Here’s how our ability to empathise changes as we get older

By Emma Young

How does age affect our ability to empathise? Some researchers think that our ability to understand and respond to others’ feelings follows an inverted U-shaped pattern, with empathic skills peaking in middle age before declining again in older age. But as Michelle Kelly at the University of Newcastle and colleagues point out in their paper in Neuropsychology, findings in this field have been mixed. Their new work, on 231 adults aged 17-94, suggests that while people aged over 65 aren’t quite as good at “cognitive empathy” (working out what someone is likely to be feeling), they are just as good at “feeling with” others.

The first two main tasks were designed to measure cognitive empathy. Participants were shown photos of faces and also videos of actors who’d been asked to convey various emotions. They had to identify the emotions being expressed, and decide whether pairs of images were showing matching or different emotions.

In a third task, they saw 19 images of people engaged in some kind of social encounter or activity. For each, they were asked questions related to cognitive empathy (e.g. what the main character was feeling); questions related to affective empathy (e.g. how affected they were by seeing the scene); and one question related to prosocial behaviour (whether they would do anything if they saw this happening in real life).

For the analysis, the team split the participants into three groups: young (aged 17-35), middle (aged 36-65) and older (66-94). They found no differences in scores on affective empathy or prosocial behaviour. Earlier research has certainly suggested that the two are linked — that our ability to “feel with” someone is what drives us to help them. (After all, psychopaths can score highly on cognitive empathy but completely fail to feel their victims’ fear or humiliation.)

However, the older group was slightly worse at cognitive empathy. And the team thinks that results from yet another task suggest a potential reason. In this task, the participants first read out, as quickly as possible, a list that included their name and another person’s name. But the rules changed in a second condition, so that whenever they read their own name, they had to say another name (and vice versa). They were then scored according to how much longer they took in the second condition, as well as how many more errors they made.

The team regarded these scores as a measure of participants’ ability to inhibit information relevant to their own self — and they found a link between poorer scores and poorer cognitive but not affective empathy. They think this supports the idea that people who aren’t as good at self-inhibition find it harder to work out what someone else is feeling. However, poorer scores on self-inhibition could also reflect general cognitive slowing, which might influence cognitive empathy as well.

One of the biggest limitations to the study (and it’s far from alone in this limitation) is that it compares groups of people of different ages, rather than following the same people as they age. One of the strengths is that it taps into “state” empathy — empathy experienced in the moment — rather than relying only on self-report questionnaires that ask people to rate how they typically respond.

 “Clearly, the relationship between advancing age and empathic skills is complex,” note the researchers — and factors other than age affect how individual people respond to others. But the finding that older people are not less able to share in other people’s emotions — as has been suggested by some other studies — is a encouraging one.

Empathy across the ages: “I may be older but I’m still feeling it”.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest