Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Display of Empathy and Perception of Out-Group Members

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Display of Empathy and Perception of Out-Group Members

Article excerpt

The goal of the present study was to examine whether empathy, when shown by a member of a stigmatized out-group, increases liking and rapport, and whether this effect generalizes to the out-group as a whole. Eighty-nine participants were asked to narrate a sad autobiographical event in the presence of a confederate who was either an in-group or an out-group member. During the interaction, the confederate either kept a neutral demeanour throughout or showed facial expressions congruent with the story content. Overall, participants rated both the in-group and the outgroup confederate more positively when they displayed a congruent facial expression. However, this increase in liking did not generalize to the outgroup to which the confederate belonged. Results are discussed in terms of their implications for multicultural countries, including New Zealand.

Keywords: Empathy, interaction, in-group/out-group relations


Research on the effect of self-disclosure in interpersonal interactions has shown that self-disclosure causes people to like their interaction partners better when they display empathy, because it provides people with the feeling of being understood (for a review, see Collins & Miller, 1994). In that context, the display of facial expression (e.g., facial expression of sadness) congruent with the content of the partner's self-disclosed event (e.g., sad autobiographical event) can be considered as a way to communicate understanding to the interaction partner. Since emotional knowledge and rapport depend on the degree of synchrony between the perceiver and the target (Levenson & Ruef, 1992), one may also argue that the display of a facial expression congruent with the content of the partner's self-disclosure is a form of primary empathy (Levenson & Ruef, 1992) or a communicative signal that serves to "show how you feel" because of the existence of interpersonal display rules (Bavelas, Black, Lemery, & Mullett, 1986; Bavelas, Black, Chovil, Lemery, & Mullett, 1988). Those interpersonal display rules are cultural norms that determine what kind of facial expressions can be displayed, by whom and under which circumstances (Kupperbusch, Matsumoto, Kooken, Loewinger, Uchida, Wilson-Cohn, & Yrizarry, 1999).

The display of empathy through a facial expression congruent with the content of the partner's self-disclosed event (i.e., facial congruence) is closely related to facial mimicry since mimicry corresponds to the imitation of the facial expressions of others (for a review, see Hess, Philippot, & Blairy, 1999) and has been long understood as a form of primary empathy (Levenson & Ruef, 1992). Adults typically imitate emotional and non-emotional facial expressions of models shown in photos (e.g., Blairy, Herrera, & Hess, 1999) or videos (Hess & Blairy, 2001). Mimicry is not restricted to facial expressions, but has also been found for mannerism (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999), posture (Berger & Hadley, 1975) and speech characteristics (Giles & Smith, 1979).

Chartrand and Bargh (1999), who studied non-emotional mimicry, consider mimicry to be an automatic process quite independent of the existing relationship between the interaction partners. Dimberg, Thunberg, and Grunedal (2002) present evidence that facial mimicry occurs spontaneously and outside the conscious control of the participant. Also, funnel debriefing of participants in past studies has revealed a lack of awareness of mimicry and even of the existence of the mimicked behaviours (Chartrand, Maddux, & Lakin, 2005). Thus, mimicry may be both unintentional and uncontrollable and may generally occur without conscious awareness.

However, some data suggests that interpersonal factors can have an important influence on mimicry. Firstly, under certain circumstances, the type of relationship between observer and observed seems to matter. For example, Lanzetta and Englis (1989) found that participants mimicked the facial expressions of individuals with whom they cooperated, but not of those with whom they competed. …

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