Science Daily (2010) Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to, study finds Science Daily, May 29

Some people have bad hair days; I have bad research days, i.e. days when bad research dominates the news headlines (the media are as much to blame as the researchers). It started this morning with a CBC report from researchers at the University of Bristol that coffee does not help wake you up in the morning. Now from personal experience, I KNOW this not to be true, and sure enough, after reading the report carefully, I wouldn’t give it a Tim Horton’s timbit.

Then this report also hit the national headlines. I don’t have a problem with the actual results; students may well have less empathy with their fellow students than students did in the 1970’s. What bothers me is the interpretation that this is due to social media. There’s not one iota of evidence in the original report to link the two; it’s pure speculation on the part of the researchers, and as a Globe and Mail article put it, could it not be that these students grew up in the George W. Bush era, when ‘me’ was the predominant cultural value (but then, I’m being as guilty as the researchers – I have no evidence for this interpretation, either!).

I’m a psychologist by background and I have only one piece of advice about psychological research: don’t believe it, unless you have read the article very carefully. 99 times out of 100, the results are correlational rather than causal. In other words, it could all be down to chance and the results would be different the next time round. Even when the results are sound, the explanation or interpretation is likely to have no empirical basis.

For another really scary research project, read the next article on The impact of digitization on the study of literature. Three really bad research articles in one day.


  1. An interesting post 🙂 Perhaps this is a call for critical reading online in education. Many teachers are aware the effect of social media has on us and our students. One way to deal with this is through new media literacy that helps students to read with a critical eye. I have initiated such an attempt in our school using the the center for media literacy handbook ( theory and practice ( and adapting to social media.
    I am not aware of any attempt to do that in our side of the world ( Middle East). You post gives some food for thought and some ideas to ponder on.


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