Are We Losing Our Empathy?

College students today are less empathetic than college students of the past. At least that’s what University of Michigan researchers have concluded.

The meta-analysis combined the results of 72 different studies of American college students that were conducted between 1979 and 2009 and involved 14,000 students. Today’s students were found to possess about 40 percent less empathy than students of 20 or 30 years ago, with the biggest drop coming after the year 2000.

Who or what is to blame for the apparent loss of empathy? After all, the study participants are the offspring of those more empathetic college kids from the 70’s and 80’s.

There are plenty of theories as to the cause. Violence on television, in the movies, and in video games has desensitized us to the plight of others; online social networking encourages an “all about Me” attitude; texting and virtual friendships have pulled us further apart rather than closer together; a generation raised with an overabundance of “you are special” affirmations. Maybe none of these theories explains it; maybe all of them do.

In a separate analysis, a representative sample of Americans showed that we’ve noticed the change. The “Me Generation” is a common label given to today’s young adults. Older generations view them as narcissistic to the extreme. I dare say that every generation makes similar observations of the young. The study focuses on college-age people, so I’m not sure how the rest of us fare with our own levels of empathy today as compared to our younger selves.

In 2007, President Obama, when speaking about Supreme Court nominees, said, “We need somebody who’s got the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teen-aged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.”

The president took a lot of heat for that statement, as if empathy makes one weak or unable to make a fair judgment. But empathy is not about weakness; it is about strength and intelligence.

It’s easy to feel discouraged given the political and social landscape today. We are more polarized than ever and shouting each other down has become preferable to trying to understand each other.

I am fortunate to know many college-age folks who possess not only empathy, but the ambition to use it to help others. It is most certainly too early to begin mourning the loss of empathy. There are too many good people who, because they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, continue to fight the good fight.

Note: If you want to test yourself, the University of Michigan press release includes a link to an empathy test that asks you to ponder such things as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “If I’m sure I’m right about something, I don’t waste much time listening to other people’s arguments.” After answering the questions, you can compare your results to the college-age students who took the test.

Writer Ann Pietrangelo embraces the concept of personal responsibility for health and wellness. As a person living with multiple sclerosis, she combines a healthy lifestyle and education with modern medicine, and seeks to provide information and support to others. She is a regular contributor to Care2 Causes. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo

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Jo S.5 months ago

Thank you Ann.

Laura Parrondo
Laura Parrondo4 years ago

I think generally, with some exceptions, we are losing our empathy as generations go on. Just look at what is happening in the USA. Each generation becomes less empathetic I think because of upbringing and social environment. It is all for yourself and don't think of anyone's a sign of weakness. I think the opposite is true, it's a sign of strength.

Fareena Narine
Fareena Narine4 years ago

I think we are

Carole L.
Carole L.4 years ago

I try to teach my children to be empathetic.

Taina B.
Taina B.4 years ago


Judith P.

Overall I think it is easier to relate to others pain if one has indeed experienced pain or disappointment, etc. So empathy is often a reflection of our own experiences. Many of today's kids have not had to adjust to many of life's disappointments. After I have suffered a set back, humiliation or rejection, I find I am more sensitive to other people's feelings. And I have had a lifetime of those. I got a 98.6% on the test. It amazes me how any psychotherapist could be empathic when all they hear are troubling issue of others. It could wear one down if you are too empathic. How do they do it?

Claire S.
Claire Sayers5 years ago

I think it's more a reflection of what they see around them: media, friends, and as sad as it is their family members might even have an influence. Not all of us young people are self-absorbed, narcissistic idiots, though--since I'm not one of them even though I'm young. But from what I've seen the media does have an influence on us.

Rachael Wharton
Rachael W.5 years ago

Perhaps it's something to do with the loss of a sense of community. Our closest neighbours can be total stangers, hence we tend just look out for ourselves.

maybelle s.
maybelle s.5 years ago

college students are exposed to violence through video games,movies and other sources that are pretty much uncensored..they are more self-indulgent in terms of living their life..

Julie Akers
Julie Akers5 years ago

I graduated in 2005 and I scored a 63/70 on the empathy quiz. I feel that college opened my eyes even more so to the world and my empathy for others and my concern for the bigger picture of life and this planet grew tremendously.