Cognitive empathy across the lifespan

Liam Dorris, David Young, Karl Byrne, Robin Hoyle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
68 Downloads (Pure)


Aim: To describe the development of cognitive empathy across the lifespan from a very large cohort using a standardized measure of cognitive empathy ability. Method: Participants (n=4545, age bands <5y to >75y, 60% female) were a convenience sample recruited voluntarily from visitors to the Glasgow Science Centre in the UK, who completed the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Results: When compared to preceding age groups, we found significant developmental gains in empathy ability in children aged 6 to 7 years (p=0.048, d=0.45) and again at 10 to 12 years (p=0.042, d=0.23), followed by a slight reduction in ability during adolescence (p=0.087, d=–0.18), and functional maturity in those aged 19 to 25 years (p=0.001, d=0.76). Cognitive empathy abilities remained relatively stable across adulthood but gradually declined in people over 65 years, with notable decline in males over 75 years (p=0.001, d=–0.98). Females performed better than males at all ages. Interpretation: Understanding developmental issues in cognitive empathy could influence approaches to moral and social education for children, and health and social care support for older people. Standardized cognitive empathy tests could also provide novel approaches in the early detection of developmental vulnerabilities in a range of neurological conditions, and within neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders in which cognitive empathy is known to be impaired.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1524-1531
Number of pages8
JournalDevelopmental Medicine and Child Neurology
Issue number12
Early online date20 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • cognitive empathy
  • empathy ability
  • social cognitive ability


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