, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 131-149

Empathy: Conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior

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Empathy, sympathy, and related vicarious emotional responses are important concepts in developmental, social, and clinical psychology. The purpose of this paper is to examine conceptual and methodological issues concerning the assessment of vicarious emotional responding and to present data from a series of multimethod studies on the assessment of empathy-related reactions and their association with prosocial behavior. The findings presented are consistent with several conclusions: (a) In some contexts, physiological, facial, and self-report indexes can be useful markers of vicarious emotional responses, (b) other-oriented sympathetic responding is positively related to prosocial behavior (particularly altruism) whereas personal distress reactions sometimes are associated with low levels of helping, and (c) physiological arousal is higher for personal distress than sympathetic reactions.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BNS8807784) to the first two authors and a Career Development Award from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (K04 HD00717) to Nancy Eisenberg. A version of this paper was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, February 1990.