by Chris Reinders Folmer
Novartis Foundation symposium
Psychologists have proposed that empathy-related responding, including caring or sympathetic concern, motivates moral behavior, especially prosocial behaviour, inhibits aggression and other antisocial behaviours, and contributes to the broader domain of social competence (Eisenberg & Fabes 1998, Hoffman, 2000). Thus, psychologists have increasingly recognized the potential importance of empathy-related responding in moral and social development.
Despite strong conceptual reasons to expect a relationship between empathy
and prosocial behaviour, in 1982 Underwood and Moore published a review in
which they found, contrary to most theory, no empirical relation between empathy and prosocial behaviour such as helping and sharing (Underwood & Moore 1982). However, most of the work before 1982 had been conducted with children using measures that were problematic and there were conceptual problems with most of the existing research.
In regard to the conceptual limitations in the work, most investigators had not differentiated between different types of empathy-related responding that
would be expected to involve different affective motivations. Batson (1991) first differentiated between empathy and personal distress in the late 1970s. Making yet one more distinction (between empathy and sympathy), we define empathy as an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and which is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel. Thus, if someone views a sad
person and consequently feels sad him or herself, that person is experiencing empathy.
In most situations, especially after infancy or when the empathy is more than fleeting, empathy is likely to evolve into sympathy, personal distress, or both. Sympathy is defined as an emotional response stemming from the apprehension of another’s emotional state or condition that is not the same as the other’s state or condition, but consists of feelings of sorrow or concern for the other. Thus, if a
boy sees a distressed peer and feels concern for the peer, he is experiencing sympathy. It is probable that sympathy is often based upon empathic sadness, although it also may be experienced as a consequence of cognitive perspective taking or accessing information from memory that is relevant to the other’s experience (Eisenberg 1986).
Empathy can also lead to personal distress. Personal distress is a self-focused, aversive affective reaction to the apprehension of another’s emotion (e.g. discomfort, anxiety). As for sympathy, personal distress sometimes may stem from empathy if the empathic response is experienced as too arousing and as aversive.
However, it is also possible that personal distress sometimes stems from other emotion-related processes (e.g. guilt) or from retrieving certain information from mental storage.
It is also important to differentiate between prosocial behaviour and altruism.
Prosocial behaviour is defined as voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another (e.g. helping, sharing and comforting). Prosocial behaviours can be motivated by a variety of factors, including egoistic concerns (rewards or social approval), other-oriented concern (e.g. sympathy), or moral values (e.g. the desire to uphold internmoral values).
Altruistic behaviour often is defined as those prosocial behaviours motivated by other-oriented or moral concerns/emotion rather than concrete or social rewards or the desire to reduce one’s own aversive affective states (Eisenberg 1986). These conceptual nuances are critical when attempting to predict prosocial behaviour or other outcomes from empathy-related responding.
For example, sympathy and personal distress are expected to result in different motivations and, consequently, different behaviour. Batson (1991) proposed that a sympathetic emotional reaction (labeled empathy by Batson) is associated with the desire to reduce the other person’s distress or need and therefore is likely to lead to altruistic behaviour if the cost is not too high. In contrast, personal distress, because it is an aversive experience, is believed to be associated with the motivation to reduce one’s own distress and the desire to avoid contact with the needy or distressed other if possible. People experiencing personal distress would be expected to assist only when helping is the easiest way to reduce the helper’s own distress.
In regard to methodological issues, most of the early studies on children’s empathy involved the use of picture-story measures of empathy, in which children were told a number of very short stories about evocative events (e.g. a child who lost his/her dog or at a birthday party), accompanied by a small number of illustrations.
After hearing each story, children were asked how they themselves felt. It is doubtful that these stories elicited much emotion, yet children were asked how they felt and often may have responded based on social desirability concerns. Indeed, performance on these measures was at best weakly related to prosocial behaviour and was influenced heavily by factors such as sex of the experimenter (see Eisenberg & Miller 1987).
Thus, there was a need for better measures of empathy-related responding. The experimental methods and self-report measures Batson (1991) used were in general inappropriate for use with children. Consequently, Richard Fabes and I conducted a series of studies designed to validate alternative measures of empathy-related responding and to examine their relations to children’s prosocial behaviour.
Specifically, we used self-report, facial, and physiological markers of sympathy and personal distress. In a first set of studies, we found that when children or adults were in situations likely to induce a reaction akin to personal distress (e.g. in response to a fi lm), they exhibited higher heart rate (HR) and skin conductance (SC) than in analogous situations that were likely to induce sympathy.
We suggested that HR acceleration might reflect distress whereas HR deceleration reflects interest in, and processing of information, coming from external stimuli, in this case, the sympathy-inducing stimulus. Moreover, children and adults tended to exhibit facial concerned attention rather than distress in sympathy-inducing contexts, and older children’s and adults’ self-reports also were somewhat consistent with the emotional context (see Eisenberg & Fabes 1990, 1998, Eisenberg et al 1991a).
Next, in another set of studies we examined the relation of our measures of
sympathetic or personal distress reactions during empathy-inducing fi lms about
others to helping or sharing with the needy and/or distressed individuals in the
fi lm (or others like them) when it was easy to avoid contact with them. For
example, children would view a fi lm of a child who was injured and in the hospital and was talking about the experience. We would measure heart rate and/or skin conductance while the children watched the fi lm, taped and coded their facial reactions to the fi lm, and, after the fi lm, asked them to rate how they felt during the fi lm.
A short time later, they had the opportunity to assist the person(s) in the film or similar others by doing donating earnings or time or doing a boring task to help the children rather than playing with attractive toys. Consistent with expectations, markers of sympathy generally were positively related to prosocial behaviour whereas markers of personal distress were negatively related to prosocial behaviour, the latter particularly for children. Thus, sympathy and personal distress seemed to reflect quite different motivational states (Eisenberg & Fabes 1990,1998).
The relation of empathy-related responding to the long-term prediction of prosocial dispositions In our work on prosocial behaviour, we have found that there is considerable consistency over time in the types of prosocial behaviours that are likely to be other-oriented in origin and that sympathy or empathy may play a role in this consistency.
We have conducted a 25 year study of prosocial moral reasoning and prosocial responding. When the children were 4–5 years old, their naturally occurring prosocial behaviours were observed in the preschool classroom for months and were coded as occurring spontaneously (without a peer’s verbal or non-verbal request) or in response to a request (compliant), and as helping or sharing (little comforting was observed).
Helping behaviours generally were low in cost, such as tying a peer’s apron. Sharing was higher cost because it required giving up of an object or space in the child’s possession. We found that spontaneous sharing, but not the other types of prosocial behaviour, was related to children’s references to others’ needs in the assessment of their prosocial moral reasoning. Thus, children’s other-oriented concerns when reasoning about hypothetical moral dilemmas probably based on rudimentary perspective taking and empathy/sympathy—appeared to be associated with prosocial behaviours that were likely to be other-oriented—that did not simply reflect compliance with a request and had a cost. High levels of compliant prosocial behaviours in children of that age tend to be linked to non-assertiveness and proneness to personal distress (Eisenberg et al 1981, Eisenberg & Hand 1979, see Eisenberg & Fabes 1998).
In addition, spontaneous sharing, as assessed naturalistically in this study, has
predicted prosocial behaviour and values/beliefs across childhood and into early
adulthood. In follow-ups of the sample, prosocial constructs were assessed every
two years from the ages of 9–10 into the 20s.
In late childhood and adolescence, some behavioural measures of helping or sharing were obtained. Mothers’ reports of children’s prosocial behaviours were obtained in adolescence whereas friends reported on sympathy and prosocial tendencies in adulthood We have found that spontaneous sharing in preschool was at least marginally correlated with costly donating or helping in childhood and adolescence; self-reported helping, consideration for others, prosocial values, and sympathy throughout adolescence and into adulthood; mothers’ reports of helpfulness in adolescence; self-reported perspective-taking in late adolescence and early adulthood; and friends’ reports of sympathy or prosocial tendencies in early adulthood.
Spontaneous sharing generally was unrelated to self-reported empathy in childhood, self-reported personal distress, low cost helping, and adult friends’ reports of the study participants’ perspective taking or specific, concrete prosocial behaviours (e.g. donated goods or clothes to a charity). In brief, spontaneous sharing in preschool was fairly consistently related to self-reports of prosocial responding and sympathy in late childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, and sometimes predicted actual prosocial behaviour and mothers’ reports thereof. There were few relations between the other types of prosocial behaviour and later prosocial responding, although preschoolers who were high in compliant sharing sometimes reported being relatively high in prosocial in adolescence and in the mid-20s. Of particular interest, reported sympathy
generally tended to mediate the relations of preschoolers’ spontaneous sharing to their prosocial tendencies in adulthood (Eisenberg et al 1999, 2002).
In addition, measures of self-reported prosociality, sympathy, and perspective
taking were nearly always substantially related to the same or similar measures
from up to 16 years earlier. These relations changed relatively little when controlling for social desirability. In addition, self-reported prosocial dispositions at adulthood generally were related to mothers’ reports of children’s prosocial behaviour in adolescence.\
Empathy-related responding and moral reasoning
The roles of cognition and affect in morality—including moral reasoning—have
been debated for many years. Cognitive developmental theorists have claimed that cognition and rationality are central to morality, and that the capabilities for
complex perspective taking (cognitively taking the perspective of another) and for
understanding abstract concepts are associated with, and underlie, advances in
moral reasoning and in quality of prosocial behaviour (Colby et al 1983). Others
have asserted that affect, especially empathy-related responding, often functions
as a motive for other-oriented moral behaviour and can influence individuals’
moral reasoning (Eisenberg 1986). We have argued moral reasoning reflects the
beliefs and motives that guide moral decisions, including other-oriented concerns
(Eisenberg 1986). Moreover, Hoffman (1987) has argued that sympathy/empathy
stimulates the development of internalized moral reasoning reflecting concern for
others’ welfare, whereas I have proposed that sympathy primes the use of preexist-ing other-oriented moral cognitions (Eisenberg 1986). Based on such theoreticalassertions, one would expect a relation between empathy-related responding, especially sympathy, and prosocial moral reasoning, and that prosocial moral reasoning sometimes might mediate the relation of sympathy to prosocial behaviour.
There is support for the association between sympathy and prosocial or care-
oriented moral reasoning. For example, Skoe et al (2002) found an association
between adults’ reports of experiencing sympathy when resolving moral confl icts
and their care-related moral reasoning, especially when discussing real-life dilem-
mas. In addition, reports of feelings of sympathy were related to ratings of the
importance of a moral dilemma…….
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