Posted by: L. E. Barnes | June 3, 2010

Androids on the Loose?

In Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted for film under the title Bladerunner), rogue androids are weeded out by means of an empathy test. A set of instruments measures a person’s ability to feel empathy for other people or living things, and since androids are incapable of empathy, failing the test means that the test subject is not human. Unfortunately, the results of data collected on college students over a thirty-year period suggest that many of today’s college students would fail Dick’s fictional empathy test:

College students today are less likely to “get” the emotions of others than their counterparts 20 and 30 years ago, a new review study suggests.

Specifically, today’s students scored 40 percent lower on a measure of empathy than their elders did. …

Is “generation me” all about me?

Compared with college students of the late 1970s, current students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

“Many people see the current group of college students – sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ – as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry.

Konrath’s colleague graduate student Edward O’Brien added, “It’s not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others.”

What is the reason for this drop in empathy? Some believe the media are a big factor:

“Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information,” Konrath said. “In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

The rise in social media could also play a role.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” O’Brien said.

In fact, past research has suggested college students are addicted to social media.

Other possible causes include a society today that’s hypercompetitive and focused on success, as well as the fast-paced nature of today, in which people are less likely than in time periods past to slow down to really listen to others, O’Brien added.

“College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.


These findings bother me, but they don’t really surprise me. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I’ve had to deal with some extremely disrespectful college students. Some of the students I’ve had the misfortune of having in my classes literally behaved like spoiled children and had a ridiculously inflated opinion of themselves and the quality of their work. Conversations with other teachers, both at the college level and lower, have reaffirmed that a great deal of the young people today simply have no sense of common courtesy or respect. A friend of mine who teaches at a small school–a Catholic one to boot!–remarked to me that although most kids today have all the gadgets and other material amenities they could ever want or use, they’re still dissatisfied and bored. (I guess they’re learning that material things can’t bring fulfillment.)

Of course, I realize that adults in every generation probably complain that young people just don’t respect their elders as they should. Also, some studies indicate that there may not be such a dearth of empathy among the current crop of young adults after all. But my experiences, as well as those of others, sure seem to indicate that basic civility and empathy are on the decline in our society.

Or maybe it’s just that our young people are being replaced by androids…

Your thoughts?



  1. […] Androids on the Loose? […]

  2. I agree about the exposure to violence being a factor in the lack of empathy. I find that many students in public school are extremely cynical and rude at the 8th grade level. But another great factor is the extreme emphasis of “feeling good about yourself” and adults refusing to point out areas for improvement in the young. We are not raising a generation of Olympic Athletes in the game of life.

    • It’s probably become almost a cliche to say that violence in the media contribute to problems with our young people. But the evidence seems to bear it out nonetheless. My teacher friend was of the same opinion as you about the self-esteem emphasis as well. Doing so seems to just pump up their egos rather than teaching them important virtues such as humility and respect for others.

  3. Interesting points overall. But I think problems usually begin at home, and for this reason, I think the solution can also be found in the home. This wise quote from Mother Teresa came to mind:

    I think the world today is upside down. Everybody seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater development and greater riches and so on. There is much suffering because there is so very little love in homes and in family life. We have no time for our children, we have no time for each other; there is no time to enjoy each other. In the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.

    In my opinion, raising children through attachment parenting gives them the love and security they need to become other-centered because emphasis is placed on relationship.

    I know you had asked me the other week about attachment parenting. I haven’t had the time to answer because of all the end-of-the-schoolyear stuff that’s been going on. But I was able to answer your question about Eclectic Home Learning just recently, and I hope to be able to do the same on Attachment Parenting. =)

    • I agree it has to begin in the home. When I’ve had to deal with students who seem to be clueless about showing courtesy/respect, I can’t help but wonder about their home life. Did their parents simply fail to instill appropriate manners in them? Did they spoil their kids? Since I’m not a parent, I hesitate to criticize the parenting skills of those who are. But it makes me wonder….

      I’ll check out your blog to learn more about those things! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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