Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Decline of Empathy: How You Can Help

A study from the University of Michigan offered a disturbing glimpse into the pro-social behaviors of young adults in America. Sarah Konrath, along with students Edward O'Brian and Courtney Hsing conducted a meta-analysis of 72 different studies conducted between 1979 and 2009. The studies all looked at college students levels of empathy as measured by paper-and-pencil tests.

Here's the shocking part:
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."
What does this mean in the real world? If there is transfer between how people act and what they reported on the measures, it means that young adults are 40% less likely to be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes. 40% less likely to be willing to consider another's perspective. 40% less likely to be impacted by the suffering of another's suffering.
Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today 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."
Curious how you compare on empathy? the University of Michigan has a survey up online. It will give you a score that you can compare yourself to the 14,000 college students that make up this study. Before heading off to the study on the following link, keep in mind that no information is provided if the university is recording your input. There is no mention of an Institutional Review Board approving of research, nor is there mention if this is for research gathering purposes (do they save your data) or is it for your own information (is data not saved). They don't ask for any identifying information. At any rate, here is the link to the survey.

How did you do? I know I was surprised. Before I started the survey I thought I'd score off the charts on empathy. While I was well above average as compared to the sample, I was surprised to see that college students in the 70s were much more empathetic than me.

Not to be overly nerdy here, but as an adult who has been out of college (and graduate school now) for a long time I can't use a sample of college students to compare myself too. It may be possible that college students are more idealistic. It may also be possible that college students tend to be more prone to black and white thinking (here, it would be "I'm always considering someone else's perspective" vs. a more nuanced perspective that comes with life experience).

And of course, there is likely to be a gap between how people identify themselves on paper and how they actually behave in the real world. There could be all sorts of interesting things that happen there.

Still--commentary on research aside--this is a disturbing trend. Inside special education circles it is often common practice to teach children empathy and perspective taking. I wonder if that happens in mainstream classrooms and within the contexts of families? I sure hope it does.

Here are a few tips for teaching empathy taken from the website Parenting Science. They are evidenced based tools to help teach empathy in children. Try them out with your own kids--or adapt them and try them out with your husbands, wifes, partners, and friends. You could make the world a little more friendly.

  • Teaching empathy tip #1: Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress
  • Teaching empathy tip #2: Be a “mind-minded” parent. Treat your child as an individual with a mind of her own, and talk to her about the ways that our feelings influence our behavior
  • Teaching empathy tip #3: Seize everyday opportunities to model—and induce—sympathetic feelings for other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #4: Help kids discover what they have in common with other people
  • Teaching empathy tip #5: Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap
  • Teaching empathy tip #6: Help kids explore other roles and perspectives
  • Teaching empathy tip #7: Show kids how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. Experiments show that simply “going through the motions” of making a facial expression can make us experience the associated emotion.
  • Teaching empathy tip #8: Help kids develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments
  • Teaching empathy tip #9: Teach (older) kids about mechanisms of moral disengagement
  • Teaching empathy tip #10: Inspire good feelings (and boost oxytocin levels) through pleasant social interactions and physical affection

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