How Stress Disables Empathy in Students

You probably remember the experiment that was conducted among university students in 1978. The experiment was constructed by Darley and Batson to study altruistic behavior, and the way they did this was by testing the possible facts behind the story of the Good Samaritan.

The variables to be tested were the relative haste of the participant and how occupied their minds were with other matters. In the study, the students were given some religious instruction on the story of the Good Samaritan. They were then told to travel from one building to the next in order to teach others about this story. However, between the two buildings was a man lying injured, appearing to be in desperate need of assistance. As students passed him, the man moaned and coughed twice.

The Scale of Empathy and Urgency

photo credit: *k59 via photopin cc

photo credit: *k59 via photopin cc

The big variable in this experiment was the amount of urgency impressed upon the subjects—some were told not to rush , while others were informed that speed was of the essence. Darley and Batson set up a scale of helping:

0 = failed to notice victim was in need

1 = perceived the need but did not offer aid

2 = did not stop but helped indirectly (told an aide on their arrival)

3 = stopped and asked if victim needed help

4 = after stopping, insisted on taking victim inside and then left him

5 = refused to leave victim, or insisted on taking him somewhere

The results of the experiment were interesting due to the haste of the subjects. When the subject was in no hurry, nearly two thirds of people stopped to lend assistance. When the subject was in a rush, this dropped to one in ten. Wow… only ten percent stopped even with the reminder of the Good Samaritan.

There are many examples of crime victims being ignored and not helped—all you have to do is open a newspaper or watch the news on television. In crowded spaces, apathy climbs even higher among potential heroes. My concern is how this plays out in the students we lead. They represent future CEO’s, faculty, administrators, nurses and doctors, military officers, stock traders, you name it. As students, we are already seeing signs of low empathy in these kids. But why?

The truth is, they are busy. Very busy… with so many good things we’ve given them to do.

Crowded Days and Busy Schools

In an ironic twist, some researchers suggest that over-packed schedules could be to blame for a growing “empathy gap” among students. One study found that students entering college after year 2000 had empathy levels 40% lower than students who came before them. Our “busy” school culture may be setting our children up to be less caring and compassionate about others as well. No wonder bullying is increasing; we don’t have margins in the day to stop, reflect and care about the needs or feelings of others. Life is pretty much about “looking out for number one” and getting things done.

photo credit: demandaj via photopin cc

photo credit: demandaj via photopin cc

Research also suggests that all this stress doesn’t necessarily pay off in great grades, excellent time-management skills, or notable leadership ability. A recent study from researchers at the University of Colorado found that children who spent more time engaged in less structured activities were far better than their peers at setting and accomplishing goals. Conversely, recent academic research at the College of William and Mary shows that kids whose daily schedules are over-packed are significantly less likely to score well on tests of creative thinking.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics correctly urged schools to implement later start times, which better align with teens’ natural sleep cycles. But as the AAP pointed out, the pressures of homework, extracurricular activities and other obligations are also reasons our kids aren’t getting enough sleep at night.

How Should We Respond on Behalf of Students?

I realize all of us would likely admit to living by an over-crowded schedule. Our students continue to be stressed out and often slip into survival mode. In fact, based on the Scale of Urgency and Empathy above, how would you score yourself when an unexpected need surfaces on a busy day? How would your students score?

If that number is low, then maybe some changes are in order. Below are some potential solutions you can use to help your students de-stress and care more.

Growing Empathy in Students:

  1. Help them drop activities if the day is too crowded. Focus on executing what’s most important, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
  1. Talk about noticing their surroundings. Sometimes we’re in such a hurry, we don’t even notice the poor guy in need of help. Look up from phone.
  1. Remember to model empathy. People are our mission. Solving problems and serving people are priorities for leaders. Keep the main thing the main thing.
  1. Plan for interruptions. You know they’re going to happen… so help students put margins in the calendar to make space for when they do. It lowers frustration.
  1. Teach them to take a short break every hour. It can help clear the mind and clarify the to-do list, as well as prevent stress and maintain healthy emotions.
  1. Help them catch up on their sleep. It’s the top factor in performance and empathy. When tired, we feel overwhelmed and stop caring deeply for others.


Remember the results of the student experiment. Overall, 40% offered some help to the victim. In low hurry situations, 63% helped; in medium hurry situations, 45% helped; and in high hurry situations, 10% helped. There was no correlation between religious affiliations—it was all about busyness, hurriedness, and stress. Daniel Goleman reminds us: “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”


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How Stress Disables Empathy in Students