College students short on empathy

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Students today seem to care more about things like the environment and animal welfare and poverty around the world, but how much empathy do they really have toward their fellow man?

Surprisingly, not that much, according to a survey by researchers at University of Michigan. In fact, today’s college students, the scientists found, exhibit the least empathy of students studied over the past 30 years.

According to the data, which involved 72 studies of college students collected between 1979 and 2009, today’s students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts from the 1970s. They were less likely to agree to statements such as “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.” They were more likely to display self-centeredness during crises by agreeing to statements such as “When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces.” The results were presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

The results aren’t that surprising given that the current crop of higher education students have been dubbed “Generation Me” to highlight their tendency toward narcissistic and selfish behavior — a trait that some blame on over-indulgent baby boomer parents. Such an individualistic focus can lead to a devaluing of others, say the scientists, in proposing some theories about why empathy is on the decline.

That “me”-centric perspective is only exacerbated by the prevalence of social media. The more that students are tied to one another electronically, and informed of every move their friends make, the more likely they are to treat interactions with others as noise, and tune some of it out. Such habitual dismissal over time can lead to caring less for what a person has to say or how he feels.

In addition, the scientists note, recent generations of college students are the first to grow up having played video games for a good part of their childhood; such games, with their emphasis on competition and frequently destroying or killing objects and people, could also desensitize players to the feelings of others.