Empathy on the Decline

By Na'amah Razon, Jason Marsh | January 28, 2011 | 6 comments

Summaries of new research on the decline of empathy in America, the power of the mind to trump the senses, and yoga's ability to improve the quality of life of breast cancer patients.

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* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


Is Empathy on the Decline?

"Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis"

Konrath, S.H., O'Brien, E.H., Hsing, C. Personality and Social Psychology Review, August 2010, Advance online publication.

In his Tucson memorial speech, President Obama called on us to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” This study suggests young adults may have a lot of work to do: It finds that empathy is declining sharply among college students today. The authors examined the responses of nearly 14,000 students who had completed a questionnaire measuring different types of empathy. The results show that the average level of “empathic concern,” meaning people’s feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others, declined by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009; the average level of “perspective taking,” people’s tendencies to imagine others’ points of view, declined by 34 percent over the same period. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009.

While the study didn’t examine why empathy may be declining, the authors draw on prior research to speculate that culprits could include the corresponding rise in narcissism among young people, the growing prevalence of personal technology and media use in everyday life, shrinking family size (dealing with siblings may teach empathy), and stronger pressures on young people to succeed academically and professionally. —Jason Marsh

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We See What We Believe

"Believing Is Seeing: Using Mindlessness (Mindfully) to Improve Visual Acuity. "

Langer, E., et. al. Psychological Science. Vol. 21 (5), May 2010, 661-666.

Want to see better? The key may lie in your mind, not your eyes: This study suggests that psychological beliefs can improve vision. In a collaborative study between four universities, researchers found that participants’ mindsets could actually make them see better. For instance, after they were told that athletes see better than non-athletes, participants who did jumping jacks performed better on an eyesight test than people who did another activity. The authors conclude that their study supports “the ubiquitous nature of the ability to overcome physical limits with psychological means.” —Na’amah Razon

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Can Yoga Improve Quality of Life During Cancer Treatment?

"Effects of Yoga on the Quality of Life in Cancer Patients"

Ulger, Ozlem; Yağli, Naciye Vardar. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. Vol. 16(2), May 2010, 60-63.

How can levels of anxiety and stress be reduced in breast cancer patients? Yoga might be an answer. A group of Turkish researchers have demonstrated that providing women who are undergoing breast cancer treatment with yoga classes can improve their quality of life and reduce stress. Twenty women undergoing breast cancer treatment participated in the study, which provided participants with basic yoga skills and classes. Compared to their assessments of their lives before the classes, participants reported higher quality of life after the yoga training, as well as reduced levels of anxiety. —Na’amah Razon

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Thank you for highlighting this topic.  Empathy is one of the fundamental skills that people can use not only to make the lives of others better but also to feel better about themselves.  When we empathize with others we open the door to learning about other people’s experiences and outlooks and we enrich our own lives.  On a very basic level, it helps spread kindness.

Guy Farmer | 1:28 pm, February 1, 2011 | Link


I think the decrease in empathy has more to do with how overprotective we are of our kids these days.  To have empathy a person needs to have suffered themselves, or closely observed the suffering of others.  Kids today are protected from this by parents who monitor their every move, keep them busy with lessons rather than jobs which might expose them to working class people, and hole their families away in gated suburban communities which rarely see much real life difficulty.  The capacity for empathy is there, it’s just that our kids are being raised in their own little worlds which tend to exclude those who are less well off.

Wendy | 12:10 pm, February 2, 2011 | Link


I think Yoga can help with the reduction of stress in the cancer patients.  Which in turn I believe would help in faster recovery.  It is good to see yoga becoming more mainstream these days.  I believe stress to be some of the greatest causes in illness in today’s society.  We the human body is stressed, it fails to function properly.

Hardgainer | 9:46 pm, February 4, 2011 | Link


Thank you for highlighting this topic.

اصالة | 6:22 am, September 23, 2011 | Link


hey, good name for your website..is this your onilne diary of how you are doing certain things and how they have worked out for you ? Or is it more general and just offering advice to people on how to be successful. The first thing that people starting out can do is put up a website   doesn’t matter what it is or what it does, if you can put up a website you have surmounted many of the hurdles that the average wannabee fails at.

Sonam | 10:33 pm, March 21, 2012 | Link


Mike!I wondered where you had gone.I got to go to Maui back in spring of 86 with my folks and sister for about 10 days….it was a blast.  Went snorkeling off our back patio and saw many tropical fishe and an octopus and cobalt blue sea urchins…..never try to grab a cobalt blue sea urchin to maintain your position in the rolling waves.Welcome back,Troy

life insurance | 8:58 pm, April 19, 2012 | Link

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