Empathy Appears in Infancy but Varies by Age and Gender

Women in their 50s score highest for empathetic responses.

Posted Jun 16, 2013

Is empathy hardwired into our biology? Are some demographics of people statistically more empathetic than others? Can empathy be learned? The answer to all of these questions is "yes."

There is a wide range of research being done on the roots of compassion. Researchers in Japan have discovered that infants as young as 10-months can express sympathy for others in non-verbal ways. Another study of more than 75,000 adults found that women in their 50s are more empathic than men of the same age and than younger or older people.

Rudimentary Sympathy Appears in Infancy

Empathy is essential for human evolution and coexistence. Although humans are hardwired for sympathy, the origins and progression of an empathetic response in infancy are not fully understood. A June 2013 study titled, “Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress,” was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Yasuhiro Kanakogi and colleagues from Kyoto University and Toyohashi University of Technology. The researchers found that preverbal 10-month-olds manifest sympathetic responses, evidenced by their preference for the victim over the aggressor, or a neutral party.

Preverbal infants can assign goals and intentions to geometric figures. Based on this, the researchers in Japan used a series of animated sequences to test infants' responses to aggression. In their experiments, researchers found that infants viewing an aggressive 'social interaction' between a blue ball that attacked and violently crushed a yellow cube reached for the victim rather than the aggressor.

In the first experiment, infants viewing an aggressive social interaction between a victim and an aggressor exhibited preference for the victim. In the second experiment, when comparing the victim and the aggressor to a neutral object, infants preferred the victim and avoided the aggressor. These findings indicate that 10-month-olds not only evaluate the roles of victims and aggressors in interactions but also show rudimentary sympathy toward others in distress. 

Infants' behavior remained consistent when the roles of the shapes were reversed and when a neutral, non-aggressive shape was introduced in the video, suggesting that their preference for the victim was not out of fear of the aggressive shape. Based on these observations, the authors conclude, "Ten-month olds not only evaluate the roles of victims and aggressors in interactions but also show rudimentary sympathy toward others in distress based on their evaluation." The researchers hypothesize that this simple preference may function as a foundation for full-fledged empathetic behavior later on.

Empathy Varies by Age and Gender

Do you feel like you are becoming more empathetic as you get older? As I approach 50, I find that my levels of compassion and empathy are on the rise. Statistically, I am not alone. According to a study from January 2013, "Overall, late middle-aged adults were higher in both of the aspects of empathy that we measured," said Sara Konrath, co-author of the article from the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences.

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. The researchers found an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adult lifespan with middle-aged adults being most empathetic and younger and older adults reporting less empathy. 

According to O'Brien, this U-shaped pattern may be due to increasing levels of cognitive ability and life-experience that enhance the emotional functioning that peak in middle age while cognitive declines can diminish emotional functioning and reduce empathy in the second half of our lifespan.

Conclusion: Will “Generation Y” be less empathetic than their parents?

Previous research by O'Brien, Konrath and colleagues found higher levels of narcissism—and lower levels of empathy—among young people today as compared to earlier generations of young adults. "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 anti-war 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."

O'Brien and Konrath plan to conduct additional research on empathy to explore whether people can be trained to show more empathy using new electronic media. "Given the fundamental role of empathy in everyday social life and its relationship to many important social activities such as volunteering and donating to charities, it's important to learn as much as we can about what factors increase and decrease empathic responding," says Konrath.  

The researchers acknowledge that more research is needed to understand whether increased empathy is 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.

Despite these statistics and the potentially discouraging research on generational trends of empathy, anyone can work to become more sympathetic. Empathy is not a fixed trait. Compassion can be trained throughout a lifetime. You can make a conscious decision to rewire your empathetic response at a neural level through: mindfulness trainingvolunteering, and loving-kindness meditation.