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J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2013 Oct 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Aging, Empathy, and Prosociality.

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  • 1Correspondence should be addressed to Janelle N. Beadle, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Iowa, 200 Hawkins Drive, 121 SHC, Iowa City, IA 52242. E-mail: janelle-beadle@uiowa.edu.


Objectives. Although empathy is a well-established motivation in younger adults for helping others, it is not known whether this extends to aging. Prioritization of socioemotional goals with age may increase the salience of helping others (i.e., prosocial behavior), but older adults also experience decreased cognitive empathy. Thus, we investigated age-related differences in relationships among empathy and prosocial behavior. Method. Participants were 24 younger (M = 19.8 years) and 24 older (M = 77.9 years) healthy adults. Whereas participants believed the study involved playing the dictator game, in reality, state emotional empathy was induced implicitly through a note from an opponent describing their experience with cancer. Prosocial behavior was measured by participants' monetary offers to that opponent. Results. Older adults showed greater prosocial behavior due to the empathy induction than younger adults. There was a positive association between state emotional empathy ratings and prosocial behavior in older, but not in younger adults, and preliminary evidence for higher state emotional empathy levels in older adults with higher trait cognitive empathy. Discussion. This suggests that in contexts relevant to socioemotional goals, older adults may be more motivated than younger adults to help others and state emotional empathy may be a potential mechanism for greater prosocial behavior in aging.


Aging; Economic decision making; Empathy; Prosocial.

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