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?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


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  2. There’s another possible explanation for the apparent results of the survey (though I don’t think it explains the results entirely). A few years ago I heard a young lady give a testimony about her fears and hopes as she headed off to college. She was going to a more liberal university and confessed the she was very apprehensive. What she feared most was that she wouldn’t be as “good” or “humanitarian” as her classmates–that she wouldn’t know enough about green issues or global crises, that she wouldn’t have done enough volunteer hours, that she wouldn’t be a member in enough social action organizations. She was afraid that she wasn’t empathetic enough to fit in with the good people she would be joining.

    I would say this girl was probably highly empathetic–in fact, empathetic to a fault. But if she were to take the survey linked to in the article, she wouldn’t score very highly, because she’s been told and she’s told herself more than enough that she’s not doing enough–that she’s not as empathetic as other good souls.

    Having worked in a K-12 school for the last two years, it’s been stunning to see the vast number of things the students are told they’re not doing enough about. They naturally assume that “we” are responsible for things like the BP oil spill, or over-population, global warming, or the extinction of the dodo.

    Whatever truth there is in these things, it mainly results in them developing a sort of thickly-layered guilt complex. They’re told they’re not doing enough about almost anything, and they believe it wholeheartedly; and it’s an easy psychological leap from there to believing that they’re not good enough, not empathetic enough. And so, in self-evaluations like the one in the article, they don’t turn out to be very empathetic people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re really less empathetic than the generation before them.

    Anyway, I don’t think that would explain the results entirely–maybe not even very significantly–but I think there’s an element of this for at least some people.


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  5. A very interesting article indeed. Are they learning this behavior from their parents?? :(

    Hebrews 13:16
    Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

    Luke 6:38
    Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

    Believe those words and head on over to and please click on a link or two. It costs nothing. By doing this you’ll be helping a fellow brother out so he can continue helping others.

    Please spread the word to other brothers and sisters.


  6. Scary indeed. Is this the first generation raised online?


  7. MVO, that is an interesting idea. I too wondered if it perhaps has something to do with the vast amount of information and “causes” kids are confronted with every single day. I sometimes wonder if, as we become a worldwide community, the sense of responsibility and love for ones actual neighbor is lost. For instance, I can imagine that most of those kids surveyed wouldn’t hesitate to text support to Haiti, donating through their cell phone bill to those they’ve never met, but would never think to invite the family next door over for dinner. They’re vegetarians because someone once told them that the whole world would have enough food if Americans didn’t eat meat, but they don’t even think to share their lunch with the kid at the next table who doesn’t have any.

    Of course, I could be totally wrong, but my observation has been that, unless expressly taught otherwise by their church and family, kids these days (no better way to feel old than by using that phrase) tend to see people in categories (celebrities, Haitians, Poor, Rich) rather than a series of individuals and so will act accordingly.


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