It looks as though college students who hit college after 2000 are significantly less empathetic than those who came before them:
College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new meta-analysis presented to at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers. It includes data from over 14,000 students.
Although we argue in Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered that modern child-rearing practices are putting empathy at risk, this is the largest study presented so far to quantify the decline.
Previous research done by psychologist Jean Twenge had measured what she labeled a “narcissism epidemic,” with more students showing selfish qualities and with increases in traits that can lead to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. That is a condition in which people are so self-involved that other people are no more than objects to reflect their glory.
But I was less than convinced by that data because some of the measures of narcissism–statements like “I am a special person,” –might reflect a lifetime spent in classrooms aimed at raising self-esteem rather than a true increase in self-centeredness.
The survey on empathy used in this study–which you can take for yourself here–however, is another matter. While it so obviously measures empathy that you could easily game it to make yourself look kinder and nicer, the fact that today’s college students don’t even feel compelled to do that suggests that the study is measuring something real. If young people don’t even care about seeming uncaring, something is seriously wrong. Another survey in the research found that people also think that others around them are less compassionate.
Alan Jacobs suggested that online life gets a “lot of blame” in the piece, which doesn’t seem quite right given that it only shows up in a single paragraph, while the final third of the essay is devoted to blaming Reagonomics.
Of course the explanations may not be so different. The economic advantages that our country has experienced the past thirty years has allowed the online explosion, and the corresponding diffusion of what I would call “emotional energy” in and through the consumption of entertainment and ‘edutainment’ (like the news now functions as).
But I’m curious to hear the Mere-O community weigh in. Why are college students no longer empathetic?