Empathy is Down Among College Students – How That Affects Your Jury

A new study discussed in Scientific American finds that empathy among college students has declined precipitously in the last 30 years, with steeper declines in the last 10 years. The study seems to link this to increasing social isolation – people spend less time around other people and connect more online, through facebook, etc. (This social isolation was a growing concern even before the meteoric rise of social media – take a look at Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a 2000 book based on a 1995 essay – still good reading).

A few things aren’t clear from the stub I linked – namely whether empathy grows as people get older and whether the social isolation hypothesis is causally connected or merely correlated. I know that I’ve always been an empathetic person, even as a college student. That’s probably what led me to this line of work. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself increasingly empathetic – caring more about people who I would have dismissed in my youth, understanding that we don’t necessarily know what makes someone act a certain way (a point discussed well by the late David Foster Wallace). This was summed up well in a fantastic unrelated essay by Cord Jefferson in the Awl about his decision to give his alcoholic father a kidney – “It’s not until you grow up and start making real decisions that you begin to comprehend the complexity of the web that connects a person’s heart and mind to their hands.” So maybe these college students will be more empathetic when they are 30. Or 40.

To bring this discussion back on track and away from the meanderings of my mind, consider whether you want to put young people on your jury. Several lawyers have told me that I’m an idiot if I put anyone under 25 on my juries. They might be right, they might not. I’ve said several times that you can’t assume an individual’s beliefs or values based on the characteristics of that individual’s generation.

Yet in jury selection, we have very little time to extrapolate an entire belief system from dozens of people, based on precious little information. Maybe you don’t want younger people. All I know is that when you thumb through your mental rolodex of heuristics to pick a jury, consider that younger people might not be very empathetic.

(Howard Zimmerle is a trial lawyer living in Moline, Illinois. He’s still under 30, but was never part of the quoted survey. So who knows. You can reach him at 309-794-1660 or hzimmerle [at] mjwlaw.com).

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