Humans Are Far Less Empathetic Than They Used To Be

“Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.” —Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

In A Nutshell

According to a comprehensive study from the University of Michigan, we care about others 40 percent less than people in the 1980s did, with the biggest drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000. Reasons for this drop in empathy is anyone’s guess, but the increase in media (both social and mainstream) and violent video games have been trotted out as the likely suspects.

The Whole Bushel

Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing surveys completed by close to 14,000 college volunteers over the past 30 years. The surveys asked simply, in various ways, how much somebody cared about the predicament of another. One question, for example, asked how much volunteers agreed with the statement, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” Another was “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Students in 1979, when the study began, were far more likely to agree, whereas students in 2009, well, weren’t into the whole “concern for others” scene as much.

Sarah Konrath, the lead on this study from the University of Michigan, suggests that the most recent generation really isn’t as empathetic because they are simply more self-absorbed than previous ones. She believes that the most recent wave of youth is “one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.” Constant concern for themselves, in other words, comes at the cost of being able to think about the problems of others.

But the terribleness of youth isn’t entirely their own fault, according to researchers. The increase of social media and the Internet, they believe, has reduced face-to-face interactions. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, except for the fact that these online relationships are easier to ignore whenever it’s convenient. An online friend stating their problems or asking for help on Facebook, for example, is as easy to dodge as clicking the mouse or shutting off the computer. Face-to-face interactions, you might be surprised to know, aren’t as convenient; the equivalent, maybe, would be physically running away, while your friend stares at your back with tear-filled eyes. The urge to run away or ignore your friend’s problems, even in face-to-face interactions, might be increased in young people because they’ve gotten used to this “convenience” online.

But also, researchers suggest, the expectations of modern society have changed—and not necessarily for the better for college students. Competitiveness and a must-succeed-at-all-costs philosophy is far more prevalent than in previous generations, according to Edward O’Brien, another member of this study. Feeling empathy for others takes time and effort, which could be better spent, at least in the minds of young people, on achieving their own goals.

Other possibilities for the downgrade in emotional sympathy? Being brought up on a steady diet of violent TV and video games, says Konrath, may deaden our feelings for others, probably in the same way our apathetic attitude toward friends carries over from the Internet. Oh, and there’s also the increasingly limited interaction between parents and their children through the decades that could be to blame for the decline of empathy.

Of course, all of these are just theories trying to explain the empathetic nosedive. The truth could be one of these things, some combination of them, or something completely different (e.g., aliens). Or the study itself could be flawed and we really don’t ignore the occasional message from friends or share every detail of our lives on the Internet like some narcissistic reality TV star. Yeah, that never happens. So what do you think is going on here?

Show Me The Proof

Generation me students have less empathy than 20 years ago
Empathy: College Students Don’t Have as Much as They Used To, Study Finds
NY Times: From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?

  • inconspicuous detective

    don’t fool yourself. it’s the internet and things like online gaming that come with it. the whole “i can say what i always wanted to but never had the courage to say in person” attitude is all over since you’re totally anonymous. it also doesn’t help that “meme” culture is a hotbed of idiocy, sexism, racism, and to repeat myself in a different word stupidity. so…there ya go.

    • Joseph Wilson

      It’s a number of factors. It’s how parents are raising their kids, it’s how society is shaping us. The internet certainly isn’t helping, either, but it is just one facet of the problem. I can only speak for America, but we’ve been promoting dog-eat-dog, screw everyone else ideology, and accept it as normal. We have forgotten that our power lies in numbers, and have given up autonomy.

  • sayruq

    Interesting but this is only the US. It would have been better if they tried other countries to see if humanity really is less empathetic

    • philipmarie

      It’s not just the US. Even in such a small island as Malta, people are making less friends and are spending more time on materialistic things like the internet. Nothing wrong with using the internet but before, people would go out more, make more friends and have more interesting experiences. Just saying.

  • Andyman7714

    *turns off computer*

    • Sewo

      Nevar!!

      Also -1 beacuse I’m not supossed to be empathic this study says :<

  • David Smokejaguar

    Same over here in Sweden

  • Paul P

    I absolutely agree, it’s due to the age of the Internet and social media. Growing up only a very small minority spent a lot of time on their computers, but now…it’s everyone pretty much all of the day, every day. I remember caring about my neighbour or fellow man on the street, now I couldn’t give a fuck.

    • Kevin Johnston

      lol real talk!

    • $1324846

      No good mornings in the small towns? Weird

  • Pyncky

    I don’t care. Just kidding.

  • gillybean

    I think this started the second people started letting social etiquette go. Personal stereos made it ok to ignore each other and technology has only encouraged us from there on in. How many mothers in the seventies would have ignored their kids for the ring of a telephone?

  • Girasol666

    there they go again with violent video games. I played such games all my life but it doesn’t make me any less empathetic. I just find myself disinclined to show how much I care because that’s who I am. It also depends on what dangers people are facing, like say financial issues. In my perspective I think that is what’s making the new generation so “apathetic” because of the economy crashing down. People have less money and when people have less money they tend to do whatever they can to make ends meet. The only way people find themselves getting a well paid job is to go to school, but even that is a chalenge considering how much it costs in the first place. If this is only in America, then how about the rest of the world? These researchers did not include surveys from youths from Europe or Asia, so what makes them think the WHOLE generation is less empathetic over the years. Some may not even like social media and “violent” video games. Then there are some who are just reluctant to help others and do what’s right for fear of being looked down upon even if it’s something like “whistle blowing” or “snitching” on someone, which is happening as we speak. Do the homework.

  • ZacEckstein

    Here we go again with blaming video games. Mentally stable people understand that games do not equal real life. I’m so sick of this argument.

    • Richard Barcelona

      Why do you think, decades ago, they started discouraging the sales of toy guns? Kids imitate what they see. As TV changed, so did the attitude to blood and guts. Soon, toy guns had to have a red mark on the tip to show they were toys. Now, a 6 year old can be suspended from school or expelled for bringing in a squirt gun.

      Repeated exposure to violent scenarios, especially those more realistic, tend to desensitize a person. We saw that when HBO popped up on cable TV years ago, showing previously censored movies. After that, the rating system came out to help parents judge what they wanted their kids to see.

      Monkey see. Monkey do.

    • $1324846

      “No true Scotsman would be affected by [arts and interactive design]!” Bullshit

  • JD

    Of course it’s the “violent” video games and the internet again. My guess? If you have kept up with the (helicopter) parenting trends starting in the 90’s up until now especially in the US (it keeps getting worse), you’d have to admit that it at least plays some part in this trend. It seems to be normal for kids to NOT have to take responsibility. Believe me, I have a friend who is a teacher and SHE frequently gets blamed for lazy kids bad grades when it’s clear that they simply didn’t study. It’s the “my baby can do no wrong” attitude. It’s “normal” for those people to spend a grand on Christmas present for a kid- and we’re in recession. You “have” to take your kids to Disney because if you don’t- well, kids apparently have a god given right to go there at least once. If the majority of those college kids came from homes like that, which is likely since they are mostly upper and middle class- then I’m not surprised. Internet or no internet, you simply cannot raise a compassionate human being that way. Though there is no denying that the media and consumerism ARE becoming worse.

    Whether I 100% trust this though, I don’t know. I know plenty of people who THINK they care about others but don’t see them showing it. At all. People were certainly different back in the day, they most likely did interact more in person, but where they truly that much better? I’m just not sure. There were plenty of crooks in the 80’s, too. I pretty much think that people were always mean. Just look at the very distant past and how people treated each other- human scarifies, slavery etc.

  • Derp Johnson

    Violent video games? I know what else just took a nosedive, Konrath’s credibility.

  • Koda Curo

    I wont lash out at anyone accusing games of having a part in it. I love games as much as anyone brought up with them, but thats no reason to not even consider that they might. I believe the source though is “social” sites, they are just a stage to talk about yourself in front of people. People are also calling less and less, its text. Everyone is getting increasingly bad at interacting with people face to face, or on any level that involves emotion. This is killing our ability to empathize.

    Not all hope is lost though boys and girls! Just make it a little project of yours to practice empathy daily. Empathy is always come rather naturally to me. Iv only had to practice it with people i usually would’nt socialize with. It will do wonders for your happiness, you feel love for everyone.

  • J_Doe5686

    Maybe people are spending more time online and playing video games because they realized that other people don’t care about them.

  • chairde

    It is good to be selfish in some ways. For example why should you risk your life to save someone you don’t know? You should be concerned about your family and how they would suffer if you died trying to save a stranger. There is no sense in trying to stop a robbery either. That is why we pay taxes to hire police. The same goes for countries also. Why should we get involved in the affairs of other countries. We are not the policemen of the world. The world is filled with self anointed protectors who do more harm than good. Does Zimmerman ring a bell?

  • This is my thought, it will offend some people, but oh well. People aren’t into family planning like they used to be. In the U.S., 49% of pregnancies are unplanned. When you have more unplanned pregnancies, you will have more “parents” who will not be able to devote the time and effort to raise responsible, compassionate people because these children were born on a whim. People are letting iPhones, iPads, laptops and TV raise their kids these days. If people took the time to think what all parenting entails, they would plan their pregnancies a lot better. This way, you will have an upcoming generation of well-rounded, empathetic, compassionate people. This has ZERO to with video games. Quit using that as a scapegoat.

  • Richard Barcelona

    Agreed. I noticed a big change around the mid 80’s, as folks started becoming more openly selfish and greedy. By then the Yuppies had appeared with their ‘I-got-mine’ attitude and during one of the biggest fuel crisis’s ever, started buying BMWs and SUV’s, which were not fuel efficient. Then, with the new technology which eliminated having to have a stock broker, they started investing in oil for the huge profits, which kept the prices high and everyone else suffered.
    Shortly after came the house flippers, people who made money off homes that others lost, tossed in a few bucks and flipped them for a good profit. They didn’t care that usually, in low income neighborhoods, doing this raised the property taxes for everyone around.
    By then infomercials appeared, clogging up the TV and it became a celebration of lying to get your krappy products sold. They even did a show on the Pitchmen, whose sole goal in life was to make you want garbage products. It was like they were heroes for making money by exaggerating the benefits of a product. (A polite way to say ’lying’.)
    Disclaimers, required by law, were discovered by some bright boy to not necessarily be legible, nor real readable. So out pops the disclaimers written in small, light colored letters against a light background that you couldn’t read if you used a magnifying glass.
    The fault of the technology?
    Well, yes. Suddenly, everyone is being bombarded by information from all sides and the Lunatic Fringe has their say. Early on in the Internet, people posted websites showing you how to make explosives from household chemicals and do-it-yourself pipe bombs. You just KNEW some 12 or 13 year old kid was going to make some just for the heck of it.
    When folks complained, the website owners trotted out the Bill of Rights and defended their RIGHT to spread the word on how to easily kill or injure someone.
    Suddenly, you couldn’t move without instant news flooding your awareness. Cell phones tapped into the Internet. You got the latest information on murders and nutcase slaughters from all over the globe. Kids discovered they could write viruses and did, just because they could, and started screwing up the systems of hundreds of strangers.
    Then others posted instructions on how to write viruses and how to crack into systems and how to cover your tracks. People found it real easy to ridicule someone from miles away, being safely out of reach to receive a punch in the nose. Turns out, a whole lot of laws for bad behavior had not been written or even thought of and folks just piled on the abuse.
    Like, land lords wired their apartments to spy on tenants and when caught, there were no laws making it illegal. After all, they owned the property. New laws had to be cut.
    We have all of this incredibly wonderful technology not even dreamed of in the 60’s — and we use it to screw each other over.

  • LukeLamMan

    “drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000.” This was right around the end of a market crash. Students in 2009, well, weren’t into the whole ‘concern for others’.” This is also right around the end of a market crash.

  • Jake

    violent videogames are not a cause but an excuse. I am one of the most empathedic people I know and love me my

    COD

  • PalestinianCitizen

    Ignorance & wars play a huge role.

  • Paul

    Maybe its because we care more about animals now, I feel more for most animals than I do humans….

    • $1324846

      Treating people like animals is a big part of racism/etc, I’d say that increases empathy.