Teen brains lack empathy? Not! How the media got it wrong

© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

When I checked the web today, I found numerous stories proclaiming that "teen brains lack empathy." But the popular stories are wrong.

How did it happen? The answer is instructive. Don’t draw any firm conclusions from a science news story unless it’s based on a published study.

In fact, you shouldn’t draw any conclusions from a story unless the reporter understands how the study was carried out and can put the research in context.

That seems like common sense. It’s a standard that I apply to myself, and it’s the standard that science journalists usually meet at publications like Science News and Scientific American.

But if you check out the popular news agencies, you’ll see that their science coverage is frequently based on press releases. In many cases, websites simply lift the entire story--verbatim--from a press release.

Why is this so bad?

What’s wrong with stories based on press releases

When a researcher is about to report new findings, his university may publish a statement about it. Such press releases are like advertisements. They promise that a study delivers certain results, and they may include enthusiastic quotes from investigators who are swept up in the excitement of an apparently new, important discovery.

But press releases don’t explain the research in detail. They often fail to explain crucial aspects of the study’s design (e.g., was it a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment?) They may also fail to quantify the results (how large was the effect?) or note the limitations of a small sample size (Woloshin and Schwartz 2002; Woloshin et al 2009).

Moreover, it’s not uncommon for press releases to report on research that is still in progress. The study hasn’t been written up yet, let alone been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal.

That’s crucial, because preliminary findings may fail to hold up. Sometimes, the study never gets published at all.

And there are everyday mix-ups, too: Misunderstandings that arise between the researcher and the person writing the press release.

So it’s not unusual for press releases to contain errors--sometimes, really big errors.

False claims about empathy and the teenage brain

Consider the coverage that an fMRI study got a few years ago. Researchers asked subjects to think about what they would do in certain hypothetical situations, e.g.,

“What would you do if you were at the cinema and had trouble seeing the screen? Would you move to another seat?"

As subjects answered these questions, their brain activity was recorded. Intriguingly, the pattern of brain activity differed for adolescent and adult subjects (Blakemore et al 2007).

The full details were published in 2007. But six months before the study was published, a press release was circulated about the results.

Headlines went up around the web: “Teenage brains lack empathy."

The popular stories claimed that, compared with adults, teenagers “underuse" the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with empathy, guilt and social decision making.

One version of the story, posted on WebMD.com and CBSnews.com, began with this way : “It may be a "me first" world in the typical teen brain. Brain scans show that teen's brains may still be developing when it comes to sensitivity to other people's feelings."

Another version began with this claim “If you ever sense teenagers are not taking your feelings into account, it's probably because they're just incapable of doing so."

The reality?

Well, first of all, it’s a big leap to assume that because teens and adults process information differently, one group is more empathic than another. And I’m skeptical about the idea that teenagers are somehow less sensitive to the pain of others.

So that’s what bothered me when I first saw the popular headlines. But when I actually read the study, I discovered these surprising facts (Blakemore et al 2007).

1. The study didn’t really have anything to do with empathy. It was about asking people to anticipate their intentions. Just to be sure, I checked with the principal investigator. She confirms that the hypothetical scenarios presented in the study were “devoid of emotional content."

2. There was no difference in the way that teens and adults answered the questions. In terms of behavior, both groups performed the same way.

3. Contrary to the popular story that teens “underuse" the medial frontal cortex, the study actually established the opposite pattern .

Teenagers showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, not less.

That’s right. The teens used the medial prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain associated with empathy and social decision making-- more than adults did.

Why? That’s not clear. Possibly, it reflects efficiency. In general, adult brains have more streamlined neural networks, making them faster and more efficient processors of information. Teen brains might have to work harder to get the same answers. They may need more oxygen or energy to power their neural circuits (Burnett and Blakemore 2009).

Life experiences might play a role, too. I’ve had a lot of experience making decisions about where to sit at the cinema. Ask me a hypothetical question about it, and I don’t have to deliberate to give you an answer about what I would do. For teens, answering such questions might require more conscious thought (Burnett and Blakemore 2009).

Or maybe teenagers—who are notoriously self-conscious and concerned about how others respond to them—are more likely to view changing seats in a theater as a social problem.

But whatever the explanation, the fact remains: The widely-reported story about teen brains “lacking empathy" is entirely bogus. The study found an interesting difference in the ways that teens processed information, but the difference did not demonstrate that teens are less empathic than adults.

Yet major news organizations--including WebMD, MSNBC and CBS--printed the distortions on their websites. And it wouldn’t have happened if reporters had waited to read the study—or simply asked some pertinent questions.

Other examples

The “teen brains lack empathy" story is a rather extreme case. But there are plenty of other examples of research that gets the wrong spin.

Recently, I saw headlines proclaiming that “TV causes learning lag in infants." In reality, the research in question suggested that babies develop better language skills when they get lots of conversation time with adults. To the degree that TV time displaces conversation time, it hurts baby language development. There may be lots of reasons to restrict TV time for young children. But these studies didn’t find that TV is intrinsically damaging to language development.

The misleading headlines about TV diverted the public’s attention from the real story--that parents who care about language development should make time to really engage their babies in frequent, meaningful conversations. For more information, see this analysis of the research on baby language development, conversation time, and TV.

Of course, the problem isn’t limited to research about kids.

Misleading press releases about medical research

In 2009, Steven Woloshin and colleagues examined press releases from 20 different academic medical centers.

The findings are disturbing. Of the 200 press releases randomly selected for analysis

• 19 presented unpublished results, but only one of these stories cautioned the reader that the research was unpublished

• 53 reported on correlational studies (e.g., “x is linked with y"), but only 6 of the releases included a caution about possible confounding variables

• 6 press releases reported on uncontrolled studies, but only one included a caution about the lack of controls

• 195 press releases included a direct quote from the investigator, but in many cases (51 press releases) the quote was “overly enthusiastic" about the study’s implications

Overall, about 30% of the press releases overstated the validity or scientific importance of the original research.

You might wonder if these results reflect a skewed sample. But Woloshin and colleagues limited their study to press releases from institutions that made the top 52 (of 125) rankings in U.S. News and World Reports. As a result, they suspect their findings represent a “best case scenario" (Woloshin et al 2009).

What we can do

Clearly, the people who tell us about science need to be more cautious.

• Press officers need to be more selective and critical of the research they promote.

• Researchers need to be more circumspect about what they say to the press.

• Journalists need to do their jobs, and not simply pass along information without checking the facts.

But readers have to be critical, too. In general, you should be skeptical about any science that is presented as “breaking news" in the popular press. Real analysis—by researchers and by journalists--takes time.

More information about the development of empathy

Want to know the real (evidence-based) story about empathy? Check out these articles, which feature my analysis of the published research:

• Empathy and the brain

• The empathy gap: Why people have trouble anticipating how they--or someone else--will feel in the future

• The case for teaching empathy and empathic concern

• Tips for teaching empathy


Blakemore S-J, den Ouden H, Choudhury S, and Frith C. 2007. Adolescent developments of the neural circuitry for thinking about intentions. SCAN 2: 130-139.

Burnett S and Blakemore S-J. 2009. The development of adolescent social cognition. Ann NY Acad Sci 1167: 51-56.

Woloshin S and Schwartz LM. 2002. Press releases: Translating research into news. JAMA 287(21):2856-8.

Woloshin S, Schwartz LM, Casella SL, Kennedy AT, Larson RJ. 2009. Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic? Ann Intern Med. 150(9):613-8.

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