Teaching empathy to the ‘Me’ Generation

In hopes of Teaching Empathy to the ‘Me’ Generation, Capital University’s Empathy Experiment immerses students in the experiences of the working poor, reports Miller McCune Online. The Columbus, Ohio recruited six volunteers for a no-credit course.

 The eight-week program required, for example, that students undergo a temporary eviction, be processed and stay a night at a homeless shelter, and go a night without eating. “It was a good chance for students to, frankly, get out of their comfort zone,” (trustee Ronald) St. Pierre says. They were to move from sympathy to empathy.

College students are 40 percent less empathetic than students a generation ago, concludes  University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath.

Spending a day in a wheelchair may teach students something about the challenges of mobility for the disabled. I don’t think it’s that easy to simulate poverty.


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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d sure like to see Konrath’s work. Although, as an old foof, I enjoy dumping on younger generations, this one looks as if it will be hard to prove.
    I recall the Eighties were considered the Decade of Greed, although the only thing anybody could point to was leveraged buyouts which were so arcane that nobody understood anything about them except they were Very Bad.
    If the “work” defines lack of empathy as refusing to say that the Eighties were a Decade of Greed, or anything like that, anything remotely like that, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised.
    If some of the college students surveyed have direct experience with some of the supposedly poor gaming the system and doing quite nicely–easier as the assistance industry has millions of additional clients with minimal qualification testing with whom we may interact one way or another–their view might well be sour.

  2. This reminds me of Ruby Payne. College students who come from poor families tend to resent being depicted as kids who have been evicted, lived in homeless shelters, or who know where to find a bail-bondsman on short notice.

  3. “College students who come from poor families tend to resent being depicted as kids who have been evicted, lived in homeless shelters, or who know where to find a bail-bondsman on short notice.”

    Right. There are all different kinds of poor, and a slightly different flavor would be doubling up with relatives until they got on their feet. You could do a simulation for that, too, and it would be relevant to the experiences of more people.

    About the 40% reduced empathy–a lot more people are going to college today, from a greater variety of backgrounds, so today’s college students may just have less noblesse oblige.

  4. CarolineSF says:

    It was the generation that came of age in the ’70s that was known as the “Me Generation” — the parents or maybe even grandparents of today’s college students. Or maybe the older generation just gets to slap that label on the generation behind it in an ongoing pattern.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    40% less emphathetic means 40% more realistic.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Poverty is a situation, and a state of mind — it’s the shadowy gulf of uncertainty that lies across the next paycheck, the nagging sense that maybe you’ve already asked those you care for for too much help, that your relationships cannot take any further strain.

    It’s not a set of trappings that can be put on and taken off like little girls playing dress up.

    Misguided experiments like this can just as easily teach contempt as they can teach empathy.

    This is a silly, unserious idea put forth and executed by silly, unserious people.

  7. “Poverty is a situation, and a state of mind — it’s the shadowy gulf of uncertainty that lies across the next paycheck, the nagging sense that maybe you’ve already asked those you care for for too much help, that your relationships cannot take any further strain. It’s not a set of trappings that can be put on and taken off like little girls playing dress up.”

    Very good.

  8. I think there is value to taking upper-middle class kids out of the “bubble” that elites have created for themselves and their families. There really are “two Americas” and it was very eye-opening to me to spend 5 years as an Army wife. However, the experience actually made me more conservative and far less sympathetic to the idea that government should be the solution.

    My husband used to have to counsel his soldiers about personal finance. There were junior enlisted guys making peanuts and receiving all sorts of government assistance- food stamps, WIC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc. They would complain about not having enough money to buy diapers for their babies but at the same time they had plenty of cash for alcohol, cigarettes, cable/satellite, cell phones, designer clothes, and a nicer car than we drove.

  9. I’ve had some similar experiences to your husband’s, and I was reading about the empathy project and looking at the website, I couldn’t help but think of them.

    I used to work a a nurse’s aide(CNA), then later I worked in a program where I was supervising the clinical experiences of those going through the training. Being a CNA is a hard job, but it often paid much more than other jobs one could get with a similar level of experience. If you had worked in a place long enough as CNA you could usually get tuition assistance to go back to school for other health related careers.

    We would give people soap, deodorant, free training, bus passes, uniforms…but in the end some people still chose to not to follow through with the training to try to make a small level of improvement in their lives.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Two observations: That we think somebody is living a life so awful that he or she cannot fail to be motivated to change it is using our standards. “You think people LIKE being poor [implying you’re a big meanie]?” Maybe they can stand it better than the clown asking that dumb question.
    And, to spitball some numbers in the realm of unemployment: Let’s presume somebody is drawing $15k a year, or that equivalent monthly, while unemployed. He gets a $30k a year job. He’s now doing $30k worth of work for an increased income of $15k At the margins, and with even a lower increase, this may not be attractive to some of the folks. “You think people LIKE being poor?” I can just hear it.
    And for some of the folks on the economic bottom, making the emotional and personal changes necessary to become employable and employed is a big, big personal makeover.
    Had a social worker once tell me that people who wouldn’t get a job should be treated as disabled. Annoyed me, but the point was that they simply didn’t have whatever it took to go out and look. His point was to keep paying them to not work. My point is that hunger would get them moving. But that may not be in the direction of honest employment.

  11. What about, I don’t know, encouraging the kids to help out at a food bank. Or a soup kitchen. Or in programs that help at-risk kids. I know some of my misconceptions about what poverty was and who the poor were were changed by helping out at a food bank and helping a group that provides a free hot meal to anyone in need of one…

    A bad campout (which is what I see this empathy-lesson as) could go very bad, and, as someone else said, teach contempt rather than empathy.

    Also, if we’re waiting until someone’s 18 to try to make them empathetic? It’s probably too late. It’s the parents’ responsibility to help their kids learn empathy.

  12. Soapbox0916 says:


    I honestly think you need to talk with more social workers, because that is not a typical viewpoint. I work with a large number of social workers. I am in the Midwest, but that is not the common recommended advice from the nationals folks either. Times have also changed too.

    As a peon in local government, it is my job to work with agencies that work with the homeless and the poor, and all homeless programs locally require that clients work, the goal is paid work, but at the very least volunteer. Even those with severe disabilities are required to help out however they can. If they don’t work in some capacity, they don’t get aid. Even the night shelters requires clients do chores as part of sleeping there for the night.

    With food kitchens and food pantries, there are usually trade offs with either volunteering some hours, and/or working a life improvement plan. Pure faith based organizations may have less requirements, but anything that gets funding from HUD in any capacity, has to encourage clients to work on improving themselves, which usually means work. Disability vouchers are set up with the idea that clients work and contribute 30% of their salary to housing.

    The reality is the opposite for me, I really do find that most homeless and poor people do want to work, but they have felonies or other barriers. Felonies are the biggest problem. I work very closely with agencies that struggle to help people find jobs. They are quite a few people that no employer wants to hire.

    The other barrier is that if someone is sleeping in a different place from night to night, it is hard for them to keep a steady job, or they lose their ride to the workplace, there is no bus service on Sunday, or they have health issues, or family issues.

    It is keeping a steady enough schedule that becomes more of barrier than not wanting to work. It is honestly rare that I encounter people that really won’t work at all. The caveat is that people that truly don’t want to work would also know not to show up asking for aid from these programs.

    It may also be that they can’t handle a standard work environment. It may be they want to work more on their own terms, it used to be a lot easier to pick up day jobs and odd jobs. I actually am working on a local kind of entrepreneurship people, but this is not really a standard entrepreneurship, this is more like helping poor people be able to sustain themselves with self-employment. It makes sense for certain parts of the population to work for themselves.

    Sure there are plenty of lazy people out there, but they are not necessarily poor people. I have personally taken middle class teens deemed lazy by their parents on tour of homeless facilites and soup kitchens. It did seem to help them. I don’t feel like youth are any more clueless than anyone else from my experience overall.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I work for an insurance agency and some years back, it seemed we insured every fourth social worker in the tri-county area. Even a wrong number would, like as not, end up being a social worker. That’s what it seemed like, anyway. I discovered that if you get them before coffee or after wine, or they’re sure they’re not being quoted to the Powers, they get pretty annoyed with some of their clients.
    I’m sure lots of people would like to work, but the idea of actually doing it, getting up at the same time, going to the same place, interacting with colleagues with minimal friction, and taking instruction is different. That’s a personality thing and some people just can’t or won’t do it. If they can eat anyway, the incentive to make a change is reduced. Still, they may “want” to work, but actually doing what is real work in the real world is a different issue.
    For a broader view, see Marvin Olasky on the issue.
    Some years ago, a Detroit paper sent a reporter to talk to a welfare person who was being unfairly denied benefits. Turned out not to be the sob story they’d hoped. Person was supposed to meet with the case worker. Never showed. Made reappointments. Never showed. Had no reason not to. While the reporter was there, the phone rang and rang and rang. Reporter picked it up. Case worker wanting to talk to the person. Person wouldn’t take the phone. Couldn’t give a reason. If asked, I suppose, she’d have said of course she’d like to work. But she is too…something to even cooperate with getting free money.
    Lots of luck with self-employment. The government is full of people who get paid to see the entrepreneurs face insurmountable obstacles.

  14. Cranberry says:

    Inside the hall in Columbus, Ohio, a few hundred people wait to find out. They are here this evening late in April for the concluding event of the Empathy Experiment — an experiment not in an empirical sense, but in teaching empathy.

    Six students participated. _Hundreds_ attended the last event.

    It’s nice to know our society is affluent enough to waste resources this way.

  15. Mark Roulo says:

    “It’s nice to know our society is affluent enough to waste resources this way.”

    Look, this is the same society that spends $24B per year on bottled water. We import water from Fiji. And Wales. And Italy. And, yes really … Mexico!*

    Welsh water, when purchased in the San Francisco bay area costs more per gallon than gasoline. By a lot.

    We “waste” money on lots of things … 🙂

    *) As a side project from a home-schooling geography treasure hunt I am now collecting bottled water labels from imported foreign bottled water. I am amused that this stuff can sell. But we *are* wealthy as a society …