A University of Michigan study of more than 75,000 people found that middle-aged women were more empathetic than men of the same age or younger or older people. Well, knock me over with a feather.
It reminds me of a friend who goes around saying things like "God only gives you the burdens He knows you can handle." More than once I've suggested to her that if that's true, God has been given false information. But she's likely going to wave this study under my nose -- to which I can only say: Of course middle-aged women are the most empathetic because we have to be.
It is into the laps of middle-aged women that the bulk of life's caregiving falls. At the risk of falling into the trap of stereotyping (and the acknowledgement that obviously not everyone falls under the stereotype), it is women -- and the rare man or younger person -- who drives the elderly relatives to medical appointments, volunteers to head the school's holiday toy drive, delivers the home-cooked meal to friends who are incapacitated. We are the chief cooks and bottle-washers for aging parents, struggling children and friends and neighbors who need help; we are the family CEOs who manage lives for others. And many of us maintain full-time outside the home jobs at the same time.
The study's authors Sara Konrath, Ed O'Brien, and Linda Hagen at the University of Michigan and Daniel Grühn at North Carolina State University, concluded that "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."
Konrath said "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."
Earlier research by O'Brien, Konrath and other 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 and 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.
And how does author Konrath explain the gender differential among midlifers, with women faring better than men on the empathy scale? Well, she says, it likely has more to do with how "men and women are socialized differently to be more caring, even from early childhood." She added that "When empathic responses are examined more physiologically (e.g. heart rate reactivity, blood pressure), men and women respond equally to other people in distress." Good to know; now, honey can you make a casserole for our sick neighbor?