Aging, empathy, and prosociality

Janelle N. Beadle, Alexander H. Sheehan, Brian Dahlben, Angela H. Gutchess

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-222
Number of pages10
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Aging
  • Economic decision making
  • Empathy
  • Prosocial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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