Empathy Development in Adolescence Predicts Social Competencies in Adulthood


  • This article is based on data from the LifE-Study: Helmut Fend, Werner Georg, Fred Berger, Urs Grob, Wolfgang Lauterbach: Lebensverläufe von der späten Kindheit ins frühe Erwachsenenalter (LifE). Die Bedeutung von Erziehungserfahrungen und Entwicklungsprozessen für die Lebensbewältigung—Follow-Up zur Konstanzer Jugendlängsschnittstudie “Entwicklung im Jugendalter” (Dataset, Universität Zürich, Universität Konstanz, Universität Potsdam. Distributed by FORS, Lausanne, 2010). Preparation of this article was supported, in part, by a grant (CRSI11_130432/1) from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).


This 23-year study explored the predictive associations between empathy development in adolescence and self-reported social competencies and outcomes in adulthood. Participants were 1,527 adults aged 35 years (48.3% female). The predictor variable (adolescent empathy) was measured yearly at the ages of 12 to 16 years. The outcome variables (adult empathy, communication skills, social integration, relationship satisfaction, and conflicts in relationships) were measured at the age of 35 years. Five important results stand out. First, longitudinal measurement invariance was established for the measure of adolescent empathy. Second, empathy tended to increase during the adolescent years. Third, significant interindividual differences in level and change of adolescent empathy were found. Fourth, gender was related to level of adolescent empathy, favoring girls over boys. Fifth, not only level but also change in adolescent empathy predicted individual differences in social competencies in adulthood two decades later. These findings demonstrate that developmental processes that are relevant for adjustment reveal long-term social consequences beyond the adolescent years.