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The Death of Empathy

POSTED: June 02, 2010, 12:00 am

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In a study of 14,000 college students over 30 years, University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath found that today's students are much less empathetic than students were back in the 70s. Today, fewer students try to walk in another human being's shoes or say they have concerned feelings for people less fortunate than they are. According to Konrath, the biggest drop in empathy came in 2000, ten years ago, but empathy has continued to decline. She and her colleague say that constant exposure to media may be the reason young people are less empathetic than they used to be.

The article about empathy jumped out at me, I suppose, because I deal daily with students and am always interested in studies that fail to take things like racial differences into account. Do African American students lack empathy as much as their white counterparts do? I'd have to say that these students, often called "millennial" are a new breed. Some of them have a sense of entitlement that is amazing. At the same time, when I look at the Bennett campus and the many things that students have done for others this semester (including fundraisers for Haiti, mentoring with younger students, and hundreds of hours of community service) I'd have to meditate on the ways that empathy is balanced with entitlement. The two emotions aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I wonder what the study would have shown if it looked at adults. Frankly, I think our nation, and the world, are losing empathy. How do any of us manage to live with a poverty rate that is high and rising? With an unemployment rate that has stuck at least one in four African Americans? With people juggling underwater mortgages? We are barraged with people who have all kinds of problems, and often think that we must respond. How to respond, though? And how not to? What role does empathy play?

“Frankly, I think our nation, and the world, are losing empathy. How do any of us manage to live with a poverty rate that is high and rising? With an unemployment rate that has stuck at least one in four African Americans?”

If Professor Konrath could survey adults, then, would they look so different from college students? What if she were able to survey, say, the United States Congress. While many seem to have conscience and empathy, I am struck by the number who are able to do nothing in the face of crushing social and economic problems. Perhaps they have selective empathy, empathy, for example, for bankers and Wall Street, but much less empathy for the people battered by these institutions. After massive bailouts of banking and other industries, Congress just passed an extremely modest piece of employment legislation. Why so modest? All of a sudden, there are members of Congress who are paying attention to balanced budgets and insisting on "pay as you go" new legislation. Nobody was talking about "pay go" when banks were getting bailed out. Empathy?

What does a dearth of empathy mean in the long run? Fewer of us, it appears, will be connected to and concerned about others. An earthquake in Haiti will raise eyebrows, not contributions, and folks will ask, constantly, what about me! Our ability to pass social legislation will be eroded. Poverty will cease to be a concern. People will walk by homeless or hungry people without stopping to chat, to offer a coin or concern. The long run? How about right now.

The unfortunate fact is that people are both more and less connected to each other than ever. The media and technology connect us more - we are twitted, facebooked, and myspaced up to our earlobes. We can find out what the front of a house looks like halfway around the world thanks to google. We can communicate with people all over the globe for a pittance via email or skype or some other such connection. At the same time the wealth of these connections may lead to our disconnection. You don't have to be over 50 to remember the joys of waiting for a handwritten note or letter. Now, communication is so easy that it maybe doesn't happen.

The University of Michigan study focuses on college students, but it seems to me that all of us could ask if we are less empathetic than we used to be. When empathy and compassion disappear, so does social well-being. But we don't need a study to figure that out.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.

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