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(KONRATH 2013)

The Positive (and Negative) Psychology of Empathy 
In: The Neurobiology and Psychology of Empathy,  Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 
Sara Konrath - University of Michigan 
Delphine Grynberg  - University of Rochester Medical Center

"Scholars have a difficult time agreeing on a definition of empathy. 

Some think of empathy as emerging from more cognitive mechanisms (emphasizing perspective taking and related theory of mind) which involves imagining another’s point of view or internal experience (Borke, 1971; Deutsch & Madle, 2009), 

while other scholars think of it as a more affective process (Batson, 1990; Bryant, 1982; Panksepp, 1998; Watt, 2007) with relatively ancient roots in the mammalian kingdom. This affective process includes emotion-matching with others, which is typically described as ‘contagion’ or affective resonance (Feshbach & Roe, 1968; Watt, 2007). 

It also includes concern for others’ suffering and a desire to reduce suffering that does not necessarily involve isomorphism with the other’s feelings, often called ‘empathic concern’ (Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2004; Davis, 1983). 

Some have posited that affective resonance naturally implies empathic concern, which is an important point to address in future research (Watt, 2007). Still other theorists see the emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy as more overlapping than separate (Hoffman, 1984).

 Finally, another relevant distinction is between ‘dispositional’ or ‘trait’ empathy (Bryant, 1982; Davis, 1983) versus ‘situational’ or induced empathy (Batson, 1990). 

People scoring high in dispositional empathy see themselves as having chronic tendencies to respond empathically, yet nearly everyone can have their empathy engaged under the right circumstances, or conversely, disengaged under opposed circumstances, suggesting that empathy is a heavily ‘gated’ or modulated process (Watt, 2007).

 Dispositional empathy measures are typically used in correlational studies, limiting the causal inferences that can be made, whereas situational empathy is induced by randomly assigning participants to imagine the world from needy targets’ perspectives versus remaining objective when exposed to needy targets (see the work of Daniel Batson and colleagues for more details). 

Despite all of these distinctions, it is still possible to come up with a general definition that encompasses both cognitive elements and emotional ones, and can also be applied to trait and situational empathy.

Thus, we would define empathy in line with prior theorists as experiencing perspectives and feelings more congruent with another’s situation than with one’s own (Decety & Lamm, 2006)."


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