Empathyrelated Responding And Prosocial Behavior

Numerous philosophers and psychologists have suggested that empathy-related processes motivate prosocial behavior (Blum, 1980; Hoffman, 2000; Hume, 1777/1966; Staub, 1979)—that when people experience others' negative emotions, they are likely to engage in prosocial behavior. However, in 1982 Underwood and Moore published a review in which they found, contrary to most theories, no empirical relation between empathy and prosocial behavior. Upon careful consideration of this literature, it became clear that most of the work before 1982 had been conducted with children using self-report measures and hypothetical vignettes that were problematic and that there were conceptual problems with most of the existing research (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987).

The conceptual problems were of several sorts. One problem was that most investigators had not differentiated among the 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. One can further differentiate among empathy, sympathy, and personal distress. Although definitions differ, 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. For example, if a child views a sad person and consequently feels sad him or herself, that child is experiencing empathy.

In most situations, empathy with another's negative emotion is likely to evolve into one or another related emotional reactions (or into both): sympathy and personal distress. Sympathy is an emotional response stemming from the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition that is not the same as what the other person is feeling (or is expected to feel in that situation) but consists of feelings of sorrow or concern for the other. Thus, if a girl sees a sad peer and feels concern for the peer, she is experiencing sympathy. Such a sympathetic reaction often is based upon empathic sadness, although sympathy also may be generated by cognitive perspective taking or accessing encoded cognitive information relevant to another's situation or need (Eisenberg, Shea, Carlo, & Knight, 1991; Karniol, 1982). However, empathy also can lead to personal distress—a self-focused, aversive affective reaction to the apprehension of another's emotion (e.g., discomfort, anxiety).

The distinction between sympathy and personal distress is critical because these two empathy-related reactions are expected to result in different motivations and, consequently, different behavior. Batson (1991) hypothesized that a sympathetic reaction is associated with the desire to reduce the other person's distress or need and therefore is likely to lead to altruistic behavior. In contrast, personal distress, because it is an aversive experience, is considered to be associated with the motivation to reduce one's own distress. Consequently, personal distress is believed to result in the desire to avoid contact with the needy or distressed other if possible. People experiencing personal distress are expected to assist others in the distressing situation only when helping is the easiest way to reduce the helper's own distress.

In studies with adults, Batson (1991; Batson et al., 1988) found some empirical evidence to support the aforementioned relations between prosocial behavior and sympathy or personal distress. However, the experimental methods and self-report measures he used generally were inappropriate for use with children. Thus, we conducted a series of studies designed to develop alternative methods of assessing empathy-related responding and to examine the relations of sympathy and personal distress to children's prosocial behavior.

Briefly, in this work we used self-report, facial, and physiological markers of sympathy and personal distress. The experience of personal distress was expected to be associated with higher levels of physiological distress than sympathy, self-reports of distress, and facial distress, whereas sympathy was expected to be linked to facial concern, reports of sadness or sympathy for others, and heart rate deceleration (an index of outwardly oriented attention; Cacioppo & Sandman, 1978; Lacey, Kagan, Lacey, & Moss, 1963). In the first set of studies, we found that, in general, when children or adults were in situations likely to induce a reaction akin to personal distress, they exhibited higher heart rate and skin conductance than in analogous situations likely to induce sympathy. Moreover, children and adults tended to exhibit facial concerned attention rather than facial distress in sympathy-inducing contexts, and older children's and adults' self-reports also were somewhat consistent with the emotional context (although findings for report of distress were mixed; Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990; Eisenberg, Fabes, et al., 1988; Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Miller, et al., 1991; Eisenberg, Schaller, et al., 1988). These findings provided some evidence that we could differentiate sympathy and personal distress with a variety of measures.

Using the aforementioned measures of sympathy and personal distress, we examined children's and adults' sympathetic or personal distress reactions to empathy-inducing films about others in distress or need. Specifically, we examined the relations between physiological, facial, and self-reported reactions to these films and actual helping or sharing with the needy/distressed individuals in the film (or others like them) when it was easy to avoid contact with the needy other (e.g., sharing of a prize or engaging in a boring task that would benefit the needy others rather than playing with toys). Consistent with theory, markers of sympathy generally were positively related to prosocial behavior whereas markers of personal distress were negatively related to prosocial behavior, the latter particularly for children. Thus, sympathy and personal distress seemed to reflect different motivational states (Eisenberg et al., 1989, 1990; see Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990, 1991, 1998, for reviews).

The differing relations of personal distress and sympathy to prosocial behavior are consistent with the conclusion that the subjective experiences of sympathy and personal distress are quite different. Prior to the time that sympathy and personal distress were consistently differentiated in the research, Hoffman (1982) suggested that overarousal due to empathy results in a self-focus. Consistent with this view, we (Eisenberg, Fabes, Murphy, et al., 1994) hypothesized that empathic overarousal in situations involving negative emotion results in an aversive emotional state, which leads to a self-focus—that is, personal distress. Children and adults who cannot maintain their emotional reactions to others' emotions within a tolerable range (and become overaroused) would be expected to focus on their own emotional needs, a response that is likely to undermine positive social interactions in situations involving negative emotion (including one's own or that of other people). Evidence consistent with the notion that empathic overarousal results in self-focused personal distress includes the following: (a) negative emotional arousal is associated with a focus on the self (Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990); (b) people exhibit higher skin conductance, and sometimes report more distress, in situations likely to elicit personal distress (in contrast to sympathy; Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Miller, et al., 1991; Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Carlo, & Miller, 1991); and (c) personal distress sometimes has been associated with lower heart rate variability (the degree to which heart rate goes up and down as reflected in its variance), which can be viewed as a rough index of low physiological regulation (see Fabes, Eisenberg, & Eisenbud, 1993).

Conversely, children and adults who can maintain their vicarious emotional arousal at a moderate level, which is arousing but not aversive, would be expected to experience sympathy. Consistent with this view is the type of evidence just discussed: (a) skin conductance and heart rate are lower when people are viewing sympathy-inducing, in comparison to distressing, films (Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Miller, et al., 1991; Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Miller, & Carlo, 1991; Eisenberg, Schaller, et al., 1988); and (b) higher situational sympathy (as indexed by facial concern) has been correlated with high heart rate variability (which is correlated with a measure of physiological regulation, vagal tone; see Fabes, Eisenberg, & Eisenbud, 1993; also see Eisenberg, Fabes, Murphy, et al., 1996).

Conceptualizing personal distress and sympathy in this manner led to the next logical question: What factors account for individual differences in the tendencies to experience personal distress and sympathy and, on a broader level, in a host of behaviors that are at least in part driven by emotional reactivity? One possible set of contributing factors is environmental, including socialization; another is biological (e.g., heredity, biological outcomes due to prenatal factors). Thus, in some research, investigators have focused on the familial (environmental) or genetic (biological) contributors to emotionality and emotion-related regulation (see Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998; Goldsmith, Buss, & Lemery, 1997; Parke & Buriel, 1998; Zahn-Waxler, Schiro, Robinson, Emde, & Schmitz, 2001). Another approach is to consider person variables—which likely reflect both environmental and biological factors—that influence whether individuals become emotionally overaroused in social contexts involving emotion.

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