There’s a common view that older people are basically meaner and less sympathetic. Although empathy clearly develops throughout childhood, it’s less clear how it changes over the lifespan. A paper out this month suggests that while emotional or ‘hot’ empathy may lessen with age, cognitive, or ‘cold’ empathy stays the same. And that may be a good thing.

Yao-Chu and colleagues’ paper looked at empathy across the lifespan from age 20 to 80. They recruited three groups of 22 ethnically Chinese men and women: young (20-35), middle-aged (40-55) and old (65-80). Empathy tasks can be subtle, such as deciding whether to be truthful about how fat your friend looks in a new outfit or whether you care enough about a distant disaster to get your wallet out. Studies using tasks like these can have problems disentangling all the contributing empathy-related mental processes. But not so in this study. This study is all about simple pain. Participants looked at animations of peoples’ hands and feet going about their daily business such as opening gates and drawers. Some of these mini-dramas are uneventful—but sometimes hands and feet get hurt—shut in a door for example. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

In an interesting twist, some of the pain-animations show pain being deliberately inflicted by a second person while others are just victims of their own carelessness. Half of the pain-free animations also feature a second person’s limb. In general, we already know that people feel more pain when it’s inflicted deliberately than when it is accidental. By including these two types of pain, accidental and inflicted, researchers were able to assess two kinds of empathic response. The first is an emotional response to pain (emotional, or ‘hot’ empathy) and the second is a less emotional, cognitive awareness that someone has intended to do harm to someone else. This processing of intentionality is part of cognitive (or ‘cold’) empathy.

Yao-Chu’s team scanned the brains of the young, middle-aged and old to see how their brains responded. The team were particularly interested in the neural networks that usually light up when processing pain or other people’s intentions. Viewers also answered a questionnaire measuring general empathy levels and rated the animations on a 6-point scale of unpleasantness (like the one below).

They found that brain activity in response to seeing pain lessened with age but the brain activity when processing someone’s intentions remained the same. This matches the results of the self-report questionnaires: while older people scored less on the empathy questionnaire they were more inclined to score intended pain as more unpleasant than accidental pain. The scans also suggested that the connection between the neural network responding to pain and the network processing intentionality lessons with age. This means ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ empathic responses become more independent of each other. The authors point out that ‘the ability to understand others’ feeling without being emotionally distressed may contribute to well-being in the elderly individuals.’

Other studies have shown older people responding more empathically to situations that are relevant to them. Taken together, it seems that as we get older, we become more discerning about how we spend our empathic energy. If we didn’t turn down the ‘hot’ empathy dial as we get older we might be completely overwhelmed—but being aware of harm caused intentionally activates views on fairness and injustice. Perhaps this is all part of becoming ‘older and wiser.’


The good, the bad, and the ugly
Gillian Ragsdale

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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