Students Less Empathetic?

In an article written for The State Hornet (Sacramento State’s student newspaper), writers Ken Paglia and Micah Stevenson covered a recent study by the University of Michigan that found college students today to be less empathetic than they were 10, 20, and 30 years ago.

The researchers conducting this study (which was published in Science Daily in May 2010) based their information on results from the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. People who take this index are asked to rate themselves on various statements regarding how they empathize with others. According to researcher Sara Konrath, who lead the study, “on average, we are finding that empathy is lower now than in the past.” She also speculates that this may be due to people valuing empathy less.

The article also ponders whether or not technology has anything to do with how people today value empathy. One student, for example, believes that social networking sites such as Facebook could have had a negative impact, because users can filter out what they want to ignore and read what they want to read. Since users can learn about their friends’ lives without having to actually talk to them, here is also the possibility that this causes students to value their personal relationships a lot less. Reuters recently wrote about a study claiming that social networking sites may be a reason for midlife crises happening earlier. Do you think there is any correlation between lower levels of empathy and earlier occurrence of midlife crises?

Sacramento State psychologist Paul Turner also believes that technological luxuries may distract from empathy: “walking across campus…almost every student I saw was either talking on the phone, texting, or looking totally self-absorbed. It’s hard to get emotion from a text or an e-mail. It’s almost like you’re interacting with an object rather than a human being.”

When conversations continue via text rather than in-person conversations, microexpressions and body language cannot be a factor in how people interact with one another. Without being able to see the other person as they react to what is being said, it is much easier to either hide your own emotions or ignore theirs. We recently blogged about technology that is being developed to read internet users’ emotions in real time. Could this change the way students relate to and empathize with one another?

Despite these statements, many students question the findings of this study. Even Turner cautions against taking survey results too literally, because “there are no indicators built into the survey to verify what the person is saying.” The ability for people to empathize cannot be measured quantitatively, so how can researchers make the claim that any group of people is less empathetic than they were years ago? Even Konrath’s claim that people today value empathy less is unfounded; she does not state any facts to support this argument.

Would you agree or disagree with the results of this study? Do you think empathy is less valued than it was 10 years ago?

The full article may be found here.

2 responses to “Students Less Empathetic?”

  1. Markus says:

    My personal opinion is that, measuring empathy by giving different scenarios that the participants are supposed to set themselves into . Or by written statements of how they would react in a particular situation, is not a realible way of measuring empathy. I dont take thees kind of research seriously.

    Giving statements like “how would you feel if your friends dog died” (something like that) is a rightout horrible way to go about it.

    I dont think people are able to accurately predict how they would feel and/or react in ´thees situations.

    For example when you ask someone if they would intervene if they saw someone getting hit. The majority would say that they would intervene. But in reality there have been a number of cases were people have been assulted in the open street were no one did a thing.

    Of course there are people who do intervene. But in thees kind of studies there are more empty words than there would be action in a real situation.

    Therefore i dont care much for studies that are based on self report from the participants with all the self serving bias we have inside us.

  2. Keith D. says:

    Within my own personal sphere, I would say there is considerably less empathy than in previous years of my life, but I don’t think I would go so far out on the limb as to suggest this is the norm yet. I think that in the world today, there are a lot more stressors in people’s lives due to economic issues, employment issues, mortgage issues, political issues, religious issues and so forth. I think that it’s pretty common for most people, if not all people, that to become less empathetic when under high stress. As one encounters more and more issues that affect them personally, one has fewer resources to dedicate to considering what affects others.

    I would also say that society today, by and large, is living at what I understand to be a “fear-based” level of consciousness in which a person is in a mental/psychological state which prevents them from being able to step outside of their situation and think clearly and rationally about what they’re facing or perceiving, making it difficult to escape that state and return to a more normal state which would allow for a higher level of empathy for others. Fear-based levels of consciousness (based on a paradigm of a heirarchy of levels of human consciousness presented by Dr. David Hawkins in Power vs. Force) tend to be self-sustaining, and can turn into a feedback loop which spirals out of control, often leading to uncontrolled emotions, depression, intolerance, and sometimes even paranoia, or violence, whether directed at the self or others. You could see this mechanism at play on a small scale in both the Milgrim Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as many others.

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