College students today are less empathetic than those of previous generations, says a study from the University of Michigan. Young adults in the 1980s and 1990s were more empathetic than college students today, say the researchers, with the year 2000 marking a sharp drop in empathy.
Using standard personality trait tests to measure empathy, lead researcher Sara Konrath, PhD, and her colleagues, graduate student Edward O’Brien and undergraduate Courtney Hsing found that today’s college students demonstrate 40 percent less empathy than their counterparts of twenty and thirty years ago.
Konrath, whose dissertation focused on changes in narcissism in college students over time, decided to team up with O’Brien and Hsing to see if her previous research would be replicated in a related, but different, variable: that of empathy toward others.
Because of their ages, Konrath and her team represent the more recent generations in the study, she notes.
“Since the average age in the meta-analytic samples was 20, that means people who were born in 1980 or later were the ones to show the most dramatic declines in empathy,” she notes, adding that the most profound decline in empathy emerged after the year 2000.
Which factors are related to a decrease in empathy?
“Being kind and empathetic is less likely as people increasingly seek status and financial success,” Konrath states. “There are many reasons why this may be the case: that people don’t have time to invest in others, that people are seen as ‘soft’ if they are kind and caring—and therefore, not likely to succeed—or that people may have less face-to-face interactions with others, which may make them less skilled at empathy.”
“We type, we chat, we message. And we face the realities that come with that—like online bullying, finding out your relationship is over on Facebook, and the notion that nothing online is ever really private.”
Martha Ciske, technology and social media account executive at Orlando, FL-based PR/PR Public Relations http://prpr.net/ cites our technology-focused society as a factor in declining levels of empathy.
“We grew up and adapted with the technologies that allow today’s businesses to run,” Ciske says. “We type, we chat, we message. And we face the realities that come with that—like online bullying, finding out your relationship is over on Facebook, and the notion that nothing online is ever really private.”
Researcher O’Brien acknowledges the role of social media in this trend. “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 in a public statement.
Visual artist Arash Afshar http://www.mrarash.com/index.html agrees that the increased dependence of potentially impersonal forms of technology is factor.
“I have little doubt that the drop in empathy has a correlation with the advancement of communication technologies and the Web,” he maintains. “Our generation has instant access to limitless statistics and news bytes while sitting in our bathrobes behind a computer screen.”
This has created what Afshar calls “the Internet Rambo phenomenon,” and is a contributor to what he deems our growing detachment.
“I am six-foot-five, 250 pounds. People say things to me online that they would never dare say to my face because there is little emotional attachment or engagement to a screen-name on the monitor and plenty to one’s own ideology, which is magnified when reading text and projecting one’s own insecurities on the other person’s tone,” he explains. “Communication is a combination of what we say, how it changes based on tone, the context of the message and finally how the other person receives the message.”
This muddled interpersonal communication, Ashfar notes, results in “the game of telephone gone horribly wrong!”
While many are quick to discuss the reasons empathy is dwindling, others—particularly those who work with member of Generation Y—eager argue against the findings.
“That Michigan study is such a crock of bull,” says public relations professional Diana S. Zimmerman of CMS Communications, http://www.cmsbiz.com. “I have worked with kids for thirty-five years—over 3,000 of them. And have spoken to over 35,000 school kids.”
Zimmerman, who did not read the study—“I am not sure how that study defines empathy”—claims that “MU is out to lunch,” and argues that members of Generation Y simply “cut through the crap.”
The study measured respondents’ levels of empathy by asking them how strongly they agreed 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.” Data indicate that college students today are less likely to agree with these and similar statements than their predecessors.
“I mostly deal with Gen Yers already out of school. Many of them get an undeserved negative reputation. I have found them to be eager to learn, open, hardworking, ambitious and fun in general.”
Referring to the study, which was a meta-analysis that combined the results of 72 different studies of American college students, conducted over the thirty-year span between 1979 and 2009, Zimmerman adds, “Perhaps the study should study itself to see if their testing techniques are a bit out of date.”
Phyllis Weiss Haserot http://www.pdcounsel.com/phyllis.html, president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm, is also surprised by findings. In her experience with members of Generation Y, she hasn’t noticed a marked decrease in empathy, but adds, “my pool is much smaller, so I have no scientific basis upon which to refute the findings.”
“I mostly deal with Gen Yers already out of school,” Haserot says. “Many of them get an undeserved negative reputation. I have found them to be eager to learn, open, hardworking, ambitious and fun in general.”
Zimmerman contends that Generation Y is more aware and tolerant than their Boomer and Gen X counterparts, “speaking categorically, of course,” noting that in her experience, members of Generation Y are “very in-tune with themselves, nature, and the environment,” and that their world view is based on a broader, more enlightened perspective than that of previous generations.
Whatever decline in empathy that may be present in this cohort, Haserot concedes, may be due to the tragic events of 9/11, which they witnessed at an impressionable age, and the subsequent violence that this cohort has been exposed to by various forms of the media.
In addition, pressure to succeed can also affect empathy, she notes. “The pressure in school and to get into schools and to deal with constant messaging from many sources has left many of them with little time to reflect outside of themselves,” she says. “Yet, Gen Yers are big into community service and concern for social problems.”
Konrath says that she and her team understand that research often evokes criticism and debate.
“As social scientists we are used to scholarly and logical debates on the pros and cons of various research methods and the interpretation of our results,” Konrath, who earned her PhD in social psychology in 2007, responds. “So we are open to discussion and criticism of the research method of cross-temporal analysis—and its statistical analysis—and how to best interpret our results.”
Because the data showed a decline in empathy, researchers are now focusing on why this is happening, and how to increase capacity for empathy.
“We also are curious to know people’s opinions on why empathy is declining, which our work cannot specifically address,” Konrath adds. “In general, it is unwise to make immutable conclusions about general societal trends based on a single study, which is why we are careful to link our work to past research that is relevant, but also to suggest caution in interpreting our results until more research is conducted over the next several years.”
How can we develop empathy in ourselves and others? “We recommend that people take time out of their busy schedules and actively practice empathy each day,” she advises. “This means spending time each day in face-to-face, other-focused listening to others and imagining what they feel.”
Like any skill, ability to empathize can be improved. “We think of empathy as a muscle, and believe that today’s college students may be a bit ‘out of shape,’” she notes. “Although future research will empirically test this idea, for now, we recommend that people treat empathy like any other important skill and practice, practice, practice.”
And, while it may seem disheartening to see a decline in empathy, Konrath is optimistic. “We think that the fact that empathy is declining points to something hopeful: empathy can change,” she concludes. “If empathy can decline, then certainly it can rise again.”
Editor’s note: If you would like to find out how your level of empathy compares with that of the college students in the University of Michigan analysis, click here http://umichisr.qualtrics.com/SE?SID=SV_bCvraMmZBCcov52). To find out how to increase one’s capacity for empathy, click here http://www.ehow.com/how_5099536_empathetic.html .