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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/28/2010

Today's college students less empathetic -- study

By Valerie Strauss

Are college students as nice as they used to be? Apparently, no, and modern technology may be partly to blame.

A new University of Michigan study shows that since 2000, college students have become less empathetic than before.

Compared to college kids of the late 1970s, the study said, today’s are less likely to agree with statements such as "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

The meta-analysis was led by Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and was presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. She analyzed 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 Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry. "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."

Why is empathy declining among young adults?

Konrath and graduate student Edward O’Brien, who worked on the study, suggest there could be several reasons, which they hope to explore in future research.

"The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor," Konrath said. "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, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others."

Social media may also play a role, O’Brien said.

"The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline," he said.

Add in the hyper-competitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity "reality shows," and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he said.

"College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited," O’Brien said.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 28, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Life, Research  | Tags:  analysis on empathy, are college students empathetic?, college students, college students and empathy, college students and university of michigan, study on empathy, u michigan study on college students  
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And where were these college students supposed to have learned to put themselves in someone else's place? In the back seat of the car on famiily trips, when they watched their own videos so their parents didn't have to talk to them? When each person in the family watched his own TV set so they didn't dispute whose wishes took priority? When their playground director told them what games to play so they wouldn't disagree on rules and have to settle a dispute themselves? When they concentrated on remembering facts for the standardized tests, at the expense of give-and-take discussion? When they found out their parents had taken a video of them in an embarrassing moment and put it on U-Tube or AFV? When they watched a "reality" show that basically has people performing demeaning stunts? When they watch a talk show on which people talk openly about their most intimate moments?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 28, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

To continue with sideswiththekids vein of thinking....and the issue of desensitization:

"Virtual reality" is not, in plain terms, real. You can watch people get hurt or needing help on video, but not only do you get numbed to the thousands/millions of hurtful images, it's not the same as experiencing hurt in real life. Running to raise money for others can net resources, but if you don't personally go to the hospital or someone's home to hold their hand during a life-threatening illness, you can hold your feelings at bay. So, the recent groups of college students probably did not get many 'real' empathy lessons in their formative years.

Additionally - relating to school curricula - these students, fearful of not taking enough hard-core academic subjects to get into top colleges, have sacrificed taking the 'sensitizing' studies in their schools: music,art, drama,dance,creative writing, philosophy, psychology,history, etc. etc.

In one of my graduate art education classes nearly 30 years ago, we speculated that generations of desensitized students were in the making due to all of the factors cited above.....sadly, this speculation seems to have been on target.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 28, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

A recent study in Psychological Science shows that people who "wear the halo of Green consumerism" are more likely to lie, cheat and be unkind to others when compared with their conventional counterparts. And experience demonstrates that anyone trying to argue an opinion not sanctioned by liberals is immediately hit with "hateful," "racist" and other ugly, unfounded effronteries. Perhaps "saving the planet" and "changing the world" just takes too much out of a person -- who has the energy left for civility, morality or empathy?

Posted by: npsmith | May 28, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

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