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(Cassels + 2010)

The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences

Authors
  • Tracy G. Cassels*,
  •  Sherilynn Chan, 
  • Winnie Chung 
  • Susan A. J. Birch
Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326

Abstract 
Empathy is essential for healthy relationships and overall well-being. Affective empathy is the emotional response to others’ distress and can take two forms: personal distress or empathic concern. In Western cultures, high empathic concern and low personal distress have been implicated in increased prosocial behaviour (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1989) and better emotion management and peer relations (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). 

Various factors have been examined with respect to affective empathy, but the role of culture has received little attention. Previous work suggests that children from East Asian cultures compared to those from Western cultures experience greater personal distress and less empathic concern (e.g., Trommsdorff, 1995), but no work has specifically examined these differences in adolescents or individuals who identify as ‘bicultural’. 

The current research examines cultural differences in affective empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) in an adolescent and young adult sample (n=190) and examines how empathy relates to social-emotional health in bicultural individuals. Consistent with research on children, East Asian adolescents reported greater personal distress and less empathic concern than their Western counterparts. 

The bicultural individuals’ scores fell in between the East Asian and Western groups, but revealed significant differences from their ‘uni-cultural’ peers, demonstrating shared influences of community and family. Importantly, however, the relationship between affective empathy and social-emotional health in bicultural individuals was the same as for Western individuals. The current results provide an important first step in understanding the different cultural influences on empathic responding in a previously understudied population – bicultural individuals.



Definitions
"The concept of ‘empathy’ is multifaceted, with distinct components that influence empathic responding, but which are difficult to quantify for many researchers (e.g., Choplan et al., 1985; Duan and Hill, 1996). Historically, there has been much debate over the conceptualization and operationalization of empathy (Duan and Hill, 1996; Preston and deWaal, 2002), and although there are still various conceptualizations in the current literature, many (if not most) researchers agree that it is valuable to characterize empathy as consisting of two distinct, but interrelated, components: cognitive and affective. "

Chlopan, B. E., McCain, M. L., Carbonell, J. L. and Hagen, R. L. (1985). Empathy: Review of available measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48, 635-653.

Duan, C. and Hill, C. E. (1996). The current state of empathy research. Journal of Counseling Psychology 43, 261-274.

Preston, S. D. and de Waal, F. B. M. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25, 1-20.

"Cognitive empathy refers to one’s ability to recognize and identify another person’s feelings (e.g., Davis, 1980; Hoffman, 1977). This is distinct from the affective component in that it focuses exclusively on the cognitive processes and ignores the emotional reactions to others’ feelings." .

Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimentional approach to individual differences in empathy. Catalogue of Selected Documents in Psychology 10, 85-104.


"Affective empathy, the component of interest herein, refers to one’s emotional responses to another person’s emotion or situation (e.g., Feshbach, 1975; Hoffman, 1977; Eisenberg and Miller, 1987). This does not necessarily require that one feel the same as the other individual, but rather that one’s own emotions are more in line with the other person’s situation than one’s own (Hoffman, 2000). Typically, this involves experiencing emotions that are similar to those of the other person, but at times, affective empathy can manifest in different emotions. "

Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice.
Cambridge University Press, New York, N

Feshback, N. D. (1975). Empathy in children: Some theoretical and empirical considerations.
The Counseling Psychologist 5, 25-30.

Hoffman, M.L. (1977) Sex differences in empathy and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 84, 712-722.

Eisenberg, N. and Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviours.
Psychological Bulletin 101, 91-119.

 "For example, if Katie bullies Jennifer, Jennifer may feel fearful. If Anna witnesses the bullying and feels angry, she is displaying affective empathy; although her anger is different from Jennifer’s fear, it is more in line with Jennifer’s situation than her own."





Benefits of Empathy

  •  + prosocial behaviour
    "In Western cultures, high empathic concern and low personal distress have been implicated in increased prosocial behaviour (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1989) "  +(CASSELS + 2010)

    Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Miller, P. A., Fultz, J., Mathy, R. M., Shell, R. and Reno, R. R. (1989). The relations of sympathy and personal distress to prosocial behavior: A multimethod 
    study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5, 55-66.  

  • + emotion management
  • + peer relations 
     better emotion management and peer relations (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998).   (CASSELS + 2010)

    Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Shepard, S. A., Murphy, B. C., Jones, S. and Guthrie, I. K.
    (1998a). Contemporaneous and longitudinal prediction of children’s sympathy from dispositional
    regulation and emotionality. Developmental Psychology, 34, 910-924.

    Eisenberg, N., Wentzel, M. and Harris, J. D. (1998b). The role of emotionality and regulation
    in empathy-related responding. School Psychology Review 27, 506-521.




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