The empathy deficit

At the annual meeting for the Association for Psychological Science last month, researchers from the University of Michigan presented their findings that college students today are less empathetic than college students 30 years ago. The steepest decline in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

Why might people be less empathetic than they used to be?

Researcher Sara Konrath told LiveScience, “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… is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Ed O’Brien, another researcher involved in the study, thinks the increase in social media is a factor. On Scientific American’s 60-Second Psych podcast, he said, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.” For example, it’s easier to ignore the problems of a Facebook “friend” than those of a friend who’s standing right in front of you, crying. O’Brien believes the increase in the competitiveness and busyness of our society also might be factors.

In the study, researchers reviewed 72 studies of 14,000 college students from 1979-2009, but LiveScience managing editor Jeanna Bryner points to a Michigan State study of 477,000 high-school seniors, also over 30 years. The authors of this study concluded that students are no more self-centered than their parents were, though “they are less fearful than other generations of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortage.”

Whether or not we accept Konrath and O’Brien’s conclusions, we can all agree that the world could use more compassion. So how can we raise our empathy levels?

O’Brien suggests spending more time away from our computers, interacting with people in the real world.

We suggest visiting our free Lesson Plan Bank and checking out classroom activities for students of all ages, listed under the Caring pillar.

12 thoughts on “The empathy deficit”

  1. As a therapist I have noticed this empathy deficit as well. Along with not caring as much about our fellow human beings, young people today see no reason to volunteer or help others in need.

  2. I agree with O’Brien, it’s not the content of games but the virtuality vs. reality. Real empathy stems from real interaction, real emotion, real pain, real love. The phenomenon of texting a friend who is at the same club but across the room instead of physically walking over baffles me.

  3. I think that the media has a lot to do with what is going on. The parents come second, though I blame the media, mostly. They’ve been progressively desensitizing people, fostering–and modeling–selfish, irresponsible attitudes everywhere! We have allowed the media to ruin our emotional lives, our sense of compassion and cooperation, of basic decency and mostly awareness of others, their concerns, their needs. All this has not ‘enhanced’ our lives, it has made us feel more lonely.

  4. I, too, agree with O’Brien. The need for personal contact with all those around us if far greater than we can imagine. The ability to see, feel and share face to face, gives us an insight into the daily struggles we all face allowing us to experience compasion and cooperation in a different level. More personal contact and far less computer interactions with our fellow humans would certainly help in this respect.

    1. Thanks, Melissa, for your interest and for wanting to share. Did you try clicking on the “ShareThis” icon at the top of this entry? It should open a window with sharing options for Facebook, Twitter and other social media services.

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  5. I have seen this in children and adolescents alike here in Puerto Rico. Reality TV, too real, for me, sometimes numbs children’s feelings. They need real interactions.

  6. I totally agree, as a mum of 3 and a mature age student myself, the youger generation seems to think there is no real future. With all the mod cons of technology and the media the youth only seems to see the” I”of the world not the “we”. We need to re-educate and support this generation to care more for what others don’t have..We have become desensitised towards other people

  7. The decline in empathy is due to a number of things, some of which were mentioned already. Media and its’ selfish attitudes in 99% of tv shows has “normalized” being selfish. Also, our culture has allowed “the take care of number one” attitude to trump “putting your neighbor first.” Unfortunately, we have grown into a society that respects people with money and fame other than people with good character. These negative pathways I have mentioned are due to a society who has slowly faded from moral structure and begun to worship money instead. Any suggestions on how we flip that around?

  8. I think most parents are not aware of all the negative messages with which our children are bombarded every day, at all times. Many times parents see kids watching cartoons and they don’t pay attention because they ‘assume’ that the kids are watching innocent, kids’ stuff/ cartoons. They let kids listen to songs by Lady BAGA, for instance, just because she launched a CD, and SHE says it is ‘for kids’—when they lyrics are putrid, to say the least! I don’t know how this has happened because I was raised in another culture, but I notice that some horrible things that are being perpetrated on our kids are ‘invisible’ to many parents. Somehow, marketeers–or whoever–have been able to target our kids without most parents even noticing what is going on. And, of course, if you try to ‘make them notice’, you are labeled ‘a prig’. Frankly, I do not know how this situation can be solved. I think of saving my daughter, but I believe that is not enough… Either we save all the kids, or they’ll all be doomed. We can’t isolate them, we need to change our environment. The question is how? I think Michael has a few answers.

  9. I agree that there is a huge deficit in empathy and compassion among our youth and young adults, and frankly among the older generations as well.
    The other day i was paying for gas and the young woman clerk told the young man customer in front of me, “You are the first young man in over a week who said “thank you” to me.
    When it was my turn, she asked me if I was married. I told her that my husband passed away three years ago and that this very day would have been my 40th anniversary. She shared her condolences, then stated that she is so discouraged with the lack of respect and commitment today. I encouraged her hopefully by sharing that good character and the practice of virtue begins with me. One by one we can change our world.

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