Today's college kids lack empathy
Compared to 30 years ago, it's all about me now, study finds
By Jeanna Bryner
May 28, 2010
College students today are less likely to "get" the emotions of others than their counterparts
20 and 30 years ago, a new review study suggests.
Specifically, today's students scored 40 percent lower on a measure of empathy than their
The findings are based on a review of 72 studies of 14,000 American college students
overall conducted between 1979 and 2009.
"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a
researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
The study was presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association for
Psychological Science in Boston.
Is "generation me" all about me?
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."
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"Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called 'Generation
Me ' — as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and
individualistic in recent history," said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of
Rochester Department of Psychiatry.
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Are today's young people really more self-centered?
Konrath's colleague graduate student Edward O'Brien added, "It's not surprising that this
growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others.”
Other recent studies have shown mixed results on the character of today's youth . For
instance, one study of more than 450,000 high-school seniors born at different time periods
showed today’s youth are no more self-centered than their parents were at their age.
The role of media
Even so, Konrath and O'Brien suggest several reasons for the lower empathy they found,
including the ever-increasing exposure to media in the current generation.
"Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much
nonwork-related information," Konrath said. "In terms of media content, this generation of
college students grew up with video games , and a growing body of research, including
work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media
numbs people to the pain of others."
The rise in social media could also play a role.
"The ease of having 'friends' online might make people more likely to just tune out when
they don't feel like responding to others' problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,"
In fact, past research has suggested college students are addicted to social media .
Other possible causes include a society today that’s hypercompetitive and focused on
success, as well as the fast-paced nature of today, in which people are less likely than in
time periods past to slow down to really listen to others, O'Brien added.
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"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," O'Brien said.
You can find out your empathy score and how it compares with today’s college students by
taking the empathy quiz .
The Four Addictions
May 27, 2010
...I've discovered four
addictions we all have that
destroy more dreams, more
hopes and more lives than
alcohol, drugs, food,
gambling or sex combined.
When I refer to addictions, I
am not focused on any of
these. To me, those are
habitual symptoms or effects
brought on by four much
larger causes that are the
root cause of those
1) The Addiction to opinions
of other people. As a society,
we're addicted to what others
think about us and how
others' views of the world
2) The Addiction to drama.
Some people are drawn to
and consumed by any event
or situation that occupies
their thoughts and fills their
mind with negativity, which
often brings attention to them
in unproductive ways.
3) The Addiction to the past.
These people have an
unhealthy attachment to
events or situations that have
occurred in the past. They're
stuck in how things used to
4) The Addiction to worry.
This addiction is comprised
of all the negative and
self-defeating thoughts that
make us anxious, disturbed,
upset and stressed, that hold
us back in life.
Rats Show Empathy And Altruistic Behavior, New Study
By Ferris Jabr
The English language is not especially kind to rats. We say we "smell a rat" when something
doesn't feel right, refer to stressful competition as the "rat race," and scorn traitors who "rat
on" friends. But rats don't deserve their bad rap. According to a new study in the December
9 issue of Science, rats are surprisingly selfless, consistently breaking friends out of cages
-- even if freeing their buddies means having to share coveted chocolate. It seems that
empathy and self-sacrifice have a greater evolutionary legacy than anyone expected.
In 2007 neuroscientist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago wrote about the
neurobiology of empathy for Scientific American. Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a new PhD student in
integrative neuroscience who worked across the street from Mason in a different lab, saw
the article and proposed a collaboration. "Scientific American really brought us together,"
In the new study, Mason and Bartal placed pairs of rats in Plexiglass pens. One rat was
trapped in a cage in the middle of the pen, whereas the other rat was free to run around.
Most free rats circled their imprisoned peer, gnawing at the cage and sticking their paws,
noses and whiskers through any openings. After a week of trial and error, 23 of the 30 rats
in the experiment learned to open the cage and free their peers by head-butting the cage
door or leaning their full weight against the door until it tipped over. (The door could only be
opened from the outside.) At first the rats were startled by the noise of the toppling door.
Eventually, however, they stopped showing surprise, which suggests that they fully intended
to push the door aside. Further, the rodents showed no interest in opening empty cages or
in those containing toy rats, indicating that a break out was their genuine goal.
In this first set of experiments, most rats seemed quite willing to help their peers, but Mason
wanted to give them a tougher test. She placed rats in a Plexiglass pen with two cages: in
one was another rat, in the other was a pile of five milk chocolate chips -- a favorite snack of
these particular rodents. The unrestricted rats could easily have eaten the chocolate
themselves before freeing their peers or been so distracted by the sweets that they would
neglect their imprisoned friends. Instead, most of the rats opened both cages and shared in
the chocolate chip feast.
"In our lab we called it the 'chocolate versus pal' experiment," Mason says. "The rat could
have put his butt in the opening of the cage containing chocolate to block the other guy, but
he didn't. They were sharing food with their pals. In rat land, that is big—I was shocked."
Mason says that free rats typically took the chocolate out of the cage before eating it and
that sometimes the free rats placed the chocolate chips in front of or very near their recently
sprung peers, "as if delivering it."
Mason's new study is one of the most recent in a series of experiments changing how
scientists think about empathy and altruism in the animal kingdom. At first, most people
agreed that true altruism was a uniquely human characteristic requiring an awareness of
one's actions as selfless. Now it seems that many animals have evolved instincts to help
others, even at a cost to themselves, and that we inherited these same instincts. "The
bottom line is that helping an individual in distress is part of our biology," Mason says. "It's
not something that develops or doesn't develop because of culture."
In earlier work, McGill University psychologist Jeffrey Mogil and his colleagues showed that
mice recognize their peers' pain -- what researchers call "emotional contagion"—and spend
more time with suffering cage mates. His team also developed a scale to measure pain
expressed on the faces of mice.
Mogil was impressed with Mason's study, but had some questions about the findings. "This
is surprising because it's not clear what the motivation for the prosocial behavior is, although
the prosocial behavior is clearly there," says Mogil. Both Mogil and Mason point out that
because trapped rats squeak out alarm calls now and then, which stress out any fellows that
hear them, the rats opening the doors might be trying to silence their peers. Mason thinks
the alarm calls aren't frequent enough to motivate the rats, but Mogil is not so sure.
In future research, Mason wants to investigate why some male rats never learned to break
open their friends' cages. All six female rats in the first set of experiments figured out how to
liberate their peers, but only 17 out of 24 male rats obliged. Mason's best guess is that
some rats are paralyzed by alarm calls. Recognizing distress in another is not enough; the
rats need to suppress their own panic before they can help. Mason cites research
suggesting that females are generally more empathic than males as a possible explanation,
but the findings are controversial.
Mogil says he plans to follow up the research as well. For starters, he is interested in
whether another common lab animal -- the mouse—can learn to spring its peers, too. And
he wants to perform the experiments with rodents that are strangers to one another, rather
than ones that have been raised together.
In the last couple decades research on empathy and helping behaviors in animals has
become more prevalent. "At first people were scared away from this research because they
didn't want to be derided as anthropomorphic," Mogil says. "More and more evidence is
coming along that all mammals can do this sort of thing. I think fear over the word
anthropomorphism is starting to subside."
If anything, recent science shows us that we are not as guilty of endowing animals with
uniquely human qualities as we are of failing to understand just how many qualities animals
and people share.