Robert Putnam and I have written about the encouraging recent uptick in youth civic engagement over the last decade (especially in political interest and volunteering) and the discouraging and alarming growing class gap (i.e., children of well-educated parents are getting more and more involved and doing better each year while children of less-educated parents are doing worse each year, civicly and socially). It portends an increased caste society in the US in the generations ahead. [See “Still Bowling Alone? The Post 9-11 Split”]
Keith O’Brien, in the Boston Sunday Globe Ideas section has a piece entitled “Empathy is So Yesterday”. O’Brien describes a Univ. Michigan ISR meta-study summarizing 72 other studies of college students’ empathy and concluding that collegians are 40% less empathic than in 1979 with the biggest declines coming in the last decade. They found especially large drops in “empathic concern”.
As O’Brien notes, even empathy researchers like Daniel Batson (Kansas U.) confess that there is no agreed upon definition for empathy and some scholars question whether empathy can really be measured. Sara Konrath (and co-authors Edward O’Brien and Courtney Hsing) use a measure called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) that has four subscales (Empathic Concern, Perspective Taking, Fantasy, and Personal Distress).
About the conclusions of the Michigan study, Batson notes “I’d be extremely surprised if it turns out that students were now less capable of caring for other people — their friends, their romantic partners, family or pets.” And studies are underfoot to see if this is true among the broader youth population or just college-goers.
If the researchers’ conclusions hold up in the general population and if they really are measuring an underlying dimension of empathy, it’s a strange finding, since the college-goers are roughly the same population in which volunteering and political engagement have dramatically increased over the last 15 years (children of more educated parents). It’s possible that youth are volunteering more (to get into selective colleges) and voting more, while caring less for others, but this seems a bit implausible.
Co-author Konrath speculates that it may have something to do with students born in the 1980s, “raised in the ’90s on video games, 24-hour cable television and widespread divorce, and sent off to college with laptops and cellphones.” They may have suffered empathy fatigue from 24/7 coverage of national and international crimes and disasters. They might have been raised by more narcissistic parents (although one then suspects that one would have seen a downturn in empathy in a prior generation when those parents were young). Youth could have focused on themselves in a hyper-competitive climate to get ahead. It’s also possible that in today’s economic climate, they are less hopeful for the wisdom of empathy. It’s also possible that social networking have expanded our “weak ties” at the expense of our stronger ties, and thus given us less practice in empathy and caused us subconsciously to curtail our empathy for fear that our circle of obligation would grow too large. At the moment, scholars have not figured out how best to assess the plausibility of these alternative explanations.
Read “Empathy is So Yesterday” (Boston Globe, 10, 17. 2010 by Keith O’Brien) [also called “The Empathy Deficit”]
See also Science Daily summary of study.
See also NY Times story “From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?“
The Michigan ISR study is: Konrath, S., O’Brien, E., & Hsing, C. (under review). “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. ” [One page posterboard of the study.]
Abstract: The current study examines changes over time in a commonly used measure of dispositional empathy. A cross-temporal meta-analysis was conducted on 72 samples of American college students who completed at least one of the four subscales (Empathic Concern, Perspective Taking, Fantasy, and Personal Distress) of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) between 1979 and 2009 (total N = 13,737). Overall, the authors found changes in the most prototypically empathic subscales of the IRI: Empathic Concern was most sharply dropping, followed by Perspective Taking. The IRI Fantasy and Personal Distress subscales exhibited no changes over time. Additional analyses found that the declines in Perspective Taking and Empathic Concern are relatively recent phenomena and are most pronounced in samples from after 2000.