Empathy is going the way of the land-line: one more thing the young are giving up

By Saybrook University

800px-US_Navy_040915-N-0000W-121_Lt._Charles_Dickerson_checks_on_a_young_patient_in_Ward_5B_of_the_U.S._Naval_Hospital,_Yokosuka Are college students today less likely to feel sympathy for people less fortunate than them than college students were 30 years ago? 

We’d better have a talk about empathy, before it’s too late. 

A meta-analyses study published in the August 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review looked at research empathy dating from 1979-2009, including over 13,000 college students. The researchers were looking at the personality quality referred to as dispositional empathy – which is what students display when they say that they care about the homeless man who sleeps in the park near campus. 

Konrath and colleagues found that students were 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.” That last statement is critical to empathy.

The research indicates that a particular type of empathy has been lost. There has been a steady decline in the ability to imagine another person’s point of view and to sympathize with them. 

This is more than just a moral issue – though it certainly is that.  Having these aspects of empathy in oneself has been shown to encourage positive behavior and deters us from harming others. The less empathy we have, the more casual violence is likely to result. 

This isn’t a supposition:  a study conducted in 2008 found that parents who were lacking in perspective taking and empathic concern were more likely to abuse their children. In the article “Preventing Violence and Trauma in the Next Generation” author Gail Ryan argues that a lack of empathy can lead to increased interpersonal violence.

Further, In a 2011 TED Talk Penn State sociology professor Sam Richards explained that having these empathetic skills helps us to understand what motivates others, and come to win-win solutions to problems.  Is it an accident that our political climate has become more polarized and our rhetoric more violent as our ability to empathize has declined? 

Empathy among individuals is key to a society finding solutions that are not based on anger, ignorance, or apathy. 

Empathy is a real world skill that can be taught, encouraged and nurtured not just in the next generation. A study published by Sharon Nickols and Robert Nielsen in the 2011 issue of the Journal of Poverty demonstrates that putting college students through a poverty simulation they were able to better empathize and understand the lived experience of being poor. The long-term effect of this study is still unknown, but we can only hope that knowing the lived experience of poverty may prompt these students to be less judgmental and more compassionate towards those that are struggling to make ends meet.

They are teaching empathy in our medical schools and law schools. Roots of Empathy, a psychosocial educational program based in Canada, starts teaching empathy at the most critical years of life, childhood.

What they have learned and how they will (and have) applied this empathy is yet to be seen. But considering the cost of the lack of empathy, not teaching it is not an option.

 — Makenna Berry