Study shows middle-aged women are most empathetic people
When Shari Hodges looks at her life, she realizes she has much more than she needs — and others, not nearly enough.
Hodges, 55, began volunteering at Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side about a year ago, after she lost her job as a petroleum landman for Marcellus Shale. She'll do anything the shelter needs her to do — preparing and serving food in the kitchen, coordinating volunteers, and even scrubbing baseboards and walls. The most fulfilling part, she says, comes when she sits down with the homeless people the mission serves, and hears their stories and struggles.
Such volunteer work suits the Wexford resident well at this stage in her life: She might not have felt the same compassionate pull as a younger woman.
“The difference between being 20 and being older like me is you've had a couple of hard knocks along the way,” says Hodges, a single mom. “You become increasingly more appreciative of the basic things in life. I think at 25, you're more wrapped up in who you are.”
According to a recent study, people like Hodges come from the most empathetic category of people: middle-aged women. In the study of more than 75,000 adults, women who were born in the 1950s and 1960s scored higher than men of the same age range, and than people both younger and older than middle-aged. Researchers don't know for sure the reasons for this difference: Is it an innate female trait that peaks in middle age because of life stage and experience, or is it a generational thing with women who grew up during the historic social movements decades ago?
“We don't know what's going on in terms of what's causing it,” says Sara Konrath, assistant research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. She worked on the research team for the study, “Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking: Linear and Quadratic Effects of Age Across the Adult Life Span.”
Konrath suspects that a woman's life stage — when she might be caring for her own children and for parents — can raise her empathy level, as can decades of experience with living and facing challenges and losses. People who do volunteer work also tend to score highly on empathy, says Konrath, whose husband, Paul Anderson, grew up in Mt. Lebanon.
“You get to a point in life when you're not so quick to judge, and a little more willing to step outside yourself and experience what other people are experiencing,” she says.
Darla Jannetty, 51, of Mt. Lebanon says the findings of the study make sense. In her middle age, she has thought about “things that really matter,” like relationships.
Jannetty — who has lost both of her parents — puts her compassion into action at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, where she has worked for almost two years as a volunteer, mostly in the surgical family-waiting area. She communicates with, assists and comforts family members anxiously awaiting news about their loved ones in surgery.
“It's our job to make them feel comfortable,” Jannetty says. “When I was 20, it's not that I didn't care about people, but ... as you get older and you go through things in your own life, you have a tendency to take note. You want to give back. You want to take care of people.”
Konrath and her colleagues from the Michigan's Ann Arbor university and North Carolina State University observed an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adulthood lifespan. Empathy rises as a person ages from young to middle-aged, but it doesn't keep rising: As someone matures into the elderly years, empathy levels dip again. Perhaps this is because people in their 70s and beyond may need to be cared for again, and they are focused on their own needs, like a younger person, Konrath says.
Irene Frieze, professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh, says people often consider women at all ages to be more empathetic than men, because women seem to care more about relationships and social interaction. Frieze thinks that the age difference in empathy comes more from life experience than the baby-boomer generation experience, although members did witness societal changes that emphasized feelings and struggles of other groups.
“I think it's an age thing,” Frieze says. “I think it relates to what kind of roles and activities you're involved in at that age. For younger people, you're very involved in getting your career started, getting your family started ... and getting life under way.”
Jessie Ramey, a faculty fellow in the women's studies and history department at the University of Pittsburgh, says, even in a more egalitarian age when women work and men share parenting duties, women still are the primary caregivers of the family. When middle-aged women are focused on caring for their families — often their own children, their husbands and their parents — their empathy and compassion grow, Ramey says.
“We're assigned the nurturing role ... culturally,” she says. “It's reinforced in little girls growing up, still.”
Martha Banwell, 57, of Squirrel Hill, says age brings empathy and perspective, and a sense for what really matters.
“I think it's because we've been around the block a little bit,” says Banwell, as she pets Chester, a 9-year-old cream-colored cat at the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania. “You no longer feel ... like you have to be the best.”
Banwell, who has volunteered as a shelter-cat cuddler for three years, says she has gained more empathy for animals and potential adopters.
“I'm happy I can spend my days hanging out with animals,” Banwell says. “It's a great life.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7824.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Steelers rising fast in mediocre AFC
- Steelers offense learning to slam door
- Steelers clinch trip to postseason with big victory over Chiefs
- Steelers-Bengals game to start at 8:30 p.m.
- Downie, Farnham bringing a much-needed edge to the Penguins
- Heyward, swarming defense get best of Chiefs in Steelers’ win
- Pittsburgh mayor Peduto goes ‘Undercover’ for CBS reality show
- Groom cited at Farmington wedding reception being filmed for reality TV show
- Steelers notebook: Gay respects ‘anything’ referees call
- Search for Duquesne University graduate Kochu continues
- Missed chances haunt Chiefs against Steelers