College students may be lacking in empathy, study finds


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Older generations often accuse younger ones of not being up to snuff in many ways, such as upholding values and morals. But they may be onto something -- a new study found that college students may be seriously lacking in empathy that previous generations apparently had in spades.

The study, a meta-analysis, looked at 72 studies of American college students conducted from 1979 to 2009. Those studies measured empathy on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a 28-item scale that gauges aspects of interpersonal sensitivity:


-- Empathic concern (feelings of sympathy for others’ misfortunes).

-- Perspective taking (how people imagine others’ points of view).

-- Fantasy (how people identify with fictional characters in books or movies).

-- Personal distress (how people feel when they see the misfortunes of others).

From 1979 to 2009, college students’ scores on empathic concern and perspective taking declined overall. There were no substantial changes in fantasy or personal distress.

Converting the changes in scores to percentiles, researchers found a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking through the years.

In another associated analysis, the study authors found that Americans have noticed changes in peoples’ kindness and helpfulness throughout the same time period.

To what do the researchers attribute these changes? A number of social and cultural changes, including an increasing emphasis on the self; an overactive media that bombards people with violent, horrific images and gradually desensitizes them; and the growth of social media. On that, the authors wrote, ‘With so much time spent interacting with others online and not in reality, interpersonal dynamics like empathy might certainly be altered. For example, perhaps it is easier to establish friends and relationships online, but these skills might not translate into smooth social relations in real life....’

‘College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,’ said University of Michigan graduate student Edward O’Brien, in a news release. O’Brien was one of the co-authors of the study that was presented at the annual meeting of the Assn. for Psychological Science held in Boston this week.

-- Jeannine Stein