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The End of Empathy?

Empathy is declining, but is it dead?

Recently Fox News covered our study on declining empathy in American college students with this alarming title: "The End of Empathy."

Is this true? Are we now living in a society entirely devoid of the basic glue of human connection and interaction?

In order to form an educated opinion, you'll need some background about the study. To summarize briefly, we collected empathy scores from 72 academic sources from 1979 to 2009. In all of these sources, empathy was measured using a standard scale called the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. People who score high on this "empathy test" give freely of their time and money and frequently help others in need. You can try the test and see how you score compared to the 13,737 students in our sample by clicking here. We ran a statistical analysis to see whether there were changes over time in empathy and found that there had been overall declines, especially since the year 2000.

I never imagined that we would end up being able to share good news about empathy when we presented our research at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in May.

The good news is that empathy is not "destroyed" or "under siege," as the author of the Fox News post suggests. Instead, empathy may be sick. Not "you have 6 months to live" sick, more like "you need to spend a few days in bed" sick. In other words, although there has been a decline in empathy, there are a few key things to consider about the data before declaring a state of emergency on the moral health of the nation.

Why this is not a total crisis:

1. Empathy is measured on a 1 to 5 scale, with higher numbers meaning that people are high in empathy. The good news is that despite the declines in empathy, the average empathy score in 2009 is still just above the midpoint of the scale (i.e. just above 3). So, there is no need to plan empathy's funeral quite yet.

2. On that note, there are a wide variety of empathy scores represented within the college student annual average. About half of these scores are higher than the average, and about half of them are lower than the average. In order words, just because empathy is declining on average, does not mean that each individual is low in empathy. To accuse an entire generation of low empathy is not very kind, nor is it accurate.

3. American college students are not the most prototypical Americans. They are richer, whiter, more female, and in our sample at least, about 20 years old on average. So as long as you can avoid college towns, you should be fine. And until future research proves otherwise, I wouldn't suggest joining the empathy militia.

4. Violent criminal acts such as murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have all shown steady, marked decreases from the early 1990s to the late 2000s. This is the opposite of what we would expect if empathy was ‘under siege.'

Why I am still concerned:

1. This is not the first study to find trends related to declining empathy in American college students. In my dissertation work we also found increases in the personality trait narcissism over time. The fact that there has been other research with similar trends is notable.

2. It's true that the average empathy score still hovers above the midpoint of the scale, but empathy is still declining substantially, and at a faster rate in more recent years. If recent trends continue, this could eventually translate into broader societal problems. I'm most concerned that current declines in empathy could lead to negative reciprocal spirals as people feed off of each other's low empathy.

3. Right now our evidence is limited to American college students, but future work will look at broader trends in narcissism and empathy in American society at large. We're also interested in cross-cultural changes. Stay tuned...

4. Although violent crime in general has declined, certain types of violent crimes have actually risen over time: i) acts of violence against the homeless have shown dramatic increases, especially over the past ten years, and were recently estimated to be at an all time high; ii) hate crimes against Hispanics and perceived immigrants, as well as against lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender individuals are all significantly increasing; and iii) hit-and-run car accidents have increased by about 20% since 1998. Each of these specific types of crime target stigmatized, marginalized, or otherwise defenseless groups.

What do you think?

Is the decline in empathy we recently found something to worry about it? Have you noticed this in your life? Why do think empathy has declined in the past 30 years?