Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 12, 2020

Do We Become More Empathic as We Get Older?

by Jeewon Oh
Older couple embracing one another sitting on a bench outdoors

People have different ideas about whether younger or older people are more concerned about others. You may have heard people say something like, “Young people these days, they only think about themselves!,” but you may have also heard things such as “Old people don’t understand what we are going through!” So which is it? Are younger people really more self-centered? Or are older people less able to willing to see other people’s perspectives?

These stereotypes both involve empathy—the ability to be psychologically in tune with other people’s feelings and perspectives. Whether empathy changes over the life span is a hotly debated topic among psychologists. The problem in understanding the relationship between age and empathy is that things happen as we get older that might both increase and decrease empathy.

  • Across adolescence and early adulthood, people develop the ability to think about other people’s perspectives in increasingly sophisticated ways. They also pursue activities such as meeting new people and traveling to new places that challenge their own perspectives, both of which may increase empathy.
  • During older adulthood, people may start to feel like their time is limited, which tends to lead people to focus on feeling good (emotional goals). Investing in close relationships is one way people achieve their emotional goals. Given that empathy is linked with success in relationships, it may continue to develop with age.  
  • But aging also presents cognitive challenges, making it harder for some older people to take other people’s perspectives, and thereby lowering empathy.
  • Throughout life, people experience significant life events such as having children, having an illness in the family, or retiring that may affect their empathy as they get older.

Ultimately, these various reasons make it difficult to know how empathy might change across people’s lives.

To explore the relationship between age and empathy, my colleagues and I turned to six longitudinal data sets that involved 740 adults. Because these data were longitudinal—following the respondents over many years—we were able to directly examine how empathy changed from age 13 to age 72 and whether people who were born earlier (as early as the 1920s) showed different patterns of empathy than people who were born later (in the 1960s).

Our results showed that empathy increased with age, particularly after age 40. Furthermore, people who were born later tended to be more empathic than those who were born earlier.

Our results demonstrate an underappreciated aspect of aging: the older we get, the better we seem to become at understanding other people’s feelings and perspectives. Although some people may feel that younger people these days think only about themselves, young people today are probably no different than previous generations; in fact, they may actually be more empathic for their age than earlier generations.

In order to understand how empathy changes across the lifespan, we need to able to look at how people go through different phases of the lifespan. This was possible with people in our study who were born before the 1970s. But it will take some time before Millennials and Generation Z reach older adulthood so that we can see how their empathy changes as they get older. And it is possible that these younger generations—and future generations—show different trends. Nevertheless, across all generations in the study, people tended to become more empathic as they got older, sympathizing with others when bad things happen and trying to take others’ perspectives when they don’t agree on things.

But can people intentionally become more empathic if they want to? Can we teach empathy? Researchers and practitioners have been developing interventions involving communication skills training, role playing, and meditation to increase empathy. Although there is some promising evidence for these interventions, researchers are still looking for the best way to develop empathy and maintain it long-term.

In the meantime, we can all work on being empathic no matter what age we are.  


For Further Reading

Oh, J., Chopik, W. J., Konrath, S., & Grimm, K. J. (2020). Longitudinal changes in empathy across the life span in six samples of human development. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(2), 244-253.

 

Jeewon Oh is a PhD student in social/personality psychology at Michigan State University.

 

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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