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Can You Feel My Pain? Middle-Aged Women Sure Can
Study found an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the
adult life span - younger and older adults reporting less
empathy, middle-aged adults reporting more.
Jan. 30, 2013 - Looking for someone to feel your
pain? Talk to a woman in her 50s. According to a new study of more than
75,000 adults, women in that age group are more empathic than
men of the same age and than younger or older people.
"Overall, late middle-aged adults were
higher in both of the aspects of empathy that we measured," said
Sara Konrath, assistant research professor at the University of
Michigan Institute for Social Research and co-author of an
article on age and empathy forthcoming in the Journals of
Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences.
"They reported that they were more likely
to react emotionally to the experiences of others, and they were
also more likely to try to understand how things looked from the
perspective of others."
Konrath and colleagues Ed O'Brien and Linda
Hagen of U-M and Daniel Grühn of North Carolina State University
analyzed data on empathy from three separate large samples of
American adults, two of which were taken from the nationally
representative General Social Survey.
They found consistent evidence of an
inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adult life span,
with younger and older adults reporting less empathy and
middle-aged adults reporting more.
According to O'Brien, U-M doctoral student
in social psychology, this pattern may result because increasing
levels of cognitive abilities and experience improve emotional
functioning during the first part of the adult life span, while
cognitive declines diminish emotional functioning in the second
But more research is needed in order to
understand whether this pattern is really the result of an
individual's age, or whether it is a generational effect
reflecting the socialization of adults who are now in late
"Americans born in the 1950s and '60s
middle-aged people in our samples were raised during historic
social movements, from civil rights to various antiwar
countercultures," the authors explain. "It may be that today's
middle-aged adults report higher empathy than other cohorts
because they grew up during periods of important societal
changes that emphasized the feelings and perspectives of other
Earlier research by O'Brien, Konrath and
colleagues found declines in empathy and higher levels of
narcissism among young people today as compared to earlier
generations of young adults.
O'Brien and Konrath plan to conduct
additional research on empathy, to explore whether people can be
trained to show more empathy using new electronic media, for
"Given the fundamental role of empathy in
everyday social life and its relationship to many important
social activities such as volunteering and donating to
charities, it's important to learn as much as we can about what
factors increase and decrease empathic responding," Konrath
The research was supported by a National
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to O'Brien, and
an American Association of University Women Fellowship and grant
from Wake Forest University's Character Project to Konrath.
> Sara Konrath:
> Ed O'Brien:
Established in 1949, the University of
Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world's largest
academic social science survey and research organization, and a
world leader in developing and applying social science
methodology, and in educating researchers and students from
around the world. For more information, visit the ISR website at
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