Blame the parents? Child Tragedies Reveal Empathy Decline

(CBS NEWS) In the aftermath of the death of a 2-year-old boy who was drowned by an alligatorat a Disney resort in Florida, much of the public response has been sympathetic. But not all of it: Sprinkled across social media, online comments and even whisperings you may hear at the water cooler, some individuals are instead pointing fingers, blaming the parents.

Is this a sign of the times? Is parenting shame on the rise and empathy taking a dive?

Research says maybe so. The brain is wired for empathy, but it's also wired for moral judgments. And some facets of modern American culture may push people away from the former and toward the latter.

The blame game

Beneath any given online article about the alligator attack, there are at least a few comments questioning the child's parents. The theme persists on the Twitter hashtag #DisneyGatorAttack.

"People are blaming an alligator for being an alligator, when the real issue here is child negligence. Watch your child," Tweeted a user with the handle @nuffsaidNY.

Ubiquitous reports that the child's parents were right next to him -- and that the father struggled to pull open the alligator's jaws to save his child -- seem not to put a damper on the judgments. A similar pattern occurred in late May after a preschooler slipped away from his mother and fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The child survived, but zoo officials had to shoot the gorilla, resulting in calls for the parents to be prosecuted.

In response to the blame has come a backlash. Melissa Fenton, a writer for the parenting site Scary Mommy, wrote a plea for compassion on Facebook, arguing that in the past, child-in-peril stories engendered support, not judgment. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

"We now live in a time where accidents are not allowed to happen. You heard me. Accidents, of any form, in any way, and at any time, well, they just don't happen anymore," Fenton wrote. "Why? Because BLAME and SHAME."

Empathy and judgment

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person's emotional shoes. This ability is baked into people's moral reasoning, even at the level of brain anatomy, science shows. Researchers reporting in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience examined the brains of psychopaths (who have stunted empathy for others) and found multiple brain regions involved, including the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the supplementary motor area, the inferior frontal gyrus, the somatosensory cortex and the right amygdala. (Specifically, these areas are linked to empathy for pain.)

In a review paper that same year, published in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, researchers catalogued all of the brain regions involved in moral judgments. The names of a few familiar regions popped up. The insular cortex -- which holds the anterior insula and is associated with the processing of disgust, uncertainty and emotions -- plays a role in morals. So does the anterior cingulate cortex. [5 Ways Your Emotions Influence Your World (and Vice Versa)]

In other words, empathy is tangled with moral judgment even at the level of brain anatomy. Understanding how others think and feel is important to making moral decisions, of course.

But people aren't perfect at it. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that when one person is exposed to a negative stimuli (a picture of maggots and a bowl of slime, for example) while another person is exposed to a positive stimuli (e.g., a picture of a puppy and a soft fleece), the individual emotions of the two people get in the way of understanding one another. The person exposed to the negative stimuli views the person exposed to the positive stimuli as less happy than that individual really is. Meanwhile, the person who had the positive experience views the person who had the negative experience as happier than he or she really is. A person's own emotional state bleeds into his or her understanding of another's.

Brain bias

Empathy is "a powerful emotion," said Emile Bruneau, a cognitive scientist and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Even so, people can be easily "distracted" from empathy by other emotions and even external factors, she told Live Science.

"It can motivate us. It can bring us to tears and motivate us to great action of altruism," Bruneau said. "But it's also incredibly flexible. We can feel a great amount of empathy for someone and something, but then we can turn around and feel no empathy at all for someone else."

For instance, people might feel empathy for a dead or endangered child, and this emotion might lead them to feel anger and aggression toward the parents they perceive as being at fault, Bruneau said. People also prefer to apply empathy to their own in-groups, and tend not to feel as much empathy for out-groups.

"That can be across any boundary," Bruneau said. "It's one of the curious things about humans. We can distinguish in-group and out-group across any arbitrary boundary we decide."

Another serious hiccup for empathy is what's called the fundamental attribution error. This is a cognitive bias by which people assume that other people's actions are mostly driven by their personalities, rather than external factors that are out of their control. However, when people think about their own behavior, they do take these external factors into account.

In other words, if your kid gets away from you at the zoo, you can list the reasons why: He's fast; the place was crowded; your other kids needed your attention. If someone else's kid slips away at the zoo, it's because that person is a bad parent, you may conclude.

In a particularly individualistic culture, like modern America, the fundamental attribution error may play an outsize role.

"People in individualistic cultures are more likely to commit this error, and are more likely in general to attribute actions to the individual instead of the situation," said Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before" (Free Press, 2006).

Culture change?

Survey data comparing today's Americans to their counterparts of the same age in previous generations suggests that the population is becoming more individualistic, and has been doing so for at least a century.

"Since U.S. culture has grown more individualistic, it makes sense that people are now more likely to blame parents when things go wrong," Twenge told Live Science.

Similar generational research also finds declines in empathy. A study published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review found a decline of 48 percent in college students' scores on empathic concern, a measure of feelings of sympathy, tenderness and compassion for others. There was also a 34 percent decline in perspective-taking, the intellectual tendency to imagine another's point of view. (This data is subject to some controversy over whether people really feel more individualistic and less empathetic, or whether it's simply more socially acceptable to say so now.)

Changing attitudes toward parenting and children may also make blame and judgment more rampant. Life has become staggeringly safer for children over the past century. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the rate of deaths for children under the age of 4 has dropped from 1,418.8 deaths per 100,000 in 1907 to 28.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2007. [What Are the Odds of Dying From...]

Unintentional accidents made up about the same proportion of deaths of small children since 1970 (37 percent that year, versus 34 percent in 2007), but the overall number of deaths has continued to decline during that time. This means fatal childhood accidents are rarer than ever.

"People used to think accidents were normal -- acts of God, or just random bad luck," said Stephanie Coontz, a historian of families at The Evergreen State College in Washington. "And precisely because life was less safe then, people were less inclined than today to have the expectation that life would be safe if no one screwed up."

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