extrinsically’ — that is, with a toy — quickly lost interest in helping. The unrewarded children — who don’t know the other group are getting rewards — keep on helping, content with no ulterior reason other than the act of helping.”
Other studies have shown that toddlers feel happier giving treats than receiving them, says Music. “Then we have evidence that adolescents asked to do a good deed once a day become less depressed. We’ve evolved to be helpful and to do things without reward. Getting rewarded rarely leads to the genuine happiness linked to well-being, and something very fundamental is lost. We all know it, but we’ve lost sight of it as we’re suckered into the consumer ethos, the deep insistence that we need that smartphone to be happy. Those powerful drivers of postindustrial capitalism and mass media are brilliant at triggering those needs — and, after all, you can’t sell well-being.”
He points to stress as keeping us in a state of “fight or flight,” saying, “It doesn’t make any sense to be interested in others or what they are thinking or feeling if your nervous system is over-aroused.”
The book details social experiments, including one in 1973, when theology students were told they had to give a talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Half were told to do it immediately, and the rest were given time to prepare. As they left the room, they passed an actor in trouble. Those who had to prepare quickly ignored him; the others stopped to help.
“The speed of life has an impact on our altruism,” said Music. “This is going on in schools as well. Stress is seeping in with this heavily academically based curriculum, an audit culture.”
Music says there is a desperate need to rethink our materialistic tendencies. “A very monetized Western world is going to make us more and more lose touch with our social obligations,” he said.