May 29, 2010
Latest College Students Have Less Empathy

In the last 10 years the kids have shown a declining ability to understand the emotional state and viewpoint of others. The researchers for this study want to run down the causes of this trend in personality development.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---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."

Video games might be the cause.

"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 Facebook and online discussion forums also might be a contributing factor.

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O'Brien.

"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.

Why hang out with people in real life who are less like you when you can hang out only with online people where you can be much more selective about what aspects of their lives you have to contend with?

Add in the hypercompetitive 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 says.

A large fraction of all video game playing doesn't even involve another human. The video game playing that does involve humans does so only in very abstracted fantasy contexts. Does online life allow us to escape from the suffering of others?

Will the kids with lower empathy eventually develop more empathy when they get out into the working world and are forced to spend less time playing video games and posting on Facebook?

This reminds me: Sometimes when I write posts about things going wrong with the world (e.g. habitat destruction, more species becoming endangered, pollution from developing countries) I've gotten complaints from a few commenters about how they didn't come to this site to read such news. They want and expect happy news about technological advance and a utopian future. Their ability to construct their own private internet channel of sites that fulfill their desires about the present and future seems like another aspect of how computer and communications technologies are allowing people to create personal micro-environments that isolate them.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 May 29 05:00 PM  Comm Tech Society


Comments
Fat Man said at May 29, 2010 6:41 PM:

You are talking about my children here. Their parents were self-involved @$$#013$, but I try to spend time with these kids and their friends, and they are terrific.

Acksiom said at May 29, 2010 6:45 PM:

There's a link to a set of survey questions at the bottom of the PR page: http://umichisr.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bCvraMmZBCcov52&SVID .

If those are the actual questions that these claims are based upon, then AFAIC, a decrease in the characteristics being surveyed is good news, not bad. What this appears to me to be testing just as much -- if not more so -- is college students' willingness to be duped into being used by emotional manipulators to the students' detriment and the manipulators' benefit. I consider less of that a very good thing.

Michael Greenspan said at May 29, 2010 8:23 PM:

In The Closing of the American Mind, pub. 1987, Allan Bloom described what might be termed a decrease in empathy among his students. For instance, asked what a British soldier stationed in India during the colonial period should do in a particular situation, many students could give no answer other than that the soldier shouldn't have been there in the first place.

If this study measures a similar quality, then the trend long predates sophisticated video games.

Engineer-Poet said at May 29, 2010 9:35 PM:

What Acksiom said.  A lot of the "empathy" of the 70's (carried over from the hippie 60's) hardened into today's PC dogma.  It's good to see that the immune reaction is building; the question is, is it building fast enough?

Clarium said at May 30, 2010 12:46 AM:
They want and expect happy news about technological advance and a utopian future.

I do not know if your worldview, in general, is utopian or dystopian, Randall.

parapundit seems dystopian (talks about immigration of low IQ minorities and other problematic demographic trends, peak oil, deteriorating sovereign finances), but futurepundit has some utopianism about the eventual success of "rejuvenation therapies".

But regarding death, these are the major causes of death in the developed world:


1. cardiovascular diseases
2. cancers
3. neurological disease
4. respiratory illnesses (e.g. COPD)
5. respiratory infections
6. car accidents

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_causes_of_death_by_rate

I'd be more utopian if I could see affordable solutions to this problems that are in the pipeline. But Randall see to optimistically extrapolate from news reports of scientific research and say it would support the development of rejuvenation therapies. Randall maybe correct that treatments would be available in a couple of decades if so many things go right, although I think this is unlikely because so many things can go wrong.

Also, intelligence augmentation would be another quality of life improvement that the world desperately needs. I am skeptical of the potential of technology and I do not see innovations in consumer technology such as iPhones (except those that enable faster, computation information processing) to be great strides in human progress.

Randall, here is something about diminishing returns in cardiovascular pharmaceuticals:
http://robertfortner.posterous.com/if-heart-drugs-keep-improving-will-we-be-able

Wolf-Dog said at May 30, 2010 4:39 PM:

In the distant future the educational system will be very computerized and the human interaction will be minimal. This will reduce empathy even more.

AlanK said at May 31, 2010 9:36 AM:

You provide a very good mix of positive and negative subject matter, oriented toward people with curious minds and an interest in science, tech, human behavior. Keep it up. Both the positives and the negatives are important.

As for the empathy study, it strikes me as odd to try to connect a survey of empathy with a gimmicky explanation like video games and on-line networking. Have researchers made an adequate attempt to review the array of possible contributing factors?

If empathy really is declining (assuming for the sake of discussion that the survey is a good one), how about looking at more basic, underlying trends in society for explanations? Does the steadily increasing urbanization of our society mean less empathy because we increasingly regard our fellow citizens as a crowded mass of strangers rather than individuals? Does the increasing mobility in our society contribute to a lack of community connectedness, a sense of being apart from others in personal experiences? Are middle-class young people excessively sheltered these days, more so than in the past? If parents (and teachers) are more ideological and dogmatic these days, does that lead to less tolerance and less empathy in their children and students? Are parents less empathetic? If the researchers can weed out some of those "confounding variables" as unimportant, fine, but they need to do so.


Mirco said at May 31, 2010 10:40 AM:

Human interaction at schools could be the culprit of this lack of empathy.
You stay with a bunch of people you don't like, often they mistreat you because you are better, teachers are uninterested, then someone complain the young are less empathic. As Acksiom say, sometimes less is better.

Lono said at May 31, 2010 1:16 PM:

Well, according to this test I score 92.9% in empathy - and I have previously scored 88% on another well known online empathy test as well.

I also have a nearly insatiable appetite for violent video games.

(and on occasion comic books/television/rock and roll/other scapegoats)

Since video games have been with us since the late 70's - I find the attempt to assign causation to them for changing social attitudes and behavior highly dubious.

I think the emphasis should be on the greatly reduced face to face social contact these days - which clearly is a very modern invention.

I wonder just how much of outward empathetic behavior is nurture versus nature - and I would be very surprised if most empathetic behavior is not more heavily influenced by the latter.

So what to make of this study? I agree with many of the above posters that the questions in the test probably fail to appeal to a changing youth with more modern sensibilities. More specific, numerous, redundant, situational specific questions - would likely show a much more modest reduction - if any - in true empathetic tendencies and phenotypes.

In my opinion though - I do think we should be perfecting ways to screen for empathetic and altruistic phenotypes - using a continually refined battery of psychological and genetic testing - as this may be a useful way to disqualify sociopaths and those with borderline personality disorder - from running for political office.

JCee said at June 1, 2010 10:12 AM:

I'm personally betting the reduction of empathy is caused mostly by 2 factors.

1)The Self Esteem Movement (Everything you do is special and makes for self absorbed people of little actual ability)

2)The Moral Relativism movement. (Nothing is right or wrong and there is no shame. This makes for people who don't care about what others think of them and have a hard time putting themselves into other peoples shoes.)

I highly doubt video games has much effect.

chunk2 said at June 1, 2010 10:20 AM:

My theory (based on absolutely nothing) is that people without much empathy to start with are the ones reproducing. Most all of the kindest, nicest people I know are the ones whose parents started having children late in life, and only had one or two. Also, these people are pretty rare. People who come from families like mine, where the parents had kids young and had many of them seem to lack that... This may even account for the recent spate of diagnosises of Aspergers. This might just be environment, but it may be that people who are naturally empathetic and kind are getting squeezed out of the dating and mating market.

chunk2 said at June 3, 2010 4:31 PM:

@Acksiom: I totally agree.... Because as we all know, concern for others == liberal ploy for social and political domination. Am I right? Also, TEXAS.

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