In the last 10 years the kids have shown a declining ability to understand the emotional state and viewpoint of others. The researchers for this study want to run down the causes of this trend in personality development.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s, a University of Michigan study shows.
The study, presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.
"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
Video games might be the cause.
"The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor," Konrath said. "Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. 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."
Social media Facebook and online discussion forums also might be a contributing factor.
The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O'Brien.
"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," he said.
Why hang out with people in real life who are less like you when you can hang out only with online people where you can be much more selective about what aspects of their lives you have to contend with?
Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity "reality shows," and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says.
A large fraction of all video game playing doesn't even involve another human. The video game playing that does involve humans does so only in very abstracted fantasy contexts. Does online life allow us to escape from the suffering of others?
Will the kids with lower empathy eventually develop more empathy when they get out into the working world and are forced to spend less time playing video games and posting on Facebook?
This reminds me: Sometimes when I write posts about things going wrong with the world (e.g. habitat destruction, more species becoming endangered, pollution from developing countries) I've gotten complaints from a few commenters about how they didn't come to this site to read such news. They want and expect happy news about technological advance and a utopian future. Their ability to construct their own private internet channel of sites that fulfill their desires about the present and future seems like another aspect of how computer and communications technologies are allowing people to create personal micro-environments that isolate them.