Growing Empathy: Adult Social Competence the Fruit of Adolescent Labors

by Brianna Levasque, Kenyon ’17

Follow the Golden Rule. Sharing is Caring. These aphorisms are just a couple examples of the empathic wisdom with which children are indoctrinated from a young age. In the process of socializing the future of the world, adults generally agree upon the importance of empathy in navigating the confusions and complexities of adult—and overall, human—life. But what happens between the administration of these Sesame-Street-mantras in the first decade of life and their utilization in adult-run society years later? Could there be more to adolescence than anxiety over zits, homecoming dates and the constant, liminal stress of living in a period of existential in-between?

A recent study by Allemand, Steiger, and Fend of the University of Zurich would certainly argue that there is. The authors of the study posit that empathy levels in adolescence have key consequences for later social success in adulthood. Allemand et al. examined the effects of both initial levels of, and changes in, adolescent empathy on the social competence and social outcomes of 35 year old adults.

Previous studies have established that empathy is something which can be developed, a muscle which will grow with use. Empathy is linked to pro-social behaviors, behaviors which essentially encourage positive social outcomes by way of being aware of and helping others. Research has shown that empathy is greatly developed in the pre-adult stages, and that people vary in their degree and direction of empathy development. Allemand et al. identify adolescence as a key period of empathy development because of the turbulence of identity during that stage of life, where people are given new opportunities and reasons to reevaluate their worldview. A large portion of this reevaluation deals with how a person is able to relate to others and what they social and moral responsibilities they begin to perceive (or further develop). This study aimed to explore how individual differences in adolescent empathy affect an individual’s social success as an adult.

This longitudinal study, which ran for 23 years, assessed the empathy of German participants once per year between the ages of 12 and 16 with eight self-report items on a dichotomous scale. Only empathy was measured during the adolescent years. At age 35, the participants were again assessed, but this time both empathy and social competence and social outcomes were measured. In adulthood, empathy was measured by three self-report items on a 6-point scale (rather than a dichotomous scale). Additionally, adults were measured on the following aspects of social success: communication skills, social integration, relationship satisfaction, and conflicts in relationships. Each measure was assessed by the self-report of three to six items on a 6-point scale.

The results of the study suggested that empathy increased, on average during adolescence (between the ages of 12 and 16 in this study). Additionally, people had varying initial levels of empathy and varying levels of change in empathy during adolescence. Gender differences were also found: girls were found to have higher levels of initial empathy, although the rates of change were similar between boys and girls. Finally, empathy in adolescence was found to predict greater levels of empathy in adulthood and greater social success such as better communication skills and feelings of social integration. Crucially, both initial adolescent empathy levels and changes in empathy levels predicted greater social success in adults.

A few aspects of this study could be seen as methodically problematic. The difference between the measures in adolescence and adulthood is one such example. Why is it that similar measures of social competence were assessed during adolescence? It seems that solely measuring empathy in adolescence was an oversight because there was nothing with which one could compare the social competence measures of adulthood. Furthermore, the measure of empathy in adolescence was on a dichotomous scale, while it was on a 6-point scale for the adults? Why this inconsistency?

Additionally, the article mentions that extremely low and high levels of empathy can be detrimental to the social and mental well-being of a person. It has been previously established that “empathic distress,” resulting from too much empathy, can actually have adverse effects on someone’s ability to connect with others—so easily understanding the struggles of others leads to great stress, and may ultimately cause the individual to withdraw to decrease the burden, thus decreasing pro-social behaviors. Ironically, those with the greatest capacity for empathy may end up less empathic in practice than those will smaller capacities, simply out of self-preservation. This brings to mind a question regarding the ideal levels of empathy not explored in the article: if Allemand et al. are touting the (undeniable) social benefits of empathy in adolescence, is there a limit to these benefits? Their article brings up this warning about the dangers of excessive empathy, but does not go further by asking how these excessive levels in adolescence may affect the social well-being of adults. Perhaps this is something for future researchers to chew on.

References

Allemand, M., Steiger, A. E., & Fend, H. A. (2015). Empathy development in adolescence predicts social competencies in adulthood. Journal of Personality, 83: 229–241. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12098

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