Looking for someone to really listen and care? Talk to a woman in her 50s.
A new University of Michigan study of more than 75,000 adults, ages 18 to 90, found that late-middle-aged women were the most empathetic – more so than either men the same age or anyone (of either gender) older or younger.
Overall, middle-aged adults were more empathetic – meaning more likely to react emotionally to the experiences of others and to understand things from another person’s perspective – than younger or older adults. And women, regardless of age, were more empathetic than men, said Sara Konrath, assistant research professor at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and coauthor of an upcoming article on age and empathy in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
Konrath and her colleagues analyzed data on empathy based on questionnaires from three large samples of American adults, two of which were taken from the nationally representative General Social Survey.
What they found was an inverted-U shape when it comes to age and empathy, with empathy lower among the younger and older populations, and peaking in middle age. Obviously, this could be because younger people have less experience, and much older people may be affected by cognitive decline and other health issues, but it also could be an indication of the generations.
Those of us now in middle age grew up during a time of great social change that could have made us more sensitive to the feelings and problems of others.
As the researchers said: “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. 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.”
So why should we care whether one generation is more empathetic than another?
Because empathy plays an important social role in such things as volunteering, donating to charities, or supporting public programs to help those less fortunate. For this reason, said Konrath, “it’s important to learn as much as we can about what factors increase and decrease” people’s empathetic response.
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