Most of us have heard of the saying, “Some things get better with age.” Fancy cheeses, wines, and whiskeys all develop more complex and interesting flavors if allowed to age for a few years. Yet, when you think about this just a little more carefully, it’s clear that flavors don’t just get better and better forever. At a critical turning point, even the best cheeses, wines, and whiskeys start to become less inviting.

It turns out that empathy follows this same pattern as we age. Empathy is the tendency to feel what others are feeling, and to see the world from their vantage point. It helps people to be in tune with others and has been called the “glue of social interactions.” Empathic people feel protective about others who are less fortunate, and try to look at both sides of disagreements whenever they come up. They are loyal friends and good citizens, often participating in charitable activities in their spare time.

So what happens to empathy as we age? In three studies of that included over 75,000 American adults aged 18 to 90, we found that the youngest and the oldest adults had the lowest empathy, while middle-aged adults had the highest empathy. Women also had higher empathy than men. Overall, the most empathetic people in the United States are women in their late 50s and early 60s.

We don’t really know why this is the case, but there are at least two potential reasons. First, empathy is like a muscle – the more you use it, the bigger it gets. Women are often responsible for caregiving of children, grandchildren, and sick relatives, so it’s not surprising that middle-aged women have high empathy after years and years of practice. Second, in terms of generations, the highest empathy people in our study were the baby boomers, who grew up during times of important social changes that cared for the feelings and perspectives of other groups.

Regardless of the roots of their high empathy, let’s celebrate the empathy experts among us by raising a glass of our finest wine… sufficiently aged of course.

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Note: This essay was broadcast as a part of a radio program, Academic Minute. See:

http://www.wamc.org/post/dr-sara-konrath-university-michigan-age-and-empathy

It was based on this paper: O’Brien, E., Konrath, S. H., Grühn, D., & Hagen, A. L. (2013). Empathic concern and perspective taking: Linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. Available online at:

http://www.ipearlab.org/media/publications/empathy_across_lifespan_2012.pdf

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