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College Students Don't Have as Much Empathy as Before?

By Pamela Jean
News | May 28, 2010

HAYS, Kan. - Is empathy declining among young adults? At least one set of researchers has reached this conclusion. A University of Michigan study shows that today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s. The study, presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.

College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.

Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

Konrath conducted the meta-analysis, combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009, with U-M graduate student Edward O'Brien and undergraduate student Courtney Hsing.

"Many people see the current group of college students - sometimes called 'Generation Me' - as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry.

"It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others," O'Brien said.

Click here to test your level of empathy and compare how you scored to the average empathy level of college students.

Why is empathy declining among young adults?

Konrath and O'Brien suggest there could be several reasons, which they hope to explore in future research.

"The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor," Konrath said. "Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others."

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O'Brien.

"The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behavior that could carry over offline," he said.

Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity "reality shows," and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says.

"College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don't have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited," O'Brien said.

(Note: The writer of this news piece is not in agreement with these findings, at least anecdotally, as she has not observed a decline in empathy among the young adults she knows. The young people that this writer is acquainted with are, she believes, some of the most empathic people she has ever had the privilege of knowing, and, she enjoys working side-by-side with with many of them to right the wrongs and save the world!)

1 Comment

I will agree with the author on their general points about youg people's lack of empathy but I disagree on their ideas of causes. the author blames video games and television. I however, blame us "adults" and how we have set up the situation.

Let me explain. We all know young people who have gone out of their way to help others and work for charities. However, what I do see is while they help others they are now wanting to see something in return. It's our (meaning "grownups") fault. Newspapers love to print accounts and stories of young people serving. You know the stories. The kids who raise money for Haiti. The kids who help at the homeless shelter. Yes those are great but I wonder if that has created a "look at what I did" feeling and the feeling that such work should get recognition. But what about the kids not doing that and who are working at jobs to make enough money for gas, clothes, and new toys? We label those kids as "greedy" and "self centered" but are those working for charities any better because we grownups are suddenly all altruistic?

And second, I wonder if the desire to work for charities is a way for them to not have to work other jobs young people did in the past?

Let me explain that one. Back when I was younger I never had time to do all that charity stuff because I was working all the time. I worked part time all during school and had extra jobs in the summer. And they were sucky jobs like washing dishes, cleaning houses, and mowing lawns under the hot sun. All while making barely over minimum wage.

I dont think young people are willing to do that nowadays and one way out is to do charity work. Which btw, looks better on college applications. I know one young woman who after she turned 16, instead of working jobs like fast food, got a "job" as a volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. Now I'm sure she worked hard there but it wasnt the same as working for minimum wage washing dishes somewhere like I did.

And thats all our fault. We tell them how that work should be enriching and rewarding and NOT just for getting money so one can buy a new IPod. But in truth, thats life. we often work for the paycheck only. I know one young man who walked off his job as a dishwasher because "I wasn't learning anything".

So in summary I dont blame video games and media like the author but instead how we older persons have shown respect to young people's endeavors and setup unrealistic expectations about work. We shine the spotlight on the ones working for charity but maybe turn down our noses to the ones trying to make some scratch for themselves working at McD's. Our colleges want to see an application full of the charity works the kids do instead of just reading how they worked odd jobs.

It's a very difficult situation but one we have created for ourselves.

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