New Study: College Students Have Less Empathy

9 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

According to recent research by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, today’s college students have less empathy than previous generations. According to USA Today:

The research finds that college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s. The students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

Sara Konrath, one of the researchers, speculates that one of the main causes is overexposure to social media and the concomitant erosion of “face-to-face” interaction.

If you visit the article, you’ll find the comments section is dominated by two crucial arguments to the statement that college students are less caring: (1) “no they’re not!” and (2) “yes they are!” (it’s always fascinated me just how strongly people feel about claims of generational superiority)

Some blame this lack of empathy on the “me” generation, a generation that has grown up in an individualistic, self-esteem-driven, follow-your-dreams kind of culture. Why would we expect anything less than a nation of narcissists?

But other research shows that this seeming lack of concern stems not from narcissism, nor apathy, but a sense of “realism.”

Christian Smith’s excellent research (published recently in the book Souls in Transition) shows that young adults generally view life as a series of events beyond their control. The basic challenges of life (landing a job, paying the bills, etc.) are overwhelming enough as it is – who can expect to have any influence over the world around them? This sense of powerlessness is only compounded by world events. In a post-9/11 world, it’s hard to feel as if you are really “in control” of life or circumstances, so why try and change that?

Smith writes:

“At most, the ‘world around them’ that they believe they stand a chance of influencing for the good is local: their families, careers, friends, and romantic interests. The rest of the world will continue to have its good and bad sides. All you can do is live in it, such as it is, and make out the best you can.” (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition, p. 72-3)

Some may counter that some young people are taking a renewed interest in social activism. While this is true, this group remains an overwhelming minority.

In her excellent book, Generation Me, author Jean M. Twenge notes this generational change in a chapter entitled “Yeah, Right: The Belief That There’s No Point in Trying.”

She cites the following statistics:

“In 2004, only 6% of college freshmen said they expected to participate in protests or demonstrations during their college years.”

“[In 2004]: only 34% agreed that ‘keeping up to date with political affairs’ was an important or essential life goal.”

“54% of [this generation’s] mothers agreed that a person’s main responsibility to themselves and their children, and not to make the world a better place.”

Like Smith, Twenge cites the powerlessness the present generation often feels, as well as the basic conflict that arises when the “self-esteem” generation smacks face-first into hard reality. Twenge also suggests that some view “Life Determination” as decided by “Lottery,” meaning that success and failure are arbitrary and beyond anyone’s control

This all sounds so…bleak. In many ways, it is. But from a Christian perspective, this provides another area wherein the gospel can have an impact and transform young minds. The gospel teaches us that indeed, there are certain “thorns and thistles” in our world that are often beyond our control, but at the same time calls us to be “salt and light,” men and women of compassion, eager to see God’s kingdom made manifest in the world around them, even as they expectantly await its future culmination.

9 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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