Study: The Empathy Deficit—Young People Care Less

October 17, 2010; Source: Boston Globe | WE WANT YOUR OPINION ON THIS ONE! The question posed in this article in the Boston Globe is hardly trivial. Do young people care more or less since their social network connections have grown? Do today’s young people have an empathy deficit?

We covered this study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research last year in the newswire as well, with much of the same questions. The study again this year concluded that today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than college students were in 1979—even as their volunteerism and community service hours have increased. Their empathy declined the most in the last decade. How is that to be squared with the nonprofit sector’s recent years of intense solicitation of young people, with the expansion of programs for young people’s national service such as AmeriCorps and various AmeriCorps-related or -supported programs such as Teach for America, Public Allies, and City Year?

It might be that the Michigan researchers are simply wrong, their sample size is too small, or they’ve misinterpreted the data. Or it might be that the increase in young people’s volunteerism and community service of recent years is based more on resume burnishing than caring and commitment. As the Globe points out, the experts on the psychology of empathy don’t even agree on how to define it much less how to measure it.

Nonetheless, the Michigan research findings should provoke discussion in the nonprofit sector, raising questions about whether trends in the sector sector, such as the self-adulating social entrepreneurs, might be driven by as much narcissism as empathy, narcissism being one of the issues that the Globe article raises. Or whether in our highly connected Internet society, young people care about their fellow human beings in the abstract, but are short on empathy for real flesh-and-blood people.—Rick Cohen