Millennial Students Show a Decline in Empathy for Others

Dr. Sara Konrath, of the University of Michigan, presented a meta analysis of recent studies of empathetic concern, at the American Association of Psychological Sciences this past weekend. What she found was concerning.  American university students are showing a distinct decline in empathy for others.  The decline is most pronounced since 2000. 

Why is this decline in empathy happening? I don’t know, but my hypothesis is that in our search for our authentic self, and the resulting belief in the importance of our own feelings, we have become less empathetic to the feelings of others. We are now so self-involved that we understand the needs of others less.  I see evidence of this in the classrooms, as students have more and more difficulty doing group work. 

Why is this a problem? Empathy is one of the five key elements of emotional intelligence (EI).  According to Daniel Goleman, a leading EI researcher, EI is a better predictor of leadership effectiveness and business success than cognitive intelligence.  The farther you are up the organizational ladder, the more important EI becomes.   And, 71% of employers want graduates to have better teamwork skills, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, in a 2009 study.

There is much debate as to whether it is possible to improve our emotional competencies. However, recent research supports the idea that many emotional skills (as compared to personality traits) may be learned. A series of studies showed that graduate management education can increase emotional intelligence skills and that these skills can be maintained for up to seven years. However, difficult and challenging organizational situations may erode these skills.[1]

Another study of fully employed undergraduate business students showed that exposure to a 12-week emotional intelligence program significantly increased emotional intelligence among those who participated, while there was no difference in a control group whose members were not exposed to the program.[2] The program used a number of elements such as self-assessments, self-development plans, coaching, role-playing, interviews of others, critiques, readings, journaling and reflection.

So my job gets more difficult.  Now I have to teach not only business concepts, I have to teach students emotional skills, including empathy. Perhaps we need to start the process of teaching emotional skills, especially empathy and social skills much earlier. And maybe we need to think about the idea of authenticity differently. 

[1] Richard Boyatzis and Argun Saatcioglu, “A 20-Year View of Trying to Develop Emotional, Social and Cognitive Intelligence Competencies in Graduate Management Education,” The Journal of Management Development, 27:1, 2008, p. 93.

[2] Kevin Groves, Mary Pat McEnrue and Winny Shen, “Developing and Measuring the Emotional Intelligence of Leaders,” The Journal of Management Development, 27:2, 2008, p. 233.

9 replies »

  1. Disturbing findings to say the least. I wonder how they compare with MBA students, especially those in their mid-30s. Maybe it was always true that undergraduates had lower degrees of empathy but that the world of business helped grow it in them? I say that holding the optimistic view that Gordon Gekko is an outlier.

  2. I have no Doctorates or a degree in phycology, but I feel I can field a proper answer to this question when concerning the lack of Emotional Intelligence. As pessimistic as this might sound it is our society at large. Look at the heroes of young people today the role-models. We live in a world where woman are referred to as bitches and hoes, and we approach sex casually without thinking of the repercussion of our actions. We live in a world where it is not only want more than all we will ever need it is very much encouraged by our corporate economy and the politicians who are very much in a bind because of their under the table deals.

    We are all the victims of social and economic convenience that creates sloth in the minds and body when over indulged. An age of the regress as some would say wouldn’t be too far from the truth as we ogle at the latest technological convenience to make east of our live. Even I my am guilty of this, no one is innocent as long as we tolerate unregulated greed and advancement of a society not yet mature enough to handle such power.

    Our greed and opportunistic tendencies are the very graves we dig for ourselves as we avoid looking in the mirror for the source of our troubles. An once we learn to love ourselves then maybe just maybe we learn to learn to love each other.

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