The Teaching of Empathy for High School and College Students: Testing Rogerian Methods with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index

By Hatcher, Sherry L.; Nadeau, Missi S. et al. | Adolescence, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Teaching of Empathy for High School and College Students: Testing Rogerian Methods with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index


Hatcher, Sherry L., Nadeau, Missi S., Walsh, Lisa K., Reynolds, Meredith, Galea, Jerry, Marz, Kaye, Adolescence


Whether empathy can be "taught" has long been debated. Can we teach an individual to feel for another person, to "walk in someone else's shoes?" (Myrick & Erney, 1985). Such a question is often one of the first posed by students who are learning the art of counseling, and it is an issue consistently debated in faculty discussions on the training of graduate students in mental health professions.

Not only is an ability to emphathize with others essential for counseling professionals, but empathic individuals fare better in a variety of interpersonal relationships, whether professional, familial, or friendship (Guzzetta, 1976). The ego strength embodied in the capacity for empathy serves as a foundation for relationships and also provides a basis for coping with stress and resolving conflict (Kremer & Dietzen, 1991). For this reason, empathy is on most psychologists' short list of crucial ego strengths and is valued along with reality testing, intelligence, and creativity, for its preventive potential in preserving emotional health (Greenson, 1960; Kohut, 1959).

Despite much uniformity of opinion regarding the significance of empathy, there is much controversy as to the mechanisms by which a capacity for empathy develops and whether it can be taught (Carkuff & Berenson, 1967; Davis, 1980; Hogan, 1969; Layton, 1979; Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972). It is also important to note that the definitions of this concept in the literature have been confusing and contradictory. Schafer (1959), Rogers (1957), and Greenson (1960) share a similar conceptualization of empathy as "the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person" (Schafer, 1959). Other writers note the cognitive components of this construct; i.e., an ability to "understand" the situation of another (Hogan, 1969). Still others focus primarily on the affective aspect of empathy, as an ability to "feel" for the situation of others (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972). Only a small number of studies have addressed the relative contribution of each in systematic fashion (Davis, 1980).

Cooper's (1970) review of the literature on empathy suggested a developmental model, relating empathy to other affective and cognitive skills which evolve over the course of the life span. This approach is similar to that proposed by Hatcher, R., Hatcher, S. Berlin, Okla, and Richards (1990) in which the intrapsychic functions of empathy, self-understanding, and psychological mindedness were discussed as developing in parallel fashion to cognition (Piaget, 1932) and moral maturity (Kohlberg & Gilligan, 1971). Such theories suggest that there is a natural potential for empathy which may be elicited by the environment. Similarly, Emde (1989) suggests that a capacity for empathy ripens over time. He notes that the most mature form, which he calls "developmental empathy," requires the cognitive component of "perspective taking" in addition to the earlier unconscious and affective antecedents of empathy. These latter antecedents more closely resemble sympathy; i.e., a strong identification with another person in which the child's egocentric point of view does not allow for clear differentiation between the self and the other. Barrett-Lennard (1981) makes an important distinction between "observational empathy" which is an internal experience not requiring the presence of another person and "helping relationship" empathy which requires interpersonal communication.

Davis, who defines empathy as a "reaction to the observed experiences of another" (1983, p. 113) builds on a multidimensional conception of empathy in the construction of his Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). His scales for affective and cognitive measures respect the developmental conception of empathy while differentiating the earliest affective component of the concept "Personal Distress" (Davis, 1980) from the more mature and affective cognitive versions such as "Perspective Taking" and "Empathic Concern" (Davis, 1983; Emde, 1989). …

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