Are you often quite touched by things you see happen? Do you try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before you make a decision? When you see people being taken advantage of, do you feel protective of them?
If you are a college student or recent graduate, you are more likely to answer “no” to the above questions, which are excerpts from a University of Michigan test  designed to measure the presence of empathy in people of different ages. What they found was disconcerting: College students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those who graduated two or three decades ago.
Capital University may have demonstrated perfect timing, then, in launching its Empathy Experiment . It’s a year-long project spearheaded by President Denvy Bowman, in which he’ll work closely with six students to attempt to determine whether empathy can be taught and, if so, whether that empathy affects broader social change.
The general consensus among empathy scholars is that the answer is yes and yes – but only under specific circumstances.
For instance, it is unrealistic to expect students to become more empathetic if they aren’t actually committed to the idea. In other words, they have to have the desire to change, said Sara H. Konrath, the adjunct assistant professor of psychology who led the Michigan study on college students’ empathy. “It’s probably possible in the context of what they’re doing,” she said. “If people are willing to do that and to try, then I think there are ways to change empathy.”
The details of the project are largely under wraps – to protect the “intensity and authenticity” of the student experience, Bowman says – so students don’t get a lot to go off of when deciding whether to apply. What they do know: they will be immersed in and learn about one social issue through “different experiences designed by community partners” over a six-week period. The time commitment is a few hours a week and the experiment will conclude in late spring with an event on Capital’s main campus. Students will meet with Bowman throughout.
People at Capital aren’t the only ones excited about the project. Also intrigued is Mary Gordon, founder of the Roots of Empathy classroom program that works to develop empathy in children (and their parents). As she puts it, “empathy cannot be taught, but it can be caught.” The key to developing empathy, she says, is for people to witness others engaging in empathetic behavior. (Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
“This idea of teaching empathy – it’s just not doable in the traditional way,” Gordon said. “The word I loved about this university president’s approach was that he was ‘immersing’ them in empathy. That’s very different from instruction. That’s very different from 250 university students sitting in desks while someone pontificates and lectures up in the front of the lecture hall.”
People are most likely to develop empathy as children, before they have the chance to form notions about the world as a good or bad place. If parents are abusive or neglectful, it can have a lifelong impact on their self-worth and ability – or lack thereof – to empathize. The idea is that instilling values of understanding and perspective-taking in children will then carry on through parenting from generation to generation.
But just because children develop empathy more easily doesn’t mean adults – or college students – are incapable of it. Quite the opposite, says clinical psychologist Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, whose new book The Curse of the Capable describes how people are so focused on achievements like career goals and material items that they sacrifice relationships and healthy lifestyles.
“You absolutely can teach empathy – there’s no question about that,” said Ciaramicoli, who has written and counseled extensively on the topic. But in today’s fast-paced and technology-driven culture, people’s self-absorption leads to more narcissism – and, consequently, less empathy. “I think we have become a society where we rate status over relationships. We relate image over character and when you do that, you place much less emphasis on the skill or the ability of empathy.”
Empathy is so strongly believed to be a promoter of civility and understanding that the European Union is funding a three-year project to build empathy in Irish children, in hopes of a more stable future between Northern and Southern Ireland. To speak with Inside Higher Ed about the value of empathy, Gordon telephoned from Dublin, where she was working on the project and preparing to lecture at Trinity College.
“The educated young people are the people who are going to be changing policies in the future,” Gordon said. “We better be sure that they’re empathetic.”
That will certainly be on the mind of Bowman, the Capital president, when he selects the six student participants next month. As of the application deadline Friday, 164 students had either applied or been nominated for the Empathy Experiment (about 3,600 total attend Capital). The 28 students who were nominated have this week to decide whether to apply.
Bowman's ultimate goal for the project is to empower and motivate his students to effect social change through empathy. Ideally, these students would inspire their friends to empathize, those people would inspire their friends, and so on. The idea, birthed through Bowman's conversations with community members inquiring about the next generation of leaders, is pertinent to everyone, he says.
“My hope is to speed up that brighter future that I’m sure lies out there, and which everyone I know would like to see as quickly as possible,” Bowman said. “Perhaps beyond all of this, we hope that this is a continuing dialogue as broadly as possible, which is the kind of dialogue that enhances rather than impairs understanding.”