Empathy Varies by Age and Gender: Women in Their 50s Are Tops

Jan. 30, 2013 — According to a new study of more than 75,000 adults, women in that age group are more empathic than men of the same age and than younger or older people.

“Overall, late middle-aged adults were higher in both of the aspects of empathy that we measured,” says Sara Konrath, co-author of an article on age and empathy forthcoming in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological 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.”

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.

They found consistent evidence of an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adult life span, with younger and older adults reporting less empathy and middle-aged adults reporting more.

According to O’Brien, this pattern may result because increasing levels of cognitive abilities and experience improve emotional functioning during the first part of the adult life span, while cognitive declines diminish emotional functioning in the second half.

But more research is needed in order to understand whether this pattern is really 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.

“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 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.”

Earlier research by O’Brien, Konrath and colleagues found declines in empathy and higher levels of narcissism among young people today as compared to earlier generations of young adults.

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, for example. “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.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Michigan. The original article was written by Diane Swanbrow.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. E. O’Brien, S. H. Konrath, D. Gruhn, A. L. Hagen.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, 2012; DOI:10.1093/geronb/gbs055
University of Michigan (2013, January 30). Empathy varies by age and gender: Women in their 50s are tops. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130130184324.htm

Bonobos Predisposed to Show Sensitivity to Others

Jan. 30, 2013 — Comforting a friend or relative in distress may be a more hard-wired behavior than previously thought, according to a new study of bonobos, which are great apes known for their empathy and close relation to humans and chimpanzees. This finding provides key evolutionary insight into how critical social skills may develop in humans.

The results are published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, observed juvenile bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo engaging in consolation behavior more than their adult counterparts. Juvenile bonobos (ages 3 to 7) are equivalent to preschool or elementary school-aged children.

Zanna Clay, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Emory’s Department of Psychology, and Frans de Waal, PhD, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes and C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory, led the study.

“Our findings suggest that for bonobos, sensitivity to the emotions of others emerges early and does not require advanced thought processes that develop only in adults,” Clay says.

Starting at around age two, human children usually display consolation behavior, a sign of sensitivity to the emotions of others and the ability to take the perspective of another. Consolation has been observed in humans, bonobos, chimpanzees and other animals, including dogs, elephants and some types of birds, but has not been seen in monkeys.

At the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, most bonobos come as juvenile or infant orphans because their parents are killed for meat or captured as pets. A minority of bonobos in the sanctuary is second generation and raised by their biological mothers. The researchers found bonobos raised by their own mothers were more likely to comfort others compared to orphaned bonobos. This may indicate early life stress interferes with development of consolation behavior, while a stable parental relationship encourages it, Clay says.

Clay observed more than 350 conflicts between bonobos at the sanctuary during several months. Some conflicts involved violence, such as hitting, pushing or grabbing, while others only involved threats or chasing. Consolation occurred when a third bonobo — usually one that was close to the scene of conflict — comforted one of the parties in the conflict.

Consolation behavior includes hugs, grooming and sometimes sexual behavior. Consolation appears to lower stress in the recipient, based on a reduction in the recipient’s rates of self-scratching and self-grooming, the authors write.

“We found strong effects of friendship and kinship, with bonobos being more likely to comfort those they are emotionally close to,” Clay says. “This is consistent with the idea that empathy and emotional sensitivity contribute to consolation behavior.”

In future research, Clay plans to take a closer look at the emergence of consolation behavior in bonobos at early ages. A process that may facilitate development of consolation behavior is when older bonobos use younger ones as teddy bears; their passive participation may get the younger bonobos used to the idea, she says.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byEmory University, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. Zanna Clay, Frans B. M. de Waal. Bonobos Respond to Distress in Others: Consolation across the Age SpectrumPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e55206 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0055206
Emory University (2013, January 30). Bonobos predisposed to show sensitivity to others.ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130130184316.htm

Engineers Less Empathetic Than Students in Caring Professions, Study Suggests

Jan. 17, 2013 — Are engineering students less empathetic than students in the caring professions? Yes, the findings from a study performed at Linköping University indicate that this is the case. The study comprises more than 200 students from six different study programs and was carried out by Chato Rasoal, a researcher in psychology, together with two colleagues.

The researchers measured empathy with a well-established questionnaire that shows, for example, the degree of imagination, the ability to assume the perspective of others, and whether the subject cares about others, along with the subject´s own worries and anxiety.

“Empathy can have both a cognitive and an emotional aspect,” explains Chato Rasoal. The capacity to see things from the point of view of others is primarily cognitive, while caring about others is a more emotional component.

Earlier research has shown that engineers have a lower degree of empathy than future doctors and nurses. This may seem perfectly natural, after all, you don´t need much empathy to work with machines and calculations, do you? But Chato Rasoal doesn´t agree.

– Advanced engineers often take on leading positions in companies, where they have to be able to lead teams involving many co-workers. This requires both good communication skills and social competence. In today´s global business world you also need intercultural competence, an ability to communicate and collaborate with people from entirely different cultures.

The students responses evinced clear differences between caring-profession students and engineers. The latter had considerably lower scores. However, the differences were mitigated when the data was adjusted for gender. It´s well known that women are more empathetic than men.

Two groups of engineers participated, students of computer engineering and applied physics. For the latter a marked difference compared with caring students remained even after adjusting for gender differences.

For computer engineering students, the differences were largely eliminated. The researchers have a theory about why: the computer engineering students are taught with PBL, problem-based learning, which is not the case for the applied physics students. Chato Rasoal believes this can influence the degree of empathy.

“In problem-based learning you work in groups a lot. You have to be able to listen to others and accept other people´s thoughts and expressions of emotions. Otherwise it won´t work.”

In a currently ongoing study they want to see if this theory can be confirmed. For five semesters they have followed students of computer engineering to see whether PBL affects their capacity for empathy. The data are now being processed.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byExpertsvar, via AlphaGalileo.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. Chato Rasoal, Henrik Danielsson, Tomas Jungert.Empathy among students in engineering programmes.European Journal of Engineering Education, 2012; 37 (5): 427 DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2012.708720
Expertsvar (2013, January 17). Engineers less empathetic than students in caring professions, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117084854.htm