Stories of Empathy/support : A Qualitative Analysis of Autobiographical Narratives of Relatively Empathic and Unempathic Individuals

By Varma, Pooja Bhatnagar | Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Stories of Empathy/support : A Qualitative Analysis of Autobiographical Narratives of Relatively Empathic and Unempathic Individuals


Varma, Pooja Bhatnagar, Indian Journal of Positive Psychology


Today there are many definitions of empathy. Empathy is one of the candidate mechanisms to underlie the so-called directed altruism i.e., altruism in response to another's pain, need or distress. Evidence is accumulated that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient as old as mammals and birds with its application outside the rearing context playing a role in the wider networks of social relationships for eg. Primates often lick and clean the wounds of conspecifics which is critical for healing (Boesch, 1992;deWall, 1996).

Empathy appears to have its origin in the German word 'Einfiilung'which literally means 'feeling within'. Titchener coined the term 'empathy' from two Greek roots, em and pathos (feeling into). Since empathy is frequently linked to altruistic motives and prosocial helping behavior, it seems to have implications for the quality of social life as well as moral significance. Empathy is central to what it means to be fully human. As such, it is critical to moral development and justice, thereby acting as a catalyst for societal cohesion and unity because constructive interpersonal relations are contingent upon a willingness to take another's perspective. Empathy has been variously conceptualised as a behaviour, a personality dimension, or as an experienced emotion. Much of this confusion can be seen as arising from the fact that empathy is both a complex process (i.e. a multi-dimensional, multi-phase construct that has several components.

Levels of empathy

Most clinical and counseling psychologists, however, agree that true empathy requires three distinct skills: the ability to share the other person's feelings, the cognitive ability to intuit what another person is feeling, and a "socially beneficial" intention to respond compassionately to that person's distress (Decety & Jackson, 2004). Emotional Contagion is lowest level, demonstrated when one is affected by another's person emotional or arousal state either through conscious or unconscious induction of emotional states and behavior attitudes (Schoenewolf,1990) or through observation of other's actions (Hess & Blairy,2001 ) termed as 'ripple effect' constituting the transfer of moods among people in a group (Barsade, 2002). This mirror system allows us to plan our own actions and also to understand the actions of others pointing towards certain neural mechanisms i.e., parietal cortex (Decety & Grazes, 2006). Therefore, imitation is an important facet of empathy, that makes us more prosocial and seems to functions as 'social glue' (Dijksterhuis, 2005).

Sympathetic concern is the next evolutionary step when former is combined with appraisal of others' situation and attempt to understand the causes of their emotions (deWall, 1996). Personal distress on the other hand makes the affected party selfishly seek to alleviate its own distress, which mimics that of the object and shows less other-oriented emotional response (Batson, 1991), termed as self-centered distress.

The best documented example of sympathetic concern is 'consolation', defined as reassurance provided by one to a distressed party. It has been called 'pity' or 'compassion' (Hume 1896; Smith, 1853), 'sympathetic distress' (Hoffman, 2000) and simply "sympathy"(Preston & de Waal, 2002). In today's scienario, the difference between the delinquents and non delinquents are the deficits in cognitive role taking skills (empathy) and the former significantly low in affective role-taking than latter (sympathy) (Rotenberg, 1974).

Empathie Perspective-Taking: A major manifestation of empathie perpective-taking is so called targeted helping based on a cognitive appreciation of others's specific need or situation (de Wall, 1996). Social-psychological research has focused on the empathy-altruism hypothesis, which claims that empathie concem-other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of others. The view is better explained with the egostic perspective of aversive-arousal reduction, that claims to feel empathie concern for someone in need is unpleasant, and we help those for whom we feel empathy because doing so eliminates the stimulus causing our concern. …

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