Science Blog Questions
Last updated on February 06, 2011 at 02:11 PM

Question #4: 

Question. Has the empathy for others by young adults changed over the last few decades?


Introduction. Empathy is the “mental” process whereby someone is able to gather information about another’s emotional situation or status. As humans, we often state this when we respond by saying, “I feel for her.” It can also be observed when you watch a film that shows people going up and down a roller coaster and you “feel” the sinking of your stomach as if you, too, were engaged in this thrill ride. This mental picture and subsequent feeling is initially directed by specialized neurons called “mirror neurons.1” Because we evolved as social organisms, humans -more than any other organism- have a greater tendency toward empathy, but it seems that this tendency must be positively reinforced by proper environmental situations that allow this to become a cognitive pleasurable feeling whereby we “feel” close to others in the group or community.

                Sympathy differs from empathy in that it a proactive response that results from this “feeling.” It occurs when such a feeling drives one to improve the situation of the person that evoked or caused the empathetic feeling. For example, in the case of an accident a person’s distress due to resultant injuries might promote one to come to their emotional and physiological aid. Thus, sympathy has two components: 1. a heightened awareness of feelings of the injured person, and 2. an urge to take actions to alleviate that person’s distress. Most people have far more empathy than sympathy, but a high sense of empathy is necessary to promote sympathetic actions. Does our empathy level change with age or are we born to be empathetic?

Evidence. There are several methods to measure a person’s empathy. The most popular and longest used procedure is called the “Interpretational Reactivity Index”, a well-known psychological questionnaire that taps empathy by asking responders whether they agree to certain statements. One such statement is, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”  There is a large difference in how empathetic various people consider themselves to be. Since the creation of this test over three decades ago, tens of thousands of college and university students have filled out this questionnaire. Konrath and her colleagues (2010) took advantage of all this data and collated and analyzed the results of empathy scores for nearly 14,000 students over a 30 year period. The results from this meta-analysis revealed a surprising trend: nearly 75% of students today rate themselves as less empathetic than the average student of 30 years ago.

A Yale (2007) study found that six-month-old infants demonstrated a strong affinity for empathetic behavior or sympathy.  Empathetic behavior is not confined to human toddlers and has been observed in many primates and other animals (de Waal, 2009). The presence of mirror neurons and the associated mimicking response seem to be essential for the empathetic response. One mimic response that is observed soon after birth is yawning, whereby if one baby exhibits sleepy facial contortions; all others that observe this facial expression will yawn. It has recently been shown that autistic babies and infants lack this response. Thus, autistic infants lack mimicking responses and also lack empathetic responses as toddlers. Clearly most human children are “born” with empathetic tendencies and these tendencies require functional mirror neurons, but the social environment they develop within may later suppress these innate social tendencies. So, why the recent decline in empathetic scores among college students over the last 30 years?

Implications and Interpretations. Konrath and others conclude that even if a trait is hardwired genetically, social context can exert a profound effect by altering very basic emotional responses. They speculate that a number of social changes within America during the past 30 years have taken a toll on people’s attitudes toward others. Much of our technology (cell-phones, the internet, etc) tends to promote social isolation and more narcissistic attitudes. The time devoted to these technological activities is at the cost to time devoted to personal (face-to-face) social interactions. In addition, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. The number of adults that read for pleasure has sunk beneath 50% for the first time in decades. And recent studies indicate that reading may be linked to empathy. Studies done at the York University in Toronto (2010) demonstrated that the number of stories read by preschoolers predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. In addition, this York group has shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathetic. This is thought to be due to the fact that reading requires proactive empathetic projection by the reader in order to understand the characters being developed within the story.


1. Gallese, V. (2005). “Being like me”: Self-other identity, mirror neurons, and empathy. In Perspectives on Imitation, S. Hurley and N. Chater (Eds.) pp. 101-118.

2. de Waal, Frans. (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Harmony Books. New York, New York. 291 pp.

3. Konrath, S., Obrien, E.O., and C. Hsing. (2010). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Review. Online 5 August 2010.

4. Hamlin, J.K., Wynn, K., and P. Bloom. (2007). Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants. Nature 450: 557-559.


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