Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Situated Empathy: Variations Associated with Target Gender across Situations

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Situated Empathy: Variations Associated with Target Gender across Situations

Article excerpt

The aim of this study is to present a situated measure of empathy where person features such as gender of target and respondent vary within particular social contexts. The Empathy Situation Reaction Scale (ESRS; Manulik, Kelley, White, & Staats, 2004) has good psychometric properties for three different types of situations. Situations were associated with a much larger empathy effect size than gender of respondent. Gender differences on the ESRS were situation dependent, with women reporting more empathy in the social or threat situations than did men but not in situations where the target accidentally caused property damage or loss. The ESRS may be used to assess empathy in complex interactions of situation, target and respondent and provides a model for studying complex social situations.

Keywords: empathy, helping behavior, ESRS.

Empathy is a broad concept that allows humans to appreciate the art and poetry of others as well as the circumstances of friends, strangers or even of animals (Oswald, 2002; Paul, 2000; Wispe, 1987). Feelings of empathy can be variously defined and can be conceptualized as complex cognitions and emotions involving other persons (Hakansson & Montgomery, 2003). An empathetic person identifies with others, can understand their thoughts and feels with them, is sad when the other is sad or is glad when the other is glad.

Empathy is of practical importance because understanding the experience of others who are experiencing negative emotions or situations may lead to a desire or intention to help and then helping behavior may lead to increased feelings of well-being (Ajzen, 1991; Batson, 1991). Thus, empathy is often a precursor to helping or other prosocial behavior and empathy may have group survival value (Buss & Perry, 1992). In addition to motivating helping behavior, empathy inhibits aggressive behavior (Richardson, Hammock, Smith, Gardner, & Signo, 1994). Conversely, lack of empathy is a marker of some forms of antisocial and criminal behavior (APA, 1994). For example, cruelty toward animals is predictive of future violent acts toward humans (Paul, 2000). Relative lack of empathy or reduced empathy toward special groups or those who differ in some discriminable fashion such as gender or age may well be a precursor to lack of helping those persons. Lack of empathy may in part allow for unfavorable attitudes toward such special, discriminable groups by disconnecting the "other" from the "self and producing the detachment that is consistent with nonhelping behavior and aggression. Given the importance of empathy, there is a need to explore the concept within a social context.

Empathy may be viewed either as a global concept or as being multidimensional. Empathy has been defined with regard to several different dimensions such as empathetic concern, empathetic perspective taking, as the experience of personal distress or as the ability to engage in fantasy or imagination (Cliffordson, 2001; Davis, 1980). Mehrabian and Epstein (1972) have emphasized the emotional nature of empathy while others have noted the cognitive appraisal of another's condition as well as the affective component (Hogan, 1969).

Further, empathy may exist in part as a general personality disposition but is also hypothesized to be partially domain or situation specific. That is to say, a person may score relatively high on empathy measures and still feel less than average empathy in some social situations, or conversely, a person might have a relatively low score on empathy measures and still feel or score quite highly in some other situations. The emphasis of this paper is on socially situated aspects of empathy. Our approach is analogous to the work of Armor and Taylor (1998) who discuss situated optimism as arising from situation-specific expectancies. We are concerned with self-reported empathetic feelings in three different social situations where the domain is defined as the interaction of a particular type of target referenced by gender and specific circumstances involving social interactions in which the target is negatively impacted. …

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