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.