University students post-2000 less empathetic than those studying in 80’s and 90’s

InclusIQ-iPad-intro-495x400Talking about tough topics is all the harder if we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of others. In sessions with our clients we often ask ‘How do you think your boss is feeling when you say that?’ or ‘What’s your employee thinking when you do that?’. It’s part of the reason the ‘empathy walkthrough’ in our sister company InclusIQ e-simulations is so popular. At InclusIQ, we focus on empathy because it helps people understand colleagues and clients better, reducing miscommunications and boosting morale.

It’s seems empathy is only going to get more important as it seems to be on the wane amongst millennial. New research from the University of Michigan found students attending university after 2000 are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and 1990s. After doing a meta-analysis, comparing 72 different studies of American university students conducted on 14,000 students between 1979-2009, there was a 40% drop in empathy scores. Sara Konrath, the lead researcher said they 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.” The research was then correlated with other studies seeing these changes in the American public over the same time period.

Konrath and co-researcher Edward O’Brien explained: ‘Many people see the current group of college students ? sometimes called ‘Generation Me’? as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history. It’s not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others’.

Why is empathy declining amongst millennials? Konrath and O’Brien make several suggestions and based on our work, we’d suggest two more.

1. Rise in violent video games usage: As Konrath and O’Brien explain: ‘Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much non work-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others’.

2. Social media usage: O’Brien explained: ‘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 behaviour that could carry over offline. Add in the hyper-competitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity “reality shows,” and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy’.

We see two more potential reasons:

3. The amount of university work that can be done remote to others. As David Toy, on our InclusIQ team explained: ‘To be successful at university, historically meant you had to get on with others. You developed social interactions. You dated, you worked with your professors, you needed the help of librarians – now all of this done online and at a distance. The rise of digital means you are no longer mastering non-digital interaction – the key skills for empathy’.

4. Ubiquity of online pornography: Never before has pornography been so widely available, shaping the attitudes and expectations of men and women. Sexual practices, such as homemade ’sex tapes’ and naked selfie shots that would have been rare in the past are now commonplace and even desirable. This has had unexpected consequences with the rise of ‘revenge porn’; – the posting of intimate pictures of past partners, usually women. This is so prevalent American legislators are having to consider how to combat this practice.  When sexual content becomes so commonplace, people become desensitised and eventually only the most explicit acts serve to stimulate. Educators are observing a drop in the social skills of students, particularly young men who are the main consumers of online porn. It leaves us with the bigger question – how much can you ever empathise with others if you see them as commodities? We would go further to suggest online porn cannot be positive for the way men and women relate to each other in the workplace either. How seriously can you ever take female colleagues if you routinely watch online porn where women are consistently degraded and made to take subservient roles?

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