Essay on Empathy In Social Relationships

Empathy is a fundamental aspect of the functioning of social relationships. The ability to accurately read nonverbal signals of others, participate in perspective-taking, identify emotional states in the self and others, and invest in other’s emotions are all integral parts of the relationships between individuals. Deficits in any of these aspects of the empathic process can cause and signal various problems that can impact individuals and those around them.

A condition such as autism involves deficits in the ability to decode nonverbal communication and affects the cognitive ability to engage in accurate perspectivetaking, but does not itself involve a lack of concern for other’s feelings when they are understood. Another conditionantisocial personality disorder- is not marked by this lack of ability to read nonverbal signals from others, but by a more destructive trait of lack of care for the well-being of others. These noteworthy and distinctly different expressions of empathy and/or the lack thereof in these conditions have been noted by researchers.

This strongly apparent contrast between these two conditions which have both been characterized as involving a lack of empathy points to the validity of a multidimensional conceptualization of empathy (Smith). Empathy can be considered rather complex upon examination as it includes both emotional and social-cognitive processing. This measurement was constructed with the distinction between emotion identification, investment, social awareness and cognitive ability to predict outcomes in social situations in consideration.

It includes different questions that are intended to help determine the degree of concern for the emotions of others, the ability to read nonverbal signals, and social predictive ability of the participants. It consists of 23 items total : 16 of them were scored positively and 7 of them were scored negatively. For scoring purposes the questions were separated into emotional and social-cognitive categories. Some items do not neatly fit into these categories, but nonetheless were included because of relevance otherwise to measurement of the construct.

The items included within the measure are intended to gauge empathy by measuring feelings about social situations in general, determining the emotional condition of someone else on the basis of nonverbal cues, concern for other’s feelings in general, the degree from oneself that concern extends, predictive ability within social contexts, tendency toward positive or negative conflict resolution, ability to accurately model someone else’s perspective in response to oneself, susceptibility to social contagion, statements regarding other’s reactions to the participant, self-monitoring of communication in social situations, ability to convey messages in a way that other’s can understand, ability to determine whether someone else is being dishonest, ability to manipulate social interactions, and belief in whether or not people deserve what happens to them.

All of the above may be implicated in empathetic processing. For example, yawning is used as an example of social contagion, and an individual’s susceptibility to social yawning has been presumed by many researchers to reflect a type of involuntary mirroring related to empathetic ability (Shoults).

For this reason it is used as a proxy for the study of empathy in both humans and nonhuman animals (Romero). It has been found in various studies that autistic individuals have less susceptibility to contagious yawning. The correlation demonstrated between susceptibility to contagious yawning and psychopathy is a negative one (Rundle). The different items approach inquiry about the construct from a number of different angles, which is necessary to get an accurate, multidimensional representation of an individual person’s ability to exercise empathy. The data in the set reflect a large range. The overall scores of the 20 participants range from a low of 11 up to a high of 58 points. The data set has 3 modes of 33, 48, and 58 points.

The average score is 40. 45 points. The standard deviation is 12. 14 points and the variance is very large- 147. 31. Seeing that this measure cannot be normed on a large population and correlated to existing and accepted scales of empathy, its validity is obviously uncertain. Also, as this was the only trial of this measurement, reliability data is lacking. There were no scores of any participant that reached more than 2 standard deviations above the mean, but there was one score below 2 standard deviations under the mean. The brevity of this measurement likely affects its validity negatively. Females were overrepresented within the testing group.

Further trials would be required to substantiate evidence of its validity or invalidity and its reliability. This test was made with some inspiration from tests of the “Dark Triad” of personality, which include questions that measure the constructs of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Two measures- The Dirty Dozen and the Short Dark Triad- have demonstrated discriminative and criterion validity (Jessica). Tests like these could help determine whether or not respondents have a significant count of antisocial traits and thus lack the emotional aspect of empathy even if their ability to understand social communication is in tact. Various “Empathy Quotient” tests provided additional inspiration.

Some adaptation of autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Mind in the Eyes” and “Empathizing Quotient” tests were originally intended for implementation, but were left out due to time and length constraints as well as administrative considerations. These tests for autistic traits can help determine whether or not a respondent has the cognitive component of empathy. The “Mind in the Eyes” test is an exercise in emotion recognition and could be very revealing for his purpose. Finding correlations between this test and the other measures referenced above could provide data regarding its validity. The process of test construction varies largely depending on the construct to be measured.

For the purposes of this project, the implementation of a Likert scale for scoring positive/ negative responses in conjunction with a section scored by reported frequency of recurrence of specific social situations seemed to be the most reasonable approach. The inclusion of positively and negatively scored items requires respondents to change their approach to the questions and help point out if there are any contradictory responses in the measure. In this instance, a scoring scale ranging from “Never”- “Always” and “Strongly Disagree””Strongly Agree”, as well as options for uncertainty and neutrality, were used with the intent to more finely discriminate among varying degrees of the traits tested. Another trait that could have been tested for by this measure which might be relevant is alexithymia. Alexithymia is difficulty in recognizing and labeling one’s own emotional states.

This deficit has been linked with psychopathy, though more clarification of the relationship between the two is warranted (Haviland). It seems very plausible that alexithymia could negatively affect the ability to exercise empathy, as empathy involves relating one’s own experiences and emotions to those of someone else. If one cannot understand their own feelings then it makes a good deal of sense that the individual would have massive difficulty understanding anyone else’s emotions. The measure does have a number of shortcomings. Questions about a wider range of behaviors, responses, judgments, attitudes and attribution would provide clearer results. A more balanced ratio of affective and cognitive questions would constitute an improvement.

There were certain items that seemed to elicit a contradictory response to some other responses, which may have been related to the wording of those specific questions. As with any self-report measure, there is the possibility that participant’s responses do not actually reflect their own behavior and attitudes. Respondent’s answers about themselves are less objective than those someone else may give about them. Perceived social desirability can influence responses as participants may feel pressured to answer in ways that make them seem ideal and socially acceptable. Anonymity can help mitigate, but not eradicate, this problem. This was a point of concern regarding questions proposed in the construction of the measure that relate to antisocial behavior in particular.