According to a 2009 study, American college students believe themselves to be less empathetic than previous generations. Taken over a period of time spanning three decades (1979-2009), the study surveyed a total of 13,737 college students about their perceived tendencies toward empathy and social concern.
Dr. Sara Konrath, Assistant Professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and one of the authors of the 2009 study, spoke with BTR to discuss its findings.
“What’s interesting is that [our study] didn’t look at the attitudes of previous generations toward college students, but actually surveyed the beliefs of college students themselves,” Konrath explains. “When asked about some core empathy traits, we tended to see responses such as, ‘I don’t think about others when they’re in need, when someone is suffering it doesn’t move me,’ and so on.”
While the study neither confirms nor contradicts the self-evaluations of those surveyed, the results are eye-opening in that they reveal Millennials believe themselves to be about 40 percent less empathetic than their predecessors. Interestingly, a significant amount of research contradicts these self-assessments. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that members of the generation were “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change” plus more diverse than their elders.
So why are Millennials so down on their own ability to empathize? Konrath’s study speculates that, perhaps, the media and rapidly developing technology have played a role in making young people feel that they are more self-absorbed and disconnected from others. This isn’t surprising, as Millennials are often derided as self-absorbed narcissists, particularly among older generations who are critical of perceived individualistic tendencies and technological practices like snapping selfies.
Konrath considers the current social climate to be grounds for a grand social experiment.
“All this technology is being introduced and we don’t know what the long term consequences will be,” says Konrath. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that this is pretty bad for kids’ development, but on the other hand, some researchers, including myself, are trying to figure out how we can use these technologies to make us socially smarter.”
Feature photo courtesy of Sharon Sinclair.