Compassion on the Decline Among College Students

A new study finds that today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s.

University of Michigan researchers analyzed data on empathy collected from 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.”

If the data in this research is accurate enough to extrapolate across college students in general, then I consider myself really blessed to have served alongside some of the most compassionate people during my seven years on staff as the college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. So in my own experience this research doesn’t match my reality, but then again I was serving as a college pastor where students were striving to serve God and to serve others in a myriad of ways.

In this 30 year study, researchers have hypothesized several reasons why they think college students in the last 10 years are less compassionate, and less able to empathize, than those students in previous decades.

  1. “The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” Konrath said.
  2. 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.
  3. College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.“College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.

One of the questions that I asked in the recent post, Technology: Connected, Yet Lonelier Than Ever, was:

I wonder if technology and social media has compressed our relationships into a process that we can barely recognize?

So on the one hand, there is something cool and convenient with clicking a button online that brings us into contact with a person. But on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making.

Has all the technology relationally disconnected us in a sense, replacing the processes (befriending, getting to know each other, sharing life, etc), where instead we just value the end results (number of followers, blog traffic, etc.)

Can social media allows us to keep others at an arm’s length from one another? This can definitely happen in real life as well, but I wonder if social media can exacerbate the bystander effect when it comes to empathizing with others and being compassionately involved? (For a look at some of the more infamous examples of this effect, check out 10 Notorious Cases of the Bystander Effect.

Of course, I could now show you all the wonderful examples of where people have used social media as a means to demonstrate compassion to others. Think of the earthquake in Haiti. The floods in Nashville. The protests in Iran. Etc. Etc.

I guess the question for researchers (and for us) is, are we able to move beyond showing our compassion to others through a click of the button (though there is nothing wrong with that and I hope people keep doing that), and move into situations that may demand more of us than clicking buttons and counting followers?

Maybe this is why each of us plays a various role in the body of Christ? When the body of Christ is working together harmoniously (some online getting involved, others ‘on the ground’ in person involved, others sending money and resources, etc.) it is an unstoppable force.