On the Decline: Empathy

6 Mar

Alright, let’s start today off with a bit of an experiment. Answer these statements with one of the following: strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, or strongly agree.

  • I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
  • I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.
  • Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems.
  • When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.
  • Other people’s misfortunes do not disturb me a great deal.
  • I am often quite touched by things that I see happen.
  • I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other guy’s” point of view.

Disagree? Turns out college students today do. In the important indices of empathy such as empathetic concern and perspective taking, students score 48% and 34% lower than students 30 years ago. Meaning that they are 40% less empathetic—with numbers plummeting after 2000.

True, it is difficult to settle on a definition for empathy. Dr. Sara Konrath from the University of Michigan tried testing for aspects of “interpersonal sensitivity”: empthatic concern (sympathy) over the misfortune of others, perspective taking, tendency to identify imaginatively in an fictional world, and personal distress garnering those striking results.

Studies in the past have shown increasing narcissism among college students since the 1980s as well as Americans in general.

These results are sadly not surprising to researchers.

“I’m not surprised,” Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and an author of a new book “Born to Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered” told the New York Times. “But I was hoping it wasn’t as rapid a deterioration as this study suggests.”

This leaves me with the same question as last week. What is the cause?

Kornath seems to have at least a suggestion.

“We don’t actually know what the causes are at this point,” Dr. Konrath said. “But the authors speculate a millennial mixture of video games, social media, reality TV and hyper-competition have left young people self-involved, shallow and unfettered in their individualism and ambition.”

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3 Responses to “On the Decline: Empathy”

  1. Sam March 20, 2011 at 6:40 PM #

    Christina,
    This is an interesting study you describe in your post. I wonder if these numbers reflect that at Duke. In addition, I would be curious to know if people are willing to donate to a charity without feeling empathetic because the money is not their own (For many students, Flex=monopoly money). Do people who don’t feel empathetic still donate to charities to improve their public image? These are all interesting questions to consider.
    Sam

    • cmp33 March 20, 2011 at 9:04 PM #

      I agree that it would be really interested to see how this translates to Duke especially with monopoly money as you put it. I’m pretty use other schools use a similar systems—at least at UT Austin where a lot of my friends go—they do.

  2. Leah April 13, 2011 at 8:58 PM #

    I idolize celebrities that donate to causes without broadcasting it to the world, but on the other hand – sometimes I think that they do it to encourage other people and set an example. I guess it just depends on the situation, but it’s difficult to know who is donating for self benefit and who is donating sincerely.

    I don’t think college students donate often because they don’t have the resources, but the ones that do may only do so because money is disposable to them. Not sure.

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