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The End of Empathy

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A University of Michigan Study of nearly 14,000 college students has found that they have less empathy than college students did during the 1980s or 1990s. In fact, today’s college students scored about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts did 20 or 30 years ago.

Empathy is one of the most valuable psychological resources we have. It allows us to resonate with and respond to the suffering of others. It also allows us to care deeply about the fates of those we love, including our spouses and children. When empathy is destroyed, people are free (in a terrible way) not only to ignore the needs of others, but to perpetrate emotional or physical violence upon them.

Can we really be surprised that empathy is under siege? We’ve all heard about young people posting videos of themselves beating up other young people on YouTube. We’ve been aware that a large percentage of teens routinely “hook up” sexually with multiple partners without any emotional connection at all. We know that we train our children to expect to all be winners — rather than to allow them to feel envious of those who have triumphed or feel badly for those who have performed less well. We know that many of our children are showing they can’t tell reality from fantasy when they say they “care” about their fake penguin pets on Clubpenguin.com.

We’ve witnessed young people flocking to recreational drugs that deaden their emotions and, thereby, deaden their emotional connections with others. We’ve watched psychiatry itself abandon its roots in empathy in favor of an overzealous commitment to the exclusive use of medicines.

I have been sounding the alarm about this psychological epidemic for a long time. Years ago, I began to notice that young people I treated often seemed to be living at a distance from reality — as though their lives were “made up.” Having fashioned synthetic, false, “cool” Facebook versions of their life stories and personas, their real failing grades didn’t matter, their really dismal employment prospects didn’t seem to register with them and their broken relationships gave them no pause.

It makes sense that those who have created “masks” or “false identities” with which to interact with the world wouldn’t be moved by the pain of others they consider mere actors on the World Wide Web stage. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to leave a theater and assert that you’re going to try to help one of the fictional characters who appeared in the film. Because, you see, that person isn’t real. And I fear that many of today’s college students feel the same lack of connectedness all the time, not just in theaters — as though they are floating through a world populated by people playing people, wherein nothing is real and all tears are “put on.”

We must begin to confront this problem, or it will literally erode everything we truly care about: family, friendship, our very future.

When you can’t find your true self nor resonate with the feelings of others, you are a very dangerous person. A generation of such people taking leadership positions would be a calamity.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.