Perspective Taking and Empathic Concern in Adolescence: Gender Differences in Developmental Changes

Jolien van der Graaff


By: Jolien Van der Graaff, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Susan Branje, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Minet De Wied, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Skyler Hawk, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Pol Van Lier, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Wim Meeus, Utrecht University and Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Empathy, the ability to understand and to share another’s emotional state, is seen as a fundamental social skill. Empathy may, for instance, foster prosocial behavior (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987) and inhibit aggression towards others (Feshbach & Feshbach, 2009; Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). Although an important basis of empathy is already established in early childhood, several cognitive, relational, and physical changes that take place during adolescence might still impact adolescents’ tendency to empathize with others.

In this study we longitudinally investigated the development of boys’ and girls’ tendency to take others’ perspectives (cognitive empathy) and to experience feelings of concern for others (affective empathy) longitudinally from age 13 to 18. We also addressed whether adolescents’ pubertal status was associated with this development.

We found an incline in perspective taking for both boys and girls. This was in line with theories assuming that adolescents’ perspective taking skills increase, because of advances in the awareness of factors beyond the immediate situations that may affect others’ emotions (Hoffman, 2000), and advances in the ability to consider self and other perspectives simultaneously from a third person view increases (Selman, 1980). Interestingly, the developmental pattern was strikingly different between boys and girls. Girls showed a steeper increase in perspective taking than did boys. Moreover, whereas girls’ perspective taking particularly increased between age 13 and 15, for boys it did not increase until age 15, and even showed a slight dip before that age. Thus, gender differences in perspective taking especially increased between early- and mid-adolescence.

With regard to empathic concern, theorists have proposed that adolescents’ growing perspective taking abilities also facilitate the development of empathic concern (Batson, 2009; Hoffman, 2000), and therefore increases in empathic concern across adolescence are expected. However, we found that girls’ levels of empathic concern remained stable, whereas for boys, empathic concern declined between ages 13 and 16, with a rebound to the initial level thereafter. Pubertal processes appeared to play a small role in this dip; boys who were physically more mature reported lower levels of empathic concern than did their physically less mature peers at ages 15 and 16. This may partly result from the increase in testosterone during pubertal maturation (Buchanan et al., 1992), which could induce an increase in competitive behavior (Mazur & Booth, 1998), thereby reducing empathy (Lanzetta & Englis, 1989). Further, boys who are physically more mature likely adhere more strongly to stereotypically masculine behavior, and might therefore be more inclined to inhibit empathic concern.

In sum, this study extended the literature by empirically testing the longstanding assumption that both perspective taking and empathic concern increase during adolescence as a result of cognitive maturation. We found support for increases in perspective taking, but not empathic concern. Our study revealed striking differences in developmental patterns between boys and girls. Moreover, our findings with regard to empathic concern, raises the question whether adolescents’ changing motivations rather than their increasing cognitive abilities may affect this development.

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