Emphasize Empathy

Empathy in students entering college has declined a jaw-dropping 40% Since 2000! Think about that a minute… This finding from a study of empathy in over 14,000 college students, by University of Michigan researchers, caused quite a stir when it was presented to the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science and reported in Psychology today. The study showed that students starting college after 2000, have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them.

And it’s happening at every level. New research into Bullying from the University of Kansas showed that measures of cognitive empathy in students transitioning to middle school also show evidence of significant decline. Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to take another person’s perspective. Remarkably, empathy declined whether the students had displayed bullying behaviors or had been the victims of it.

Even a quick review of the literature will turn up multiple studies that show the decline of empathy across different demographic groups. In our culture as a whole, empathy has declined 48% in the 30 years between 1979 and 2009.

Empathy Data

These are not isolated studies. Not only is Empathy dramatically declining in our culture, but the rate of the decline is actually accelerating in young people. But don’t take my word. Google empathy for yourself. You’ll also learn that there are things we can do about it.

Research into declining empathy done by psychologist, Jean Twenge, has led her to conclude that we are experiencing what she has called a, “Narcissism Epidemic”. Her research found increasing numbers of students exhibiting personality traits leading to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, an extreme condition that arises when people are so self-absorbed that other people are seen only as objects to reflect their glory.

Want to test your empathy level against today’s college students? You can do so by taking the Empathy Survey at this link:


I increasingly find that the teachers and school leaders with whom I work instantly recognize the reality of this trend. They see it first-hand every day. One of the easiest ways for me to get a group of heads nodding affirmatively is to say… today’s young people are “wired differently”. So, dear reader, I want to ask you a few essential questions:

  1. What happens to a culture when Empathy declines?
  2. What changes in a culture as we lose our ability to empathize with each other?
  3. What will this decline mean for our schools, our teachers, and students?

I will be exploring answers to these questions and offering brain-based strategies for building empathy in future Blog Posts on this site and in a new book, “Closing the Circle of A’o”.


*Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis by Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, Courtney Hsing, Personality and Social Psychology Review, August, 2010

*Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students Since 2000, Maia Szalavitz, Psychology Today, May 2010

*The Decline in Cognitive Empathy Among Middle School Students, Aaron Bolton, Shandra Forrest-Bank, Kimberly Bender, Jeff Jenson, University of Kansas, October, 2016


About Jim Warford

Jim Warford is the author of, The Chemistry of Culture: Strategies You Can Use to Create a Culture of Learning. For 15 years Jim Warford was Senior Advisor and Keynote Speaker for the International Center for Leadership in Education. Jim is an author, speaker, Leadership and Instructional Coach. He was named in March 2003 as Florida’s first Chancellor of K12 Public Schools. He stepped down in September, 2005 to become Executive Director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, representing over 10,000 Florida school leaders. As a Senior Advisor for the International Center for Leadership in Education, he works with states, districts and schools to provide coaching and executive training and support to school leaders and their staffs. As Florida’s Chancellor, he led the creation and state-wide implementation of Florida’s Continuous Improvement Model, FCIM, which resulted in that state’s dramatic gains in student achievement and an 80% reduction in the number low-performing schools. FCIM remains Florida’s required intervention for all low-performing schools. As Superintendent of the Marion County, Florida Public Schools, he first implemented the Continuous Improvement Model district-wide. As a result, school grades went from three “F”, eight “D” and only one “A” school in 1999 to twenty “A”, 16 “B” and no “F” schools in 2003. Under his leadership the high school dropout rate was cut in half. He taught applied technology courses at the high school level for 17 years and created a Computer Graphics/Video Production program that won many national and state awards. He was named Vanguard High School Teacher of the Year three separate times.
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