October 17, 2010
October 17, 2010
Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers — “Quiz tomorrow…gotta study!” — about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. And there are signs that Generation Wi-Fi is also interested in connecting with people, like, face-to-face, in person. The percentage of high school seniors who volunteer has been rising for two decades.
But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.
According to the findings, today’s students are generally less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends’ whereabouts, but all that connectedness
doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.
“To me, that’s the basic glue,” said Sara Konrath, a research assistant professor and the lead author of the study on empathy. “It’s so rewarding to connect with human beings. It’s so good for our bodies to do this. Everything we know as psychologists tells us it’s the most wonderful thing. So if we’re losing that, I think that is distressing.”
Empathy might seem like a hard-to-define, touchy-feely
idea, and it’s fair to say that most of us don’t spend our days wondering if we’re empathetic. Yet psychologists have been trying to measure empathy for decades, recognizing its inherent value to humanity. A world without empathy, they say, is a world we wouldn’t want to live in.
“Do a thought experiment,” said Mark Davis, a professor of psychology at Eckerd College in Florida who’s spent the last 30 years studying empathy. “Imagine if humans didn’t have the capacity for empathy. What would it mean if, in fact, we never gave a damn about what happened to other people? That’s an almost an inconceivable world.”
It’s so inconceivable that Davis counts himself among the skeptics of the new research that documents the decline. “Put me down,” he said, “as intrigued by it.” He points out that Konrath, along with coauthors Edward O’Brien and Courtney Hsing, are drawing their conclusions from a relatively small sample size — just 72 studies over three decades. He and others would like to see more work on the matter before making any final conclusions about how much young people care, or don’t care, about others. But even some skeptics agree that it’s disturbing to consider the trend laid out in the new research and then play out the string…