Sunday, May 30, 2010

Study finds college students less empathetic

A study in Science Daily found that today's college students have less empathy than they used to (via Newsalert):

Today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s, a University of Michigan study shows.

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.

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

Some experts in the article felt the drop in empathy was because of exposure to media causing desensitization to other's pain or because of a hyper-competitive atmosphere where everyone has to worry about themselves in order to compete.

Perhaps this is part of the equation but, in my opinion, the huge emphasis in the schools and culture on "high self-esteem" (from the 1970's on) regardless of accomplishments probably plays a part in the increase in narcissism, and increased lack of empathy. In addition, the cheap emphasis on being a do-gooder through government means as a tool for feeling good about oneself, rather than helping others due to the intrinsic reward and what it means to the other person has probably not helped.

It's kind of ironic that as the liberal government emphasizes their "wonderful" socialist programs to the masses (heath care, global warming, peace studies, etc.), the masses are becoming less able to feel for their fellow human beings. As more people see the government as being responsible for taking care of others, their tendency to help others will lessen, not increase.



Blogger Cham said...

I read that study a couple of days ago. Although you make some good points, Helen, I can think of a few more reasons why college kids are less empathetic. These kids often grow up in a cocoon where they have very little interaction with strangers. Parents are fearful that letting children interact with those they haven't prescreened. Kids get into a car in a garage and only after the seatbelts are on the doors are locked does the garage door open. The kids are driven to school and then picked up and driven home. If kids don't ever meet and greet people they don't know how are they supposed to learn about how to comprehend anyone but their family and friends?

Also, if children and young adults are exposed to a situation where they might begin to feel uncomfortable rather than learn more and think about what is going on, they can just look at a their cell phone and find someone less-depressing with whom to communicate. They just tune out.

And lastly, I'm finding that young people are experts in finding someone else to blame for their problems. I will give you an example. There was a crack dealer on my street who dealt crack and smoked crack for years. He disappeared on day in early April. Apparently someone abducted him, killed him and then left him in a shallow grave. His body was found a month later on May 16. The crack dealer's young friends have enthusiastically decided that the source of the dealer's problem was his law-abiding neighbors who didn't call the police enough, because if they had the crack dealer would have been better discouraged in his drug dealing ways. This has to be the biggest stretch of blame I have ever seen. I give the young friends 10 out of 10 for creativity.

The saddest part of all of this is that I do think college kids will become more empathetic. I do think they will learn to become considerate of others and their feelings. Their 20s and 30s are going to be a long hard miserable learning curve that could have been avoided with a little more exposure to a variety of situations while in their youth.

8:30 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

Cham is making a really good point. Kids today don't solve their own problems because of all the helicopter parenting and on-the-streets paranoia. With that as a backdrop it's hard to develop empathy because you don't have to develop the skill of negotiating with someone else, getting "inside" their feelings and developing a mutually-agreeable solution.

They do however learn to pull the heartstrings of others in a "poor me!" kind of way.

Young Americans are definitely narcissistic, which is another factor in the "F 'em" mentality.

9:34 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger sykes.1 said...

What about day care? The kids in day care are essentially abandoned by their mothers. Doesn't this affect socialization?

9:35 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Empathy burnout could play a significant role in this phenomena also. Having a son in college plus a 17 year old son and 14 year old daughter, I've seen how they're bombarded with messages from day one how much they're supposed to care about everything.

Messages about caring for the environment, animals, insects, the poor, minorities, illegal immigrants, misunderstood terrorists, the elderly, the young, the mentally ill, eccentric geniuses, the handicapped, drug addicts, criminals, women, girls, babies, etc, etc create a cacophony of "you need to be more empathetic" that eventually creates a emotional callous, especially in those who are not "cared" about but are rather supposed to give, give, give. They are "going Galt" with their empathy.

10:55 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...


I have a similar story. I'm very emotional (not very "manly," I guess) and I have had to actively turn down my empathy receptors so I get through life without being overcome with the grief of the world.

11:04 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

"that eventually creates a emotional callous, especially in those who are not "cared" about but are rather supposed to give, give, give. They are "going Galt" with their empathy."

Sounds like men in the face of modern American woman.

11:04 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger gahlgwanasadvwesa said...

I'd like to add that the schools can be to blame to a certain extent as well. I've had dealings with the staff as well as an attending police officer at a middle school. If they take away a parents right to take care of their child, and then blame the parents and the child when a problem occurs, of course it's not going to be a "good" thing.

Not to mention that I hear a lot from my child's friends who basically tell me that they are profiled for being in gangs on the basis of the clothes they wear or drawings that they drew.

And that's only what I can remember.

Strange how decrepit the school system has become.

11:23 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I've read/heard that children develop empathy by people empathizing with them. When you're told to always care about something else and no one cares much about you, (obviously) that never happens.

11:50 AM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Bob Sorensen said...

I've noticed that many of the "new atheists" (high school and college age for the most part) are not only lacking in empathy, but they actively seek to cause pain. This is seen in Weblogs like "Atheist Central" in the comments areas, and I had to shut down my own comments sections because of trolling; I do not want people to be offended, including myself.

Not only do these "new atheists" see nothing beyond themselves (except, perhaps, big government because most are extremely liberal), but the other factors already mentioned come into play, making a very complicated mess.

12:23 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

If there's been a decline in empathy over the last ten years, wasn't the Bush administration in charge for most of that time? Hard to see how that one can be pinned on a 'liberal government', let alone (ahem) "socialism"!

12:32 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

I propose a new law of the Internet - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of blaming George Bush approaches 1.

Apologies to Mike Godwin.

12:44 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Bob Sorensen said...

@DADvocate, How about adding one more part, that if Bush is blamed, you automatically lose? I saw a similar concept enacted (loosely, since it was the Internet, after all) that if someone called another a Nazi, it was "game over".

1:20 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Larry J said...

As more people see the government as being responsible for taking care of others, their tendency to help others will lessen, not increase.

I also noticed when I was stationed in Europe (admittedly, that was 30 years ago) that the percentage of smokers seemed far higher than in America. I got the impression that when people believe it's the government's responsibility to maintain their health, they were less interested in doing healthy things for themselves.

1:41 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger MGD111 said...

I am a college student myself taking the ten year plan for a four year degree. College students are not the only people with lower empathy. every single year I attended grade school my friends and I always agreed that each grade below us got worse and worse while the students who were older and in higher grades seemed happy, motivated, less prone to violence, and could identify with a cause easier. I also served in Boy Scouts of America and obtained the Eagle rank during my grade school time. Having leadership courses and natural understanding of how boys function in groups, the same idea was present. Each younger generation would successively be more self centered, harder to control, less motivated, etc.

3:33 PM, May 30, 2010  
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3:49 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Stormbringer - automatically loss of the argument would be legitimate as the person blaming Bush is most likely committing a tu quoque fallacy.

5:07 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

DADvocate/Stormbringer - well, on the basis of the argument being put forward, it seems you've got a straight choice. Either Bush is to blame, or else his administration was a 'liberal government'. Which do you prefer?

8:38 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

James Kelly - false dilemma. Do you only deal in logical fallacies?

8:44 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

DADvocate - do you deal in anything other than random Wikipedia links? How about explaining WHY you think it's a logical fallacy, and then perhaps I can give a slightly more meaningful response?

8:50 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Cham said...

I'm not sure Bush or President Obama is to blame for this dilemma. Lack of empathy with the kids doesn't have much to do with the government, but much more to do with our cultural safety paranoia and the privileged middle class that are having fewer children and more money to spend on the ones they do have. The good news is that adults are getting more grounded and behave better in public due to a variety of factors. The bad news is that our better behavior is providing an overprotective environment for our children where nobody yells, nobody insults and nobody gets assaulted. It is going to be a shock to some of these kids when the raw and not-so-pretty reality of how some things works hits them in the face.

8:52 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

WHY you think it's a logical fallacy...

Because it IS a logical fallacy. Grow a brain.

9:39 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

DADvocate - oh dear. Do they have a Wikipedia entry for "resorts to childish personal abuse because he doesn't have any other argument"?

9:47 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Bob Sorensen said...

Mr. Kelly, I do not think the government per se is to blame, even though it has been dominated by leftists more than it has been right. Instead, I blame poor moral and spiritual choices.

9:50 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Bob Sorensen said...

Mr. Kelly, Don't pull that nonsense, I've seen it hundreds of times, as has DADvocate, I'll wager. He speaks the truth, even though he stole my line and uses is better. I'll use it anyway, grow a brain.

9:53 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

Stormbringer - Speaking the truth as you see it is one thing. Actually having an argument to back up your conviction that it is the truth is quite another. I'm genuinely surprised that the best either of you can come up with is "I'm right, you're wrong, here's a Wikipedia link, na-na na-na-na-na".

Basically, my original point that liberal government cannot be blamed for the events of the last ten years when there has not been liberal government for most of that time is pretty close to being unanswerable, as far as I can see. If either of you have got a serious answer, I'd be fascinated to hear what it is.

9:59 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

childish personal abuse

You think that's "personal abuse"? Thin skinned, aren't you? You haven't been around many kids lately. That ranks as a mild slur at worst. Most of us laugh off much worse than that.

10:01 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

DADvocate - Not so much thin-skinned as observant. Who's "us", as a matter of interest?

10:04 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

Dr Helen's blog community is getting quite trolly lately. Sad.

10:08 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

Topher - if that's directed at me, it's a terrible (if unfortunately rather common) mistake to conflate the occasional appearance of an alternative point of view with 'trolling'. I'm being perfectly serious in the point I originally made - it's an obvious flaw in Dr Helen's argument.

10:13 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Cham said...

George Bush, a conservative Republican, served as president between 2001 and 2009. In the 9.5 years since 2000 8 of those years were with a Republican administration. That is 85% of the timeframe in question.

10:28 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Joe said...

Every generation wants what their parents have, forgetting they spend two plus decades getting there. However, this generation seems especially terrible at it. One reason is that they really did have it incredibly easy. When my daughter turned 18 a few years back, her credit union gave her an unsecured $5000 line of credit!

I'm continually surprised at how my own homes (and are massively in debt) or livid that they can't now get easy loans.

Point is that teens/twenty-somethings want everything, but this generation was actually able to "buy" it.

11:36 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Joe said...

BTW, one thing I've very much resented being a parent is how little control I'm allowed to have over my life and that of my children and how much my hands are tied with discipline.

When my oldest was eight, she turned to me and said that there was nothing I could do to her. She didn't care if she was grounded or timed out and if I spanked her, she'd call the cops. Yes, impetuous as hell (she was that way since birth) but also extremely perceptive. Now that she's a mom, she's becoming just as annoyed at the nanny state.

11:41 PM, May 30, 2010  
Blogger Helen said...

James Kelly,

Given the endless bashing, assassination jokes, and ugly behavior of the media, artists, and many liberals towards George Bush during those years--many who work in the school systems--I'm surprised that kids are as empathetic as they are.

6:48 AM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

James Kelly is peddling a straw man. George Bush may have been conservative in his personal life, but the course of his administration was decidedly liberal - Medicare drug benefit, wars of choice for nation-building, signing a draconian campaign finance reform bill that was later thrown out by the SCOTUS, big-government education reform, attempting an amnesty of illegal immigrants.

What, besides his Supreme Court nominees, could be considered even mildly conservative?

In addition to a straw man, Kelly's argument just doesn't make sense. About 50% of voters voted against President Bush, so there is plenty of room for big-government libs to influence society (including ones in his own party).

The President doesn't set the boots-on-the-ground operation policy of federal agencies; welfare dollars didn't stop flowing under GWB, the IRS and DEA didn't stop harassing people and the nanny state didn't stop advancing. While he was prez, the SCOTUS decided (among other things) that a private development corporation could lobby a city to seize private land for their for-profit purposes, and that the government could practice affirmative action as long as it didn't do it too blatantly.

And in the 2006 and 2008 election, the nation overwhelmingly voted in a liberal Democrat Congress and President. The idea that GWB's presidency was a time of dominant American conservatism is one of the great lies of our time.

8:12 AM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger David Foster said...

Cham...."These kids often grow up in a cocoon where they have very little interaction with strangers"...also, middle class kids have fewer siblings than was common in prior eras.

9:08 AM, May 31, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the usual blame the liberals bias shows once again. Kids in college reflect what and how their parents raised them! They didn't change at 18 years of age because Obama and the Dems got into office two years ago.

10:39 AM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger James Kelly said...

Topher - so in your view the Bush administration was indeed a 'liberal government'? I have to say I find that proposition fairly jaw-dropping, but to be fair it does answer the question I asked.

As for the rest, there does seem to be more than whiff of 'have your cake and eat it' about both yours and Helen's arguments. If a liberal government is in charge, then it's obviously to blame. If a conservative government is in charge, it's either the 'ugly behaviour' of liberals towards that government, or the fact that a significant minority of people still voted Democrat. It appears there has to be a conservative government with a 100% mandate before it can be blamed for anything.

11:13 AM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...


Just answer this question: which of GWB's policies were so conservative? I've named all the highlights of his administration, none of which could be linked to any vast right-wing conspiracy. The military policies were like those of LBJ, and the education bill was written by Ted Kennedy.

But I think you and Helen are both missing the point. What's important is the political leanings of the rank and file that shape our kids, and the teaching industry and the colleges have moved far to the left in this country.

Just because the president is a born-again Christian doesn't change what the kids are picking up from their instructors, which is unbalanced towards feminine ideals and breeds narcissism.

8:46 PM, May 31, 2010  
Blogger Helen said...


Agree with you completely. I do think it is liberal policies and teaching among other things that is turning students into less than empathetic beings.

10:20 AM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger Davout said...

If more and more girls are getting into college, relative to boys, and girls are supposed to be more empathetic than boys, shouldn't todays students, on average, be more empathetic than those of 30 years ago?

4:49 PM, June 01, 2010  

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