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Empathy among young Americans on the rise

Lilly Family School of Philanthropy update to landmark 2011 study shows empathy has increased over time; is not a fixed trait

 A seminal study from 2011 led by Professor Sara Konrath, Ph.D., a social psychologist specializing in empathy and altruism at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, found that empathy among Americans had taken a nosedive, with U.S. college students in 2009 scoring 40% lower than students in the late-1970s. These early findings led to media headlines proclaiming “the end of empathy.”  The original study posited multiple theories – including changes in media and technology, changing parenting and family practices, and increasing expectations of success – as possible explanations for what appeared to be a general decline in American compassion and kindness.

Fast forward to 2024: An update to that original study finds that empathy is increasing among young Americans since 2008, almost rising to levels similar to the highs of the 1970s. Late Millennials and emerging Gen Zs are showing increases in empathy, as compared with earlier generations, countering negative stereotypes about today’s youth.

“With so many difficult issues facing our society, this is optimistic news,” Konrath said. “Decades of research shows that empathy helps to inspire giving and helping. If empathy is increasing over time, then we should expect to see increasing kind behaviors in young people as well.”

The updated study also underscores that empathy is not predetermined; it is a fluid trait that can grow or shrink, depending on one’s experiences, a phenomenon Konrath pointed out in the original study.

In the new study, Konrath and her colleagues* examined trends in empathy across four decades using three different samples, including two nationally-representative ones, and found broadly consistent patterns.

Key findings:

  • Changes in empathy over time in young Americans move in cycles and can go up and down. Most pertinently, both perspective taking (cognitive empathy) and empathic concern (emotional empathy) increased between 2008 and 2018, contradicting complaints that today’s youth lack empathy, and painting a more optimistic picture of late Millennials and Gen Z young adults.
  • Economic variables don’t play a major role in empathy changes in U.S. youth—either to promote or impair empathy. Although the new studies show a sudden change around 2008—the beginning of the Great Recession—the authors were able to rule out economic variables (like unemployment levels) as a potential cause for this dramatic shift.
  • Changing interpersonal dynamics might play a larger role in these empathy fluctuations. Empathy was higher during times of higher loneliness. Konrath notes that when young people see loneliness and other difficulties around them, they may reach out with care and empathy. It’s also possible that their own experiences of loneliness may increase their hunger for social connection.
 *Co-authors of the updated study are:
Mark Davis, emeritus at Eckerd College
Fritz Breithaupt, at Indiana University Bloomington

About the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University Indianapolis is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its undergraduate, graduate, certificate and professional development programs, its research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on X (formerly known as Twitter),LinkedIn, or Instagram and “Like” us on Facebook.