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Does empathy decrease with intelligence?

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a complex emotional skill that involves both affective and cognitive components. The affective component refers to the ability to experience and internalize the emotions of others, while the cognitive component involves perspective-taking and regulating one’s own emotions. On the surface, it may seem that intelligence and empathy are independent constructs. However, research suggests a more nuanced relationship between the two. In this article, we will explore the connections between intelligence and empathy, considering evidence both for and against the notion that empathy decreases with greater intelligence.

What is empathy?

Empathy allows us to tune in to how someone else is feeling and to experience events from their perspective. It helps us understand what others are going through, predict their actions and motivations, and prompts us to help them. Empathy has cognitive and affective components:

  • Cognitive empathy involves perspective-taking – understanding someone else’s emotions by imagining what it’s like to be in their situation. It helps us figure out what others might be thinking or feeling based on cues like their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
  • Affective empathy is about internalizing someone else’s emotions, causing us to experience similar feelings in response to their emotional state. When we see someone in distress, for example, affective empathy makes us feel concern, care, and a desire to help.

Both components allow us to resonate with others’ internal states. Empathy helps create social closeness, prompt helping behaviors, and facilitate cooperative relationships. It is a key part of emotional and social intelligence.

Theory: As intelligence increases, empathy decreases

Several theorists have proposed that higher intelligence is linked to lower empathy. Possible reasons for this include:

  • Greater rationality – More intelligent people may be more rational and logical. This could lead them to regulate their emotions more, making them less naturally empathetic.
  • Reduced emotional reactivity – Higher IQ has been associated with lower physiological emotional arousal. If intelligent people are less emotionally reactive, they may be less likely to catch others’ feelings.
  • Less conformity to social norms – More intelligent people tend to be less influenced by peers and social pressures. But for empathy, it can help to adhere to social expectations for emotional sharing.
  • Enhanced sense of self – People with a stronger sense of self and identity may be less likely to get caught up in others’ emotions and take on their perspectives.

In essence, empathy requires some vulnerability and permeability of emotional boundaries. Higher intelligence could make people more self-contained and less likely to resonate with others’ feelings.

Evidence for this theory

Some studies have found support for a negative correlation between IQ and empathy:

  • A meta-analysis of 63 studies found a small negative relationship between empathy and intelligence (r = -0.19). People with higher verbal intelligence tended to score lower on empathy measures.
  • In a study of preschoolers, higher IQ at age 3 predicted less empathetic behavior at age 6. More intelligent kids were rated by teachers as less prosocially engaged with peers.
  • Another study found that children with higher IQs were less popular among peers. The researchers proposed that intelligence reduces social sensitivity and engagement with others.

These findings suggest that increases in analytical thinking and rationality associated with intelligence may decrease emotional attunement and sharing. However, there are also good reasons to expect a more complex, nonlinear link between intelligence and empathy.

Theory: The relationship depends on type of intelligence

Rather than viewing intelligence as unitary, many psychologists propose it has multiple forms with different attributes. This suggests empathy may correlate differently with specific intelligences:

  • Emotional intelligence – Emotional perception, expression, and regulation abilities are core parts of empathy. Empathy is likely to increase with greater emotional intelligence.
  • Social intelligence – Reading social cues, understanding group dynamics, and building connections are central to empathy. Social intelligence should predict greater empathy.
  • Practical intelligence – Also called “street smarts,” practical problem-solving ability may enable empathy by promoting real-world social engagement.

In contrast, increases in more abstract, academic forms of intelligence like verbal fluency, spatial reasoning, and logical problem-solving may not increase empathy. Different facets of intelligence may relate distinctively to emotional attunement and perspective-taking. Rather than an inverse link, the empathy-intelligence relationship is likely to be complex and multidimensional.

Evidence for this theory

Research on multiple intelligences supports this more nuanced view:

  • Emotional intelligence positively predicts empathy. Higher scores on managing emotions, reading feelings, and social awareness are linked to more empathetic concern and helping behaviors.
  • A study found that social intelligence augmented empathy. It moderated the effects of an empathy training program, enhancing its impact.
  • Verbal intelligence tends to be unrelated to empathy. However, visual-spatial intelligence shows a modest negative correlation. Different abilities connect differently to empathy.

Overall, studies indicate that emotional, social, and practical intelligence can scaffold empathy, while strengths in visual-spatial or logical intelligences may not confer advantages. This aligns with the theory that social-emotional capacities foster empathy more so than abstract cognitive strengths.

Theory: The development of empathy follows an inverted U-shape

Rather than a linear relationship, some speculate that empathy follows an inverted U-shaped developmental trajectory. There are good theoretical reasons to expect this pattern:

  • In childhood, basic emotional contagion abilities emerge before structured perspective-taking.
  • During adolescence, advances in abstract thinking and self-reflection maximize cognitive empathy.
  • In adulthood, growing intellectual specialization and rationality could decrease emotional attunement.

This suggests empathy may peak in adolescence or early adulthood when cognitive skills are advancing rapidly but before the full effects of specialized expertise kick in. The most empathetic time of life may be when social cognitive abilities are mature but not yet accompanied by reduced emotional permeability.

Evidence for this theory

Developmental research provides some support for an inverted U-shape empathy curve:

  • A meta-analysis found cognitive empathy increases through childhood and into adolescence. Affective empathy follows a smaller inverted U-shape, peaking earlier in childhood.
  • Brain regions involved in social cognition like the medial prefrontal cortex show heightened activation during adolescence. This neural evidence aligns with heightened interpersonal insight during this period.
  • Older adults tend to perform worse than younger adults on tests of identifying others’ emotions. This suggests declines in affective empathy later in life.

These findings indicate that cognitive empathy peaks around adolescence, while emotional attunement may peak earlier then decline. The most balanced empathy likely occurs around young adulthood for most people.


The evidence overall suggests that the relationship between intelligence and empathy is complex. While higher IQ could reduce emotional reactivity and conformity in ways that diminish empathy, emotional and social intelligence likely support interpersonal attunement. Rather than a simple inverse association, the most empathetic time of life may be when social cognitive abilities are sharply increasing but before rationality and personal identity overly restrict emotional permeability. In the end, the links between intelligence and empathy depend heavily on the specific types of abilities involved.