Is decreasing empathy causing increased disruption on campus?

This short paper on the NPR website (click on screenshot) describes research suggesting that the empathy of young Americans has decreased over the past fifty years. I’m not familiar with this research, but will provisionally assume that the results described are correct.

Here are a few quotes (it’s a short article):

. . . more than a decade ago, a certain suspicion of empathy started to creep in, particularly among young people. One of the first people to notice was Sara Konrath, an associate professor and researcher at Indiana University. Since the late 1960s, researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help” or “Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.”

Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that’s what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.

Their feeling was: Why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who was not them, much less someone they thought was harmful? In fact, cutting someone off from empathy was the positive value, a way to make a stand.

Author Rosin describes some neurological studies of empathy, and notes that what seems to trigger it most strongly is a human conflict in which you favor one side over the other.  This, of course, is intensified by tribalism, in which you don’t have to think very hard about which side to empathize with. Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who studies empathy, says if you embrace the empathy born of tribalism, “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy. Because if you feed into this division more and more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous.”

Breihaupt’s solution to this tribalistic empathy seems bizarre, however,

In his book [The Dark Sides of Empathy, to be released June 15], Breithaupt proposes an ingenious solution: give up on the idea that when we are “empathizing” we are being altruistic, or helping the less fortunate, or in any way doing good. What we can do when we do empathy, proposes Fritz, is help ourselves. We can learn to see the world through the eyes of a migrant child and a militia leader and a Russian pen pal purely so we can expand our own imaginations, and make our own minds richer. It’s selfish empathy. Not saintly, but better than being alone.

Maybe it’s better than being alone, but it surely doesn’t inspire the kind of helpful action that is thought to be a benefit of empathy. Yes, empathy can be divisive and increase tribalism, but it can also increase charity. I would favor a less tribalistic empathy but also a striving to see the point of view of your opponents in other “tribes.”

NPR also has a 52-minute show on this topic that you can hear by clicking on the screenshot below (the page also has a transcript). I haven’t yet listened as I just discovered it and must be off.

When I read Rosin’s piece, I started thinking that if the decline in empathy among students is as real and as substantial as touted above, it may help explain the bizarre entitlement and aggrieved behavior of college students like those I’ve described at Middlebury, Williams, and Evergreen State.  For if you consider the inevitable demands that these students make of their college administration, they are rarely about improving society as a whole. Rather, they are about the personal comfort and well-being of the complaining students: demands meant to improve their own local situation. The students want courses that suit their needs and ethnicities, more therapists, weekend trips to the city, segregated housing, free food in the dining halls, and so on. While these demands may cite things like “universal structural racism,” they ask not for a change in society as a whole, but at their college.

This seems to me to contrast with the rebelling college students of the Sixties. The demands back then were more universal and less restricted to the local situation or to the students’ own welfare. The demands were for an end to racism in the country as a whole, an end to nuclear weapons, an end to the Vietnam War, and so on. You didn’t hear demands for therapists, free trips, or free food.

I realize that I may sound like a grumpy old man here, but I do perceive this difference, and wonder what readers think—particularly those of a certain age who have experienced college culture over the past fifty years. For it is the combination of increasing tribalism and decreasing empathy that could well produce the kind of demands and entitled behavior of college students that we’ve seen lately. These demands see the college itself, and its white “structural racism”, as the enemy, and foster a kind of tribalism that manifests itself in demands for “affinity” (segregated) housing in which each ethnic group (presumably Blacks, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics) gets to live by itself. (Imagine what would happen if white students were to demand that kind of housing!) There may be empathy in there, but it’s surely tribalistic empathy and an unwillingness to even engage the “enemy” with civil discourse.

At any rate, there are other theories as well, such as those of Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

As I wrote last November:

[Lukianoff and Haidt’s] worry is that students have absorbed what they call the Three Great Untruths, and these are what’s driving the bizarre behavior on campus. Those untruths are these, each exemplified with a motto:

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

The book is, then, an exposition of this thesis, an exploration of why students have become this way when they were different twenty years ago, and, finally, suggested remedies to buttress the emotional strength of students, make them think more rationally, and stop them from living in a Manichean world of Good People versus Bad People.

The causes of this behavior are, say the authors, sixfold: the rapid growth of campus bureaucracy that gives students someone to complain to, and is itself self-perpetuating; the rising rates of depression and suicide in young people; the lack of unsupervised play in kids (parents don’t let kids roam free much these days); a culture of “safetyism” in parents, who have grown overprotective and micromanaging in the face of an environment that’s far safer than it used to be; increased political polarization in America; and the transformation of students’ desire for “justice” into an ideology that demands equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities (this is the form of social justice that Lukianoff and Haidt decry).

The talk about the tribalism, of course, but not so much about the decrease in empathy. However, overprotectiveness and political polarization could well help erode empathy.

h/t: Wayne

55 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Interesting. The stated goal of the “woke culture” is to try to get all to feel more welcome (and yes, no one deserves to go to college while being subject to things like racial slurs) but what appears to happen is a whole lot of finger wagging which doesn’t help anything.

    I don’t know; I have to think about this some more.

  2. Roo
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I wonder if empathy is always so much about altruism as it is about adaptive instinct. If one is not assured of their place within an interaction, it behooves them to be attuned to the subtle cues of those around them and sensitive to how others are feeling and responding. In a world of supervised childcare and electronics where interaction is often either scripted or individual, these skills may not come up as much.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    The lack of empathy is a resulting characteristic of this generation and is likely why you see more of this type in the college students. However, I would bet it applies to others not necessarily just those in this environment. My neighbor works in aircraft engineering, middle management and he says it is getting harder to find new employees in this field. You may have 15 candidates to weed through just to find one who you want to hire. With starting pay above 60k already he says many of these applicants are indifferent to the job and worry about things like, it might not be the right fit for them. Not much enthusiasm at all. He finds it very strange.

    I suspect some of this goes back further than just this current group. I see some of this trend in people we know at ages up to nearly 50 years of age. A friend of my wife’s comes to stay sometimes and she will literally spend most of her time on the phone or pad locked in to on line stuff and very little conversation otherwise. I see this and wonder, is this just one obnoxious person or is this the trend today. You come to visit and then spend most of your time on the computer – that is crazy. If it were my friend, they would not be for long.

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Lack of enthusiasm and an unwillingness to be flexible. With devices in hand, young engineers and some scientists appear lost to me. Scientists doing closer work to fundamental research appear happier and more motivated. Also, foreigners tend to be happier than young Americans right now in these fields.

    • eric
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      My purely personal and unevidenced opinion is that the more time we spend using anonymous aliases to talk to people we never physically see and whose physical well-being has no personal impact on us, the less empathy we gain.

      It’s really hard to ignore the problems of your neighbor in a wheelchair. Regardless of – for example – whether they’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. But it’s really easy to ignore the problems of WheelsInDenver44 if they’re pro-Israel and you’re not.

      I think even businesses recognize this; no matter how good teleconferencing gets, they recognize the often critical importance of face to face meetings for good team-building. Think about that for a moment. Wouldn’t that apply to any other type of human social interaction?

  4. XCellKen
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    “You didn’t hear demands for therapists, free trips, or free food.”

    What about the Hippies demands for “Free Love” ???

    • Adam M.
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      🙂 I’m thinking “free” means unfettered rather than gratis in that context.

  5. BobTerrace
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    50 years ago, young people could look forward to a bright future. Whether they were in college or not they could look forward to careers and families. Today there is much more uncertainty of what young peoples future is going to be and I would presume that if you’re concerned about yourself there is less room for empathy for others.

    • Mark R.
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think this is a good observation. I imagine the future’s uncertainty is a huge burden on the psyches of Millennials and younger people. I can see how they could turn inward and lose empathy when they realize there is no commitment to fight climate change, no political solutions to economic disparities and entrenched political stagnation. I think it comes down to: “No one cares, so why should I?”

      • EdwardM
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Agree. We Boomers have made sure that young people today will be saddled their whole lives with the debt for an education that will not provide them the standard of living we enjoyed. We’ve ensured that they will face a lifetime with the fear of insolvency if they should ever get sick PLUS, as an added bonus, we leave them an environment we destroyed but they will pay the consequences.

        I can understand the frustrations, the anger and despondency.

        • Posted April 27, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          Your generation had its own problems, many of which had been created by previous generations. Environment was far from pristine also in those days. Now, it is the millenials’ turn. They are the ones to do the work, to build the future, so they are entitled to the lion’s share of problems.

  6. GBJames
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:57 am | Permalink

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  7. yazikus
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I know anecdata does not data make – but the younger college-age folks I know are some of the most empathetic people around. Some of the least have been middle-aged moderately well off who could care less how things impact others. As for the demands for therapy, food and/or classes/trips – isn’t that a sign of progress? That we’ve dealt with some of the bigger concerns and now kids are moving on to the details?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      “…the younger college-age folks I know are some of the most empathetic people around”

      That is my observation as well & certainly more empathetic than my college-age cohort of the mid-’70s.

      The only negatives I find re the current crop are they’re more risk averse, less resilient, less independent & more ‘materialistic’ [meaning they consider their finances & assets situation much more carefully now 100% grants no longer exist in England, Wales & NI]. Perhaps the cautious approach is the correct response to an unpredictable personal future with no ‘jobs for life’ & a property market getting increasingly out of reach for young uns.

  8. Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    There are so many possible factors, and I am surprised that they did not consider the effect of how young people are absorbed into the internet and video games.
    Years before there was any talk about overly sensitive snowflake students, there has been considerable discussion and worry about how young people are growing up while staring at pixels 9-12 hours a day rather than talking to each other, face to face. I think we need to consider this.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I think you are right about this. The addiction to on line, whether it is staying connected to others or games and more games is creating a new kind of person and behavior that is not very good. Just look at Mr. anti-empathy today, Trump. The indifference to him by many today has to either be more of the same or ignorance. Do these people even care that our systems were attacked by Russia, even those who believe it?

    • lucas
      Posted May 2, 2019 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Technofobica bullshit …
      Violence, bullying, racism, and homophobia seem a lot less youthful today.
      All this is old juvenoia allied to the moral panic and technophobia that always permeated between generations, young people will be well in the end …

      • Posted May 2, 2019 at 4:11 am | Permalink

        You are using two different names for the same IP number and your comments are splenetic, copoious, and repetitive. Please hie thyself to another site.

  9. BJ
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I’d like to see the results replicated, but this has been my feeling for years. It seems younger people no longer feel that this is a country where we should support one another, or that they have anything in common with a white rural farmer, or that they should try to put themselves in other people’s shoes; instead, the think only they and what they think matters, and anyone who goes against them and their group has no value (or, perhaps more accurately, negative value).

    This is one of the reason’s I lament the loss of all the politicians from the Greatest Generation. Those were people who went through many tumultuous events and times as a country and saw America as a beacon of light to be built upon. They wanted the whole country to come together and keep building toward a better society for everyone, not just the groups for which they personally had “affinity.”

  10. jpetts
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    sub

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    According to the lede in the linked NPR piece, armed vigilante Ammon Bundy has broken with Trump over the policy of intentional cruelty toward immigrant families seeking asylum at our southern border.

    Wow, man. And LBJ thought he had it rough losing Cronkite on Vietnam.

    • yazikus
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Bundy- for whatever else he is- is deeply religious in his own off-brand LDS way.

    • Caldwell
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      And LBJ thought he had it rough losing Cronkite on Vietnam.

      Speaking of losing, liberal feminist law prof (ret) says : “Biden’s announcement video is anchored in a demonstrable lie.

      It’s utterly toxic bilge.

      If Biden does not come forward and retract this video and apologize and commit himself to making amends, I consider him disqualified. He does not have the character or brain power to be President.”

      • Tom B
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        That is disappointing, the potential Trump-Biden debates were guaranteed to be entertaining.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, not to mention the hot alter-kocker-on-alter-kocker-action fisticuffs. 🙂

  12. TJR
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Genuine question, but how much of “this” (snowflakes, woke etc) is general and how much of it is US-specific?

    I can’t help feeling that there is a lot of American Cultural Imperialism going on here, and a lot of the problems in the rest of the world come from people seeing problems in the US, assuming they apply in their own countries, and then behaving in such a way as to create these problems in their own countries. E.g. the US obsession with race spreading to the rest of the world.

    Again, genuine question, not an ex cathedra pronouncement.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      The only other countries of which I have recent and extensive knowledge are Canada and the UK. The situation in both is similar to the US. If anything it is worse in some ways. Both are obsessed with racial and identity politics every bit as much as here. You may well be correct that it’s a case of aping the US. Of all countries Canada had no need to become a cesspit of identity division

      • Tom B
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Probably should include Australia as well.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it is Americans’ fault if others decide to copy their flaws.

  13. Historian
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    There may very well be a correlation and perhaps a cause and effect relationship between the growth of tribalism and lack of empathy. It’s a subject worthy of much more study. If this should be the case then we have but another reason to understand the growth of tribalism. My hunch is that the growth of tribalism is correlated with demographic change. This phenomenon is not new. In the 19th century, white Protestant America was fearful of the growth in Catholic immigration. In the early 1850s a political party emerged, the American Party (aka Know-Nothings) that had a fair deal of success with its anti-immigration message. If it were not for the growing slavery crisis, it may have had a significant impact on American politics for longer than about the five years that it did.

    Groups (or tribes) based on factors such as religion, race or ethnicity tend to view other groups as “the other.” This should not be surprising. When a group’s value or norms appear threatened by other groups. It is likely to respond with defensive actions against the threat. This includes attempting to keep the other group’s members out of the country and to deny those already in the government from receiving government benefits. Hence, the lack of empathy for others. The tension between groups ebb and flow over time. The only workable way to reduce these tensions between groups is from them to mutually conclude that other groups are not really different from themselves. That is, they share the same norms, values and adherence to a common political creed (belief in democracy and the Constitution). Such was the resolution between Catholics and Protestants. This result has been partially caused by the conservative adherents uniting against a newly identified common area – immigrants with different ethnicities or cultures.

    It is impossible to predict if the current crisis without social chaos and the destruction of democracy. The Trump Administration is fanning the flames of discord to a degree unprecedented in American history. Meanwhile, those on the far left (much smaller in numbers and power) than Trump’s Republican Party frighten conservative whites. My fear is that if Trump is defeated in 2020 white culturally conservative America will become even more paranoid as their “voice” in Washington will be no more. Indications are that the culture wars are far from ending and that is bad for democracy and social peace. It is sad to say that it may take a severe economic or foreign crisis to mute the culture wars. The 1920s were a period of cultural turmoil. The Depression and World War II turned the public’s attention to other matters – survival. So, the culture wars diminished until people no longer worried about survival and could once again turn their attention to worry about their cultural identities.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      I am afraid a lot of what you are talking about is racism. Where does simply tribalism and lack of empathy leave off and racism begin. The anti immigrants of the Trump cult are not so much worried about people coming in and taking their jobs. They are concerned because of what this is doing to the vote so even with the voter suppression their time is running out. He calls them murderers and drug dealers even the women and children and any reasonable person does not believe this. What he means to say is – look what this is doing to the vote.

  14. Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Paul Bloom has written Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion which takes empathy to task for being narrow and biased, thus:

    “…empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way prejudice does.”

    Perhaps, but at least the empathic response makes the well-being of others a priority for oneself, and it can be made less parochial by means of liberal education that highlights commonalities with others, not identity politics.

  15. Filippo
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    sub

  16. darrelle
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I don’t quite agree with Breithaupt about how to guard against tribalistic empathy but I think there is a nugget of usefulness there. I’d change it to “realize that empathy is not necessarily altruistic, it is simply a cognitive ability that humans are capable of and it is the uses to which it is put, the outcomes that are important.”

    I’m not so sure that “tribalistic empathy” and empathy are equivalent. It seems to me that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to try and understand what it is like to be them, so that you can relate to them. Tribalistic empathy just seems to be a pep rally where everyone who already feels the same assures each other that they are righteous.

    I am at least half convinced that a significant contributor to this rash of selfish young adults is simply that they were spoiled while they were raised, as in spoiled little brats. When my wife and I were of child rearing age it was very popular among our peers to raise children in a very consequence free, let them do whatever they want way. There were all kinds of books and expert opinions and non-expert opinions about how children should be allowed to do whatever they want without being corrected or disciplined by the parents. Not just no spanking, no punishment whatsoever. The only warranted interdiction was a reasoned conversation.

    My wife and I had several close friends who raised their children this way and the outcomes we witnessed were bad enough to swear us off from having kids of our own. One case, 3 children, was particularly awful. We dreaded when this family visited. These kids were spoiled little brats. They were allowed to do whatever they wanted. They were protected from any repercussions, both naturally occurring and from other people. They were selfish, they were often cruel, they had no awareness of how they affected the environment around them, including other people. This was why we didn’t have kids until relatively late in our lives.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      “One case, 3 children, was particularly awful. We dreaded when this family visited. These kids were spoiled little brats.”

      15-20 years ago I observed a mother and two children in a local coffee shop. There were decorative (incredibly obviously so) items on display. Kids had to touch them. Knocked one off and broke it. Mother acted like it was of no consequence, no apparent regard for others property. Apparently the customer is always right.

      Another time I heard two late-20ish/early-30ish mothers discussing how “people” looked disapprovingly at their children. I confess that I also had been looking at their children, watching their behavior. I didn’t like their behavior. Apparently the mothers had a different standard. Either clueless or incredibly entitled. Just because the kids are loud and rowdy at home does not mean it’s okay for them to be so in public. (Ever see kids chasing each other, or recklessly pushing a cart, in a crowed grocery store?) This behavior significantly manifests itself at the public school k-5 level, and beyond.

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      A new meme needs to be circulated for parents….failing to set boundaries around your child’s behavior and impose discipline when necessary is a actually a form of neglect.

    • Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      In the eighties there was a handful (5-10%) of kids who were really spoiled where I grew up. Then I taught HS in the 90s and I saw fewer kids spoiled. What I do see now are kids who are protected and parents want and expect the world for their kids and the parents are typically disconnected from reality of having their kids work hard and learn how to manufacture their own happiness.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        Overall I don’t see any significant differences in the number of spoiled, troublesome, good, bad, drug using, model student, druggy, jock, surfer, brainiac, or whatever students among what I’ve seen of my kids generation vs my own. But then, I don’t have the up front view you have had as a teacher.

        Differences I have noticed are that my kids generation seems to be much more tolerant of differences and more compassionate, in scope if not magnitude, than what I remember from my school years. Wider circles of inclusion. There is still fighting, teasing and what-not of course, but noticeably less of it in my narrow experience.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Seems to me the efficacious way to promote empathy and fairness in any system is to employ the “veil of ignorance” test suggested by philosophers like John Rawls — set things up as though you have no idea which end of the stick you’ll end up holding.

    All comes back to the “golden rule” (and not the one about the guy with the gold getting to make the rules).

  18. Curtis
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Konrath’s paper does not have data for the last 10 years which means there is no way to connect it to recent (Gen Z) college behavior.

    The millennials are the least empathetic but the fall in empathy predates them. Empathy rose in 1980-1994 (early Gen X) and started falling later in the 90’s (late Gen X). The trend accelerate in the 2000’s (millennials).

    I am not sure why the mid 90’s would be a turning point. It corresponds to Clinton’s presidency and the Gingrich revolution which led to polarization in politics.

    • LFP2016
      Posted April 25, 2019 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      It corresponds roughly with the rise of the Internet. Coincidence? Perhaps not…

  19. tubby
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I had wondered if that played a role since the woke student demands and how they responded to any discussion or pushback seemed like they had their roots in an inability or refusal to empathize on top of seeing everything as a clear cut right/wrong battle and obsession with self.

  20. Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Not only is tribalism part of the problem but there’s also a strong dollop of Stockholm syndrome. It is well known that people strongly adopt the morals, opinion, and general outlook of the group they find themselves in. College students find themselves in a new environment which is fairly well cut off from the real world. I remember as a student thinking of it as a world unto itself. It is not a matter of the rest of the world being inaccessible but the college scene just dominates your life while you are part of it.

    Once you are part of a separate group, all kinds of bad idea can become gospel. Most students will adapt and assimilate without much resistance. I’m thinking in terms of terrorist groups or the Stanford Prison Experiment.

    The college administrators are largely to blame for the current college environment. They have adapted their own moral code based on identity politics, legal challenges, and general leftist stupidity. They are simply molding the students that pass through their hands.

    The good news is that the students will leave college and adapt to whatever new environment they find themselves. The bad news is that their college experience is messed up and they have an effect on the rest of the world because they vote and we have to deal with them.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I agree fully. I think it would be good for the USA to add a few universities like those in some European countries: the campus is only for the actual teaching and is in the middle of a city, so the moment classes end, students step out of the door and into the real world. (And if the city is not NY or San Francisco, such a university will be also cheaper.)

  21. Christopher
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of helicopter parenting…The BBC Capital section has an article today asking why we don’t help university graduates understand how to work in an office, and gives examples of new workers and interns being too dumb to work with others in a professional setting while blaming the rest of us for not holding their hands and wiping their butts for them.

  22. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Colour me sceptical about this paper. as a reader I’m not given much way of judging whether the apparent drop in empathy in their data is significant or not. Eg. what are the birth cohort differences in empathy like by comparison with the differences in empathy between age groups? What is the drop in empathy between the seventies and now(ish) like when compared with similar changes in empathy over longer time periods, or between different societal groups? Is there a similar decline in the general public?

    I’d also like to know why this specific time frame of late 70s to late noughties was chosen – was there no data about this subject available covering the sixties or the fifties? I ask because one of the graphs seems to show a _decrease_ in empathy as we head back in time from the seventies.

    More bafflingly, it contradicts almost all the more longform measures of empathy that have been conducted over the last century(and more) that tend to suggest it is increasing; not just actual first-hand questionnaire results, but social changes that correlate with increased empathy, eg. equality legislation, getting rid of capital punishment, expanded healthcare programs, reductions in levels of violence, etc(see, predictably, The Better Angels…, which has a section devoted to this.).

    In the rather small section in the paper where the writers mention contradictory data, they acknowledge that crime rates have dropped(which would correlate with increases in empathy, not decreases)…but then go on to claim that this actually supports their argument because if you look at the data more closely you see that _crime against homeless people and a handful of specific minorities_ has increased. Ipso facto. I’m not making that up. Maybe I misunderstood, but that seems to be simple cherrypicking.

    I don’t think this paper does enough to demonstrate its case.

  23. Vaal
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    In the new Intersectionality, empathy is not allowed.

    You can’t know what it’s like to be me, because of our different skin color. You can only take my reports as The Truth, rather than extrapolate from your own human experience and feelings to understand mine.

    Empathy is not possible.

    Sympathy maybe. Guilt, for sure.

    But not empathy.

  24. GBJames
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m sympathetic to the “empathy is not possible” thought.

    It isn’t possible to see things from someone/something else’s point of view. One can care about the plight of others, and behave accordingly, which is what having sympathy is all about.

    I think empathy may just be a form of self delusion, confusing your own imagined projection with someone else’s real plight.

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      “I think empathy may just be a form of self delusion. . . .”

      There’s something in what you say, but I don’t think that’s the point. Empathy doesn’t have to be accurate; it just has to be genuine. Even the inadequate gesture, as opposed to no attempt at all, is what counts.

      • GBJames
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m not convinced that genuine delusions are of much use. I prefer accurately targeted sympathy, I think.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I dunno about this.

    The last couple of days there has been several claims on empathy passing beneath my eyes, and they contradict earlier research. Say, that decrease in empathy is tied to social media use, while earlier social media has been attributed to increased social skills IIRC. Or that empathy is considered demanding, and need positive training to realize it isn’t, if I understood that correctly.

    The cited paper uses index measures, so it is very much a study in interpretation.

  26. Max Blancke
    Posted April 25, 2019 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Lack of empathy is an interesting viewpoint. I had been thinking it is more a lack of humility.
    Maybe there is a relationship between the two characteristics.

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point. “I feel strongly ergo I am right..”

  27. Posted April 26, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Not sure I agree with “Breihaupt’s solution” to lack of empathy, but I do think lack of empathy is essentially a failure of imagination. This is one reason that I always eschewed the term “creative writing” when I taught that subject. All good writing is creative writing, because all good writing requires that the the writer get inside someone else’s head—if not a character’s, then at the very least the reader’s.

    As for the difference beween today’s college protestors and those in the ’60s, I’m not sure I agree. I recall the leaders of the SDS protests at UC Irvine when I was there as being essentially spoiled bats on power trips who were incapable of seeing the unreasonableness of their often itentionally undreasonable demands. Not sure that’s changed much, but I do agree that empathy on the whole is declining in our society and that it’s a seriously dangerous trend.

  28. Posted April 27, 2019 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I take the results with a grain of salt. From time immemorial, middle-aged and old people complain that young people are less everything. This goes hand in hand with distrust in new technology that young people use more and better than older people. The same presumed ill effects of Internet and mobile phones were in my childhood attributed to TV or even excessive reading of books.

    In the particular case of college students, as Paul mentioned above, they are manipulated (I’d even say brainwashed) by the older diversocrats who run the campus. I also wonder about the impact of volunteer record on admission to universities. If volunteering brings points when you apply to a university, then it is not truly voluntary. You, the young applicant, are forced to work for free so that to satisfy the requirement of an institution that will then charge you enough to buy a home. I find this likely to sow distrust in the very idea of caring for others.


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