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Today’s College Students Lacking in Empathy

A new meta-analysis finds that today's college students have far less empathy than their forebearers.
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While recent books have espoused the virtues of Millenials at nearly every turn (see: Millenials Rising and Generation We), research hasn't been kind to an age group cocooned by social-networking sites and helicopter parents. From documenting a decline in personal responsibility for the environment to finding a link between Facebook and narcissism, data-crunchers are beginning to paint a less rosy picture of the next "great" generation.

The newest such study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, finds a precipitous decline in the past 30 years in the percentage of college students who report having empathetic concern for others and who are willing to take on another person's perspective.

The results, which indicate that these declines have primarily occurred over the last decade, aren't merely an indictment of Millenials. Rather, the researchers hope that their work can spur greater awareness about the potential pitfalls of being isolated by personal technology, such as popular social networking sites.

"With the advances in personal technology, and such increases in competition-especially in college-it's so easy now to spend your time in college isolated in personal experiences," said researcher Edward H. O'Brien in a University of Michigan podcast.

The study, which analyzed 72 samples of academic research from 1979 to 2009, asked 18- to 25-year-old college students if they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective." During the 30-year period there was a 48 percent decrease in empathetic concern and a 34 percent decrease in perspective taking among these students.

Researcher Sara Konrath, who used the nearly 14,000 responses to the Interpersonal Reactivity Index to evaluate empathy among students, is careful not to point to any one cause for these decreases. However, her study speculates that one likely contributor may be that "people simply might not have time to reach out to others and express empathy in a world filled with rampant technology revolving around personal needs and self expression."

Chief among this technology is the 800-pound gorilla, Facebook, charged by pundits as single-handedly undermining the traditional concept of the word privacy and irreversibly changing how humans interact. (To be sure: most of the charges aren't hyperbole.)

While Konrath stressed that technology itself is not the problem, the way it's used certainly can be. As anyone who has "liked" a charity or nonprofit group on Facebook can attest, showing support for others is a far cry from tangible action (i.e. donating money to the organization).

Sadly, the significant decline in empathy and perspective seems predictable to researchers, who reference numerous studies on volunteerism (an outward manifestation of empathy) echoing their results.

Once study, published in 2007 by Kelton Research, finds that while more than 90 percent of Americans reported "it was important to promote volunteerism. ... Given the choice, over half chose reading, watching television, and even visiting in-laws over volunteering for or donating to charity."

To be fair, Millenials and college students represent a huge swath of America's volunteer force. A 2009 policy paper from The Higher Education Research Institute found that nearly 70 percent of college students reported the belief that it is essential to help others in need — the highest rate since 1970.

Which makes irony of Konrath's empathy research even more apparent. It appears the latest batch of college respondents seems unwilling or unable to present themselves as empathetic, understanding individuals. Even the question, "To what extent does the following statement describe you: 'I am an empathetic person'" received a puzzlingly low number of the obvious responses.

"Believe it or not, everyone doesn't answer that question [affirmatively]," Konrath said.

To take a short, interactive empathy test and see how you compare against several generations of college students, click here.