Today’s college students scored 40 percent lower on a measure of empathy than students a generation ago, according to a review study that was presented last week at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Boston. The researchers who conducted the study suggested in an interview that college students have become more self-centered and narcissistic in recent years, perhaps because they now spend so much time playing video games and relying on social media to make friends, and that they are less inclined to take the time to listen to others because society has become more competitive and fast-paced.
The largest decline in the empathy scores took place after the year 2000, leading the researchers to conclude that we now have a generation of young people who care mainly about themselves and their own issues, while having very little concern for others’ needs and feelings.
The evidence cited to support these assertions consists of college students’ answers to survey questions during different time periods. The article provided two examples of the questions:
Compared with college students of the late 1970s, current students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
While these researchers certainly are not the first to assume that lower scores on an empathy quiz must mean a lack of connection and caring in real life, other data do not support that assumption. Studies of community involvement have shown that today’s college students are much more likely to participate in volunteer work than students in the past, with the greatest increase after the year 2000. College students volunteer at a higher rate than the general adult population. A government press release entitled “Report Finds Sharp Increase in College Student Volunteering” discusses this trend, characterizing it as a hopeful sign for the future of civic involvement in America:
The “College Students Helping America” report released by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service found that college student volunteering increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2005, more than doubling the growth in the adult volunteering rate.
So what’s going on here? How can these two studies have led to such different conclusions? Although one might be tempted to dismiss the empathy quizzes as meaningless, I believe that they do measure something, but it’s not altogether what the psychologists who designed them had in mind. Agreeing with statements such as those asked in the empathy surveys does seem to indicate a particular way of thinking, which I would describe as one that tends to construct imaginary views of others instead of taking the time to learn the facts.
Perhaps the current generation of college students, rather than caring less about their fellow humans, are taking a more logical and practical approach to dealing with the world’s problems. Instead of making random guesses about their friends’ thoughts and then patting themselves on the back for being so understanding, these students may be willing to admit their honest ignorance and to simply ask what their friends are thinking. Instead of filling their heads with tender feelings of concern for the less fortunate, maybe they’ve decided to leave pity on the shelf where it belongs and to work toward real change in society through volunteering and other constructive actions.
Like the college students in the study, autistics score lower on empathy tests. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the college-age population has become 40 percent more autistic over the past generation; but if autistic traits are becoming more common, I’d say that it bodes well for a future of greater civic involvement and meaningful connections with others.