How Adolescent Empathy and Prosocial Behavior Change in the Context of School Culture: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study

By Barr, Jason J.; Higgins-D'Alessandro, Ann | Adolescence, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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How Adolescent Empathy and Prosocial Behavior Change in the Context of School Culture: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study

Barr, Jason J., Higgins-D'Alessandro, Ann, Adolescence


This research examined longitudinal change in empathy and prosocial behavior and their relationship with longitudinal change in school culture in high school adolescents. Few investigators have examined the fundamental importance of empathy-related responding and prosocial behavior and even fewer investigators have examined empathy itself in adolescence (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990). There is relatively little research concerning the socialization of empathy in adolescents (Eisenberg, 2006). However, there has been an increasing interest in empathy and its socialization (Eisenberg, Guthrie, Cumberland, Murphy, Shepard, Zhou, et al., 2002), which is probably due to the theoretical and empirical association between empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990).

Development of Empathy

Empathy is an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition, feeling similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1999). Empathy is an integral means of knowing and relating to others (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989) and adds to the quality of life and the richness of social interactions (Hoffman, 2000). Empathy seems to play a key role in the development of social understanding and positive social behaviors (Schultz, Selman, & LaRusso, 2003) and serves as the foundation for relationships and also provides a basis for coping with stress and resolving conflict (Kremer & Dietzen, 1991).

It has been argued that empathy may best be considered a set of related constructs including both emotional and cognitive components (Davis, 1983). The cognitive components have focused on perspective taking, an individual's ability to view situations from a third-person perspective by taking account of one's own and others' subjective perspectives (Eisenberg, 1990). The emotional components include feelings of warmth, compassion, and concern for others (Davis, 1983). A third aspect of empathy, personal distress, is a self-focused, aversive, affective reaction to the apprehension of another's situation (Batson, 1991), which is believed to result in the desire to avoid contact with the needy or distressed person if possible (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1999).

Research has shown that empathy increases with age (Eisenberg, Shell, Pasternack, Lennon, Beller, & Mathy, 1987; Eisenberg, Miller, Shell, & McNally, 1991; Eisenberg, Carlo, Murphy, & Van Court, 1995). As the individual develops from infancy to adolescence, both perspective-taking and emotional concern develop and reach adult levels while personal distress decreases (Davis & Franzoi, 1991). Eisenberg and her colleagues (1987; 1991; 1995) showed that self-reflective perspective-taking and other-oriented judgments tend to emerge in late childhood and increase through adolescence. These abilities often take so long to emerge because of the complexity of interactions between the affective and cognitive aspects of perspective-taking and regard for others in relation to behavior (Schultz et al., 2003). As the child's cognitive perspective-taking skills develop with age, the self-oriented distress reaction (personal distress) is gradually transformed into a more other-oriented form of distress--feelings of compassion for the other (emotional concern). By late adolescence ah individual has gained the ability to consider multiple perspectives, feel concern, and incorporates them when analyzing and acting upon situations (Eisenberg, 1990).

Development of Prosocial Behavior

Empathic responding has been the cornerstone of several theories of prosocial behavior (Hoffman, 1975; Eisenberg, Fabes, & Spinrad, 2006). Prosocial behavior is any purposive action on behalf of someone else that involves a net cost to the helper (Hoffman, 1994). Evidence indicates that feeling empathy for a person in need is an important motivator in helping (Batson, Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981).

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How Adolescent Empathy and Prosocial Behavior Change in the Context of School Culture: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study


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