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Effects of age-related differences in empathy on social economic decision-making

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 January 2012

Janelle N. Beadle
Affiliation:
Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, 200 Hawkins Drive, W-278 GH, 52242 Iowa City, IA, USA
Sergio Paradiso
Affiliation:
Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Program, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Christopher Kovach
Affiliation:
Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA
Linnea Polgreen
Affiliation:
College of Pharmacy, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Natalie L. Denburg
Affiliation:
Department of Neurology and Neuroscience Program, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Daniel Tranel
Affiliation:
Departments of Neurology and Psychology and Neuroscience Program, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Corresponding
E-mail address:

Abstract

Background: The ways in which aging affects social economic decision-making is a central issue in the psychology of aging. To examine age-related differences in social economic decision-making as a function of empathy, 80 healthy volunteers participated in the Repeated Fixed Opponent Ultimatum Game (UG-R). Previous economic decision-making research has shown that in younger adults empathy is associated with prosocial behavior. The effects of empathy on older adult social economic decision-making are not well understood.

Methods: On each of 20 consecutive trials in the UG-R, one player (“Proposer”) splits $10 with another player (“Responder”) who chooses either to accept (whereby both receive the proposed division) or reject (whereby neither receives anything). Trait cognitive and emotional empathy were measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.

Results: UG-R data were examined as a function of age and cognitive empathy. For “unfair” offers (i.e. offers less than $5), older Responders with high cognitive empathy showed less prosocial behavior and obtained greater payoffs than younger Responders with high cognitive empathy.

Conclusions: High levels of cognitive empathy may differentially affect economic decision-making behavior in younger and older adults. For older adults, high cognitive empathy may play a role in obtaining high financial payoffs while for younger adults it may instead be involved in facilitating social relationships.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © International Psychogeriatric Association 2012

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