Do College Students Lack Empathy?

Empathy is crucial to human understanding. It allows us to see another's perspective and reminds us of our common, shared experiences. Unfortunately, a recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review shows that since the early 1980s empathy scores have dropped a significant amount. The causes for this are varied, and educators are already thinking about how to address this critical issue in the classroom.

By Bobby Mann


The Importance of Empathy

While the low empathy scores published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review are troubling, they are not yet a reason for real concern. Empathy is not a fixed trait, rather, it is similar to a muscle that can grow or if not given enough care, can easily atrophy and wither away. Some people are prone to empathize with people unlike themselves, while for others, it is a skill that needs constant attention. When empathy is in full force, it can provide a person with insights into the human condition and erase 'perceived differences' such as class, race, sexual orientation and gender.

The Causes of the Lack of Empathy Among College Students

Many commentators have attempted to attribute the lack of empathy among college students to a manifestation of a particular political ideology. For example, the right claims that feminism, social liberalism and other forms of individualism have led to the current situation. Those on the left of the political spectrum argue that market fundamentalism, libertarian individualism and Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness' philosophy are to blame. While both political parties agree that an empathy issue exists, they remained split on the real reasons for its existence.

The truth may be found in how development into adulthood has changed since the 1980s. Many students now plan to attend graduate school and view their time as an undergraduate as an extra dose of adolescence. As a result, a period of several years takes place before a student hits the traditional makers of adulthood - marriage and having children. Additionally, the current social climate focuses on the individual. For example, television programming is dominated by narcissistic reality TV stars that believe the world revolves around them. Education has, in its own way, contributed to the problem as well, by focusing on self-esteem issues in early childhood instead of low empathy.

The Benefits of Empathy in the Classroom

Without addressing the issue of empathy at a younger age, or at any age, declining empathy scores are likely to remain unchanged. Some educators are trying to bring the issue of empathy into the classroom by involving students in various role-playing exercises that allow students to think about another person's perspective. They have proven to be quite effective. Furthermore, studies have shown that empathy can increase when students are exposed to role models who are highly empathetic. Think of Sean Penn and his efforts to help the citizens of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The current trend down in empathy scores can be turned around. However, it will take a concerted effort by teachers at all levels of education.

Interested in pursuing a career in which empathy is important to achieving success? Learn about various job opportunities in social work.

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