New Study Finds Correlation between Childhood Trauma and Adult Empathy

We know from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and other research that childhood trauma can lead to a range of challenging health and social outcomes. But a new study, published in Plos One, helps to address a major gap in our understanding: the link between trauma and empathy. As the study’s authors observe, “Emerging evidence suggests that experiencing adversity can also increase post-traumatic growth including compassion…However, research has yet to pinpoint if traumatic events, particularly in childhood, link to empathy in adulthood.”

In this study, empathy is defined as “the ability to recognize another’s thoughts and feelings, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” The authors distinguish between what is called cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of another; and affective empathy, or “the drive to respond to another person’s mental states with an appropriate emotion.”

The study found that on average, “adults who reported experiencing a traumatic event in childhood had elevated empathy levels compared to adults who did not experience a traumatic event.” There was a stronger link between childhood trauma and affective empathy than cognitive empathy. The study also found that there appears to be a correlation between the severity of the trauma experienced and empathy scores.

Limitations of the study include that it relies mainly on “self-reporting” of empathy. That is, people who have experienced trauma may rate themselves as more empathic than they actually are. Additionally, the study’s authors recognize that there may be other mechanisms fostering empathy that need to be identified in research, including the power of relationships. They note that “the amount of social support following a traumatic experience may be crucial for the development of empathy.” Finally, the study notes that the majority of the respondents were Caucasian, and that there was a need for research providing a deeper cross-cultural understanding of the link between trauma and empathy.

We should draw hope from this study that while trauma is never “good,” the outcomes are not always negative, and that recovery and resilience are always possible. David M. Greenberg, the study’s lead author, told the PsyPost: “Readers of this study should take away that there are pathways to personal growth and resilience after experiencing a trauma.”

For more information on this study, see: