Young and Old Alike Show Less Empathy Than the Middle-Aged

Empathy over the lifespan is an inverted U-shaped curve

Posted Feb 22, 2013

I'm always made a little uncomfortable by studies that assert that Millennials are the most narcissitic generation in history. To me, being young has always meant being self-absorbed; in many ways, that's what youth is for.

But this new study about empathy over the lifespan is less offensive to me, even though it reaches a similar conclusion, because it doesn't single out young adults as being self-centered; older adults are almost as bad. The study found that empathy actually exhibits an inverted U-shaped curve over a typical life -- it's not so great in youth, but it's not so great in old age, either. If you want to find someone who can truly feel your pain, turn to a middle-aged woman.

“Overall, late middle-aged adults were higher in both of the aspects of empathy that we measured,” said Sara Konrath, PhD, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and co-author the article, which appeared this month in Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences 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,” she told the Gerontological Society of America.

Along with her colleagues -- Ed O'Brien and Linda Hagen of the University of Michigan and Daniel Grühn of North Carolina State University -- Konrath analyzed data on empathy from three separate large samples of American adults, a total of more than 75,000 subjects in all.

Some of the inverted U-shape curve of empathy can be explained by changes in both cognitive and emotional intelligence, which tend to increase in early life and tend to diminish in late life. But some, according to the researchers, might be a generational effect.

“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 wrote. “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.”

As flattering as this view is to me as a Baby Boomer, I'm not so sure about the generational explanation. Although it's easy to find studies that suggest that Millennials are more narcissistic than Baby Boomers were when we were in our twenties, it's just as easy to find studies that suggest that Millennials are unusually good at understanding "the feelings and perspectives of other groups." That's because they tend to define other groups as less "other" than their predecessors did. If there's one thing about young people today that's distinct and positive, it's this: Millennials are more tolerant. They make fewer distinctions in terms of race, sexual identity, or class than ever. According to a Pew Research Center study from 2010, for instance, "almost all Millennials accept interracial dating and marriage." An open attitude like that, just 40-odd years after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling of 1967 outlawing "anti-miscegenation" laws, is truly noteworthy.

About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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