Middle-aged people more empathic than the youth

Empathic women

Women in their 50s are more empathic than men of the same age and than younger or older people, according to a new study of more than 75,000 adults.

"Overall, late middle-aged adults were higher in both of the aspects of empathy that we measured," says Sara Konrath.

"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."

For the study, researchers Ed O''Brien, Konrath and Linda Hagen at the University of Michigan and Daniel Grühn at 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, 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 half.

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 middle age.

"Americans born in the 1950s and ''60s – the 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 groups," they added.

The study will be published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences.

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