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The “Me Generation” on Steroids: College Students are less Empathetic

Are we becoming a nation of selfish pigs?

Are we becoming the "me generation" on steroids? You may have heard about the release of a University of Michigan study that got a great deal of press last week examining empathy scores among 14,000 college students during the past three decades. The researchers found that there has been a 40 percent decrease in empathy since 1979. Wow! Are we becoming a nation of selfish narcissists? Sadly, maybe so.

These findings are alarming for sure but are not surprising. We do seem to be living in a more and more selfish culture and who are the role models that young people have to aspire to? It seems like most people would rather model their lives to be more like Donald Trump than Mother Teresa.

Here at Santa Clara University, I am happy to report that we are bucking the trend. As a Catholic and Jesuit university that is focused on ethics and social justice issues, we have measured scores on compassion and empathy over the years and have found significant increases (and not decreases) in the past decade or so that cuts across the campus student communities.

What are we doing differently than most other colleges in the country? I think it has to do with an emphasis on social justice in and outside of the classroom as well as a culture that highlights the needs of the poor, marginalized, and those in greatest need. We have more students going on alternative spring breaks to third world and poor domestic communities than the more typical college spring break of debauchery in a sunny, warm, and alcohol infused environment. In fact, in one recent study [Plante, T. G., Lackey, K., & Hwang, J. (2009). The impact of immersion trips on development of compassion among college students, Journal of Experiential Education, 32, 28-43], we found that students returned from these alternative breaks scoring higher on compassion and empathy than a comparison group who didn't attend. Additionally, the alternative vacation students scored lower on stress too.

If we want to avoid living in a culture of "selfish pigs" we need to be countercultural by highlighting the needs of others and encourage students to spend more time with those in need rather than watching and perhaps emulating those with plenty. We need a culture that highlights and reinforces helping others, empathy, and making the world a better place for all. Modeling is important too. We need to have multiple positive role models in media and in the daily lives of students to emulate.

Doing the right thing means that we have to remind ourselves that it really isn't about us as individuals. We are one of over 6 billion people in the world and over 300 million people in America. While we might like the world to revolve around us and our needs, it doesn't, it shouldn't, and it won't. Perhaps we should get used to it. Learning this lesson early in life while in colllege or hopefully earlier is much better than learning this later.

For details about the Michigan study see…