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Which jurors most “feel” your client’s pain?

Monday, April 15, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

empathyThis is an intriguing question with a pretty straightforward answer. But if you are assuming the answer is “women”, you are only partially correct.

Researchers from Michigan, New York and North Carolina investigated the relationship of age and empathy in three large samples of American adults who ranged in age from 18 to 90 years. They used two nationally representative samples from the General Social Survey (GSS) and their own large (although not nationally representative) online survey of 72,580 US adults. (All three samples were predominantly White–79.7%; 14.2% African American, 2% Asian American, 2.4% Hispanic, and 1.7% others.)

Participants reported their sense of their own individual empathy for others. What the researchers found is a sort of flattened Bell curve.

Younger and older people report less empathy for others than do the late middle-aged. (“Late middle aged” was described by the authors as those in the 50 to 60 year old range.)

And, as you probably guessed, women report more empathy than men.

There was no significant difference in empathy reports by ethnicity (and the differences that were observed were small and inconsistent).

The authors point out that their differences were small but significant. [Very large sample sizes cause small differences to be statistically significant, but not necessarily meaningful on a practical level.] They also recommend a longitudinal study to more thoroughly examine the relationship of empathy to age. So what we are left with is a generalization–also known in some circles, as a stereotype. Generally speaking, the middle-aged are going to see themselves as more empathic. There is also some evidence from similar research that higher levels of education result in greater self reports of empathy. Alas, other research tells us that experiencing more privilege (often associated with higher educational achievement) results in less empathy. Well, clear as mud, eh?

So what does that mean for your case? It’s hard to say. What we typically find is that life experiences and individual differences are more significant than gender and age stereotypes. The goal of this research was not to figure out who really is more empathic but to figure out who thinks they are, and whether that self-description is relevant for your specific case in your specific venue at this particular point in time.

All other things being equal, if you want empathy for your client (and believe that would further your advocacy goals) they would tell you to take the middle-aged woman. We would tell you that it’s possibly true. Or not.

O’Brien E, Konrath SH, Grühn D, & Hagen AL (2013). Empathic concern and perspective taking: linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 68 (2), 168-75 PMID: 22865821


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