| Updated at: 1149 PST, Thursday, September 23, 2010|
WASHINGTON: Despite a study released this summer which showed empathy dropping among college students, Sacramento State students show mixed opinions on the topic.
The University of Michigan study found college students today are less empathetic than they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago. The study defined empathy as a student's ability to identify with someone else's feelings.
"It's like if someone's dog died, you would feel an emotional response similar to the person whose dog died," said University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath, who lead the study.
Konrath, along with researchers Edward O'Brien and Courtney Hsing, began the yearlong study last summer. Their findings were presented in May at the Association for Psychological Science conference in Boston.
The researchers looked at every known study over the past 30 years in which students were given the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index. The index asks participants to rate themselves on statements like "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective."
"On average, we are finding that empathy is lower now than in the past. But generalizations about everyone would be unfair," Konrath said. "My cautious interpretation is that maybe people are valuing empathy less."
Several Sac State students disagreed with the survey's results.
"We have a more individualistic culture than before, but that doesn't mean people lack empathy," said Zaki Syed, graduate sociology student.
Syed cited the homicide last October when a student in the American River Courtyard residence hall was beaten by his roommate wielding a baseball bat.
"Everyone was empathetic, and they were trying to help out the victim," Syed said.
Chelsey Kaiser, senior family and consumer sciences major, said she thinks most Sac State students have above-average empathy, although she thought social networking sites like Facebook could have a negative impact.
"It's easy to just look at what you want and ignore everything else," Kaiser said, referring to the social networking websites.
Kaiser said she checks her Facebook page about three times a day, though she prefers talking in person.
"It's more personable, easier, and you can interpret their body language," she said.
Konrath said it is important to avoid drawing unfair conclusions from the study.
"It's not like there's no empathy at all, it's just lower than it has been," she said.
The index used to rate empathy is measured on a scale of one to five. In 2000, the average empathy score was more than three. Now, it decreased to an even three, Konrath said.
"Three is in the middle. Three is critical. If people say two, that's indicating they don't have empathy. The trend could keep going down, or it could go up," Konrath said. "I think it's up to today's college students which way they want to go."
Sac State clinical psychologist Paul Turner, who has practiced psychology for 30 years, cautioned against taking the survey results too literally.
"There are no indicators built into the survey to verify what the person is saying. I could describe myself as the most soft-hearted man in the world, then go out and break someone's leg for lunch money," Turner said. "We're also left to think that a student today is automatically less empathetic than a student 30 years ago. That leaves out the individual that makes the difference."
But Turner does believe some technological luxuries distract from empathy.
"When I was walking across campus today almost every student I saw was either talking on the phone, texting or looking totally self-absorbed," Turner said. "It's hard to get emotion from a text or an e-mail. It's almost like you're interacting with an object rather than a human being."
The study did not look into the causes of decreased empathy, but Sac State students speculated on them.
Matthew Rowan, senior government major, said he spends so much time thinking about marketing himself to employers that there is little time for others' feelings.
"It's shameless what we have to do to compete in the job market," Rowan said.
Komal Chopra, graduate computer science student, agreed, saying students today do not value relationships as much.
"In the age of the Internet … it's easier to form relationships online," Chopra said. "In order to survive and earn money, no one can have that much time to think about other people's feelings."