Generation Me: Study Finds College Students Lack Empathy

Jun 08, 2010

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A study presented at the recent meeting of the Association for Psychological Science found that, compared with individuals their age 20 or 30 years ago, today's college students are lacking in empathy. Researchers look at exposure to video games and social media as a possible cause for the rise in narcissism and students' ability to 'tune out' the emotions of others.

Social Students

Generation X is often called the 'Slacker Generation.' Will the Millennial Generation be known as 'Generation Me?'

A recent study led by Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research suggests that today's college kids are significantly less empathetic than their peers in the 1980s and 1990s. With the assistance of U-M graduate student Edward O'Brien and undergraduate Courtney Hsing, Konrath conducted a meta-analysis of 72 different studies examining almost 14,000 American college students between 1979 and 2009.

The researchers focused on studies that used the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), which was designed in 1980 to measure 'empathy,' or the 'tendency to react to others' observed experiences.' The IRI scores participants on four different areas of interpersonal sensitivity:

  • Empathic concern
  • Perspective taking
  • Fantasy
  • Personal distress

A high score on the IRI indicates 'increased prosociality and decreased antisociality' - in other words, the ability to empathize and 'play well' with others.

Self Absorption

The Rise of 'Me' and the Fall of 'Us'

Konrath et al's literature review found that similar studies conducted over the past decade have indicated that, over time, college students show rising rates of individualism, self-esteem, narcissism and positive self-views. Hypothesizing that increased levels of self-centeredness would correlate with a drop in students' ability to relate to others, the researchers predicted that IRI scores have decreased over time for college-age individuals.

After reviewing data from all 72 IRI studies, the researchers found that their supposition was correct. Overall, today's college kids are 40% lower in empathy than their peers of 20 or 30 years ago, with the biggest drop occurring after the year 2000. Modern students are significantly less likely to agree with statements like 'I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me' or 'I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.'

Data From and Graph Modeled after OBrien Hsing and Konrath

Data from and graphs modeled after Changes in Dispositional Empathy Over Time in American College Students.

Breaking the results down into the four main areas of interpersonal sensitivity, the researchers found a decline in two areas: Empathic concern and perspective taking. (There was no decrease in fantasy or personal distress.) Although there have been some peaks and plateaus since 1979, there's a strong downward trend in students' IRI scores in these areas.

Reflecting on their research, Konrath commented, 'Many people see the current group of college students - sometimes called 'Generation Me' - as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.' Her co-author O'Brien added, 'It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others.'

Isolated Young Adult

Media May Be Isolating and Desensitizing Modern Students

What is it about modern society that has created a generation of young adults severely lacking in empathy? Although 'why' was outside the purview of this study, both Konrath and O'Brien have suggested several potential reasons that they hope to investigate in future research.

One factor that Konrath pointed to is contact with media, noting that the average American is exposed to three times more 'network-related information' today than they were 30 years ago. Much of the content of modern media is heavily saturated with violence, exposure to which could lead to a drop in empathy. Konrath refers to studies conducted by other researchers at U-M that have shown that exposure to violent media, such as first-person shooter video games, tends to numb people to the pain of others.

O'Brien added that the explosive rise of social media may have also played a role. The casual relationship people have with their online 'friends' makes it easy to, as O'Brien phrased it, 'just tune out' when users don't feel like dealing with others' problems and emotions. As these social media relationships consume more and more of our time, it's easy for this online behavior to bleed into real life.

O'Brien also identified the 'hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success' that have arisen from phenomena like reality shows as contributing to 'a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.' Students' lives have become so focused on promoting themselves that they don't make the time to empathize with others.

What's your empathy level? Find out how you compare with the average college student with the University of Michigan's online empathy quiz.

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