60-Second Science

Self-Reported Empathy Dropped over Last 30 Years

Analysis of some 14,000 college student surveys over the last three decades finds that self-reported levels of empathy for others have decreased. Steve Mirsky reports

As you get jostled in the daily rough and tumble, does it feel like other people care less about how rough you have it and how much you’re getting tumbled? Well, your suspicion may have some data to back it up. Because according to an article in Scientific American Mind magazine, analysis of surveys of college kids reveals that self-reported empathy has been dropping for the last 30 years. And empathy really took a nosedive in the last 10 years. [Jamil Zaki, "What, Me Care?"]

Nearly 14,000 student questionnaires that were completed in the last three decades were used for the study. And 75 percent of those surveyed today rated themselves as being less empathic than what was the average score 30 years ago.

One possible explanation is social isolation—we tend to do more things on our own and engage in fewer group activities than we used to. Another possible cause is a decrease in reading fiction for pleasure. Studies have found that the number of stories preschoolers read correlates with their ability to understand other people’s emotional states. The good news is that if empathy can go down, it can also go back up. You feel me?

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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