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Today's College Students More Likely to Lack Empathy

'Generation Me' tends to be self-centered, competitive, U.S. research shows

FRIDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) -- A three-decade analysis of prior research reveals that American college students are not quite as empathetic as they used to be.

"We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000," co-author Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, said in a news release. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."

Konrath and her colleagues presented their findings this week in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

A total of 72 studies conducted between 1979 and 2009 were included in the current review.

The analysis indicated that relative to their late-1970s' counterparts, today's college students are less likely to make an effort to understand their friends' perspectives or to feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.

"Many people see the current group of college students -- sometimes called 'Generation Me' -- as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," observed Konrath, who is also affiliated with the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester.

"The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor," she said. "Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-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 my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others."

Exposure to an increasingly hypercompetitive social environment might also contribute towards the apparent trend, the authors noted, as could a shift towards maintaining friendships online through social media sites, given that the ability to "tune out" and not respond when conversing online could translate into a learned behavior that in turn gets expressed face-to-face.

More information

The University of California, San Francisco's Childcare Health Program explains how to nurture empathy.

-- Alan Mozes

SOURCE: Association for Psychological Science, news release, May 28, 2010

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