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 is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Batson, C. D. (1987a). Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic? In L. Berkowitz (Ed.),Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 20, pp. 65–122). New York: Academic Press.
Batson, C. D. (1987b). Self-report ratings of empathic concern. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development (pp. 356–360). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Batson, C. D., Bolen, M. H., Cross, J. A., & Neuringer-Benefiel, H. E. (1986). Where is the altruism in the altruistic personality?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 212–220.
Batson, C. D., Dyck, J. L., Brandt, J. R., Batson, J. G., Powell, A. L., McMaster, M. R., & Griffitt, C. (1988). Five studies testing two new egoistic alternatives to the empathyaltruism hypothesis.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 52–77.
Brody, L. R. (1984). Sex and age variations in the quality and intensity of children's emotional attributions to hypothetical situations.Sex Roles, 11, 51–59.
Bryant, B. K. (1982). An index of empathy for children and adolescents.Child Development, 53, 413–425.
Buck, R. W. (1977). Nonverbal communication of affect in children.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 644–653.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Sandman, C. A. (1978). Physiological differentiation of sensory and cognitive tasks as a function of warning processing demands and reported unpleasantness.Biological Psychology, 6, 181–192.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Tassinary, L. G. (1990). Inferring psychological significance from physiological signals.American Psychologist, 45, 16–28.
Cialdini, R. B., Schaller, M., Houlihan, D., Arps, K., & Fultz, J., & A. L. Beaman (1987). Empathy-based helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly motivated?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 749–758.
Craig, K. D. (1968). Physiological arousal as a function of imagined, vicarious, and direct stress experiences.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73, 513–520.
Craig, K. D., & Lowery, H. J. (1969). Heart-rate components of conditioned vicarious autonomic responses.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11, 381–387.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113–126.
Derryberry, D., & Rothbart, M. K. (1988). Arousal, affect, and attention as components of temperament.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 958–966.
Eisenberg, N. (1986).Altruistic emotion, cognition, and behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Eisenberg, N., Bernzweig, J., & Fabes, R. A. (in press). Coping and vicarious emotional responding. In T. Field, P. McCabe, & N. Schneiderman (Eds.),Stress and coping in infancy and childhood. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Eisenberg, N., Cameron, E., Tryon, K., & Dodez, R. (1981). Socialization of prosocial behavior in the preschool classroom.Developmental Psychology, 17, 773–782.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Bustamante, D., & Mathy, R. (1987). Physiological indices of empathy. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development (pp. 380–385). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Bustamante, D., Mathy, R. M., Miller, P., & Lindholm, E. (1988). Differentiation of vicariously-induced emotional reactions in children.Developmental Psychology, 24, 237–246.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Miller, P. A., Fultz, J., Mathy, R. M., Shell, R., & Reno, R. R. (1989). The relations of sympathy and personal distress to prosocial behavior: A multimethod study.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 55–66.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Miller, P. A., Shell, C., Shea, R., & May-Plumee, T. (1990). Preschoolers' vicarious emotional responding and their situational and dispositional prosocial behavior.Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 36, 507–529.
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A. Schaller, M., Miller, P. A., Carlo, G., Poulin, R., Shea, C., & Shell, R. (in press). Personality and socialization correlations of vicarious emotional responding.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Eisenberg, N., & Lennon, R. (1983). Gender differences in empathy and related capacities.Psychological Bulletin, 94, 100–131.
Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors.Psychological Bulletin, 101, 91–119.
Eisenberg, N., McCreath, H., & Ahn, R. (1988). vicarious emotional responsiveness and prosocial behavior: Their interrelations in young children.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 298–311.
Eisenberg, N., Miller, P. A., Schaller, M., Fabes, R. A., Fultz, J., Shell, R., & Shea, C. (1989). The role of sympathy and altruistic personality traits in helping: A re-examination.Journal of Personality, 57, 41–67.
Eisenberg, N., Pasternack, J. F., Cameron, E., & Tryon, K. (1984). The relation of quality and mode of prosocial behavior to moral cognitions and social style.Child Development, 155, 1479–1485.
Eisenberg, N., Schaller, M., Fabes, R. A., Bustamante, D., Mathy, R., Shell, R., & Rhodes, K. (1988). The differentiation of personal distress and sympathy in children and adults.Developmental Psychology, 24, 766–775.
Eisenberg, N., Shea, C. L., Carlo, G. & Knight, G. (in press). Empathy-related responding and cognition: A “chicken and the egg” dilemma. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Ed.),Moral behavior and development: Advances in theory, research, and application (Vol. 2). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Eisenberg-Berg, N., & Hand, M. (1979). The relationship of preschooler's reasoning about prosocial moral conflicts to prosocial behavior.Child Development, 50, 356–363.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1975).Unmasking the face. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists.
Ekman, P., & Firesen, W. V. (1978).The facial action coding system. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1982). Felt, false, and miserable smiles.Journal of nonverbal Behavior, 6, 238–252.
Fabes, R. A., Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1990). Maternal correlates of children's vicarious emotional responsiveness.Developmental Psychology, 26, 639–648.
Feshbach, S., & Feshbach, N. D. (1986). Aggression and altruism: A personality perspective. In C. Zahn-Waxler, E. M. Cummings, & R. Iannotti (Eds.),Altruism and aggression: Biological and social origins (pp. 189–217). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fultz, J., Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A. (1988, April). The altruistic personality, focus of attention, and helping. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.
Hoffman, M. L. (1982). Development of prosocial motivation: Empathy and guilt. In N. Eisenberg (Ed.),The development of prosocial behavior (pp. 218–231). New York: Academic Press.
Hoffman, M. L. (1984). Interaction of affect and cognition in empathy. In C. E. Izard, J. Kagan, & R. B. Zajonc (Eds.),Emotions, cognitions, and behavior (pp. 103–131). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hume, D. (1966).Enquiries concerning the human understanding and concerning the principles of morals. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press (2nd ed.). (Original work published 1777).
Lacey, J. I., Kagan, J., Lacey, B. C., & Moss, H. A. (1963). The visceral level: Situational determinants and behavioral correlates of autonomic response patterns. In P. H. Knapp (Ed.),Expression of the emotions in man. (pp. 161–196). New York: International Universities Press.
Lanzetta, J. T., Cartwright-Smith, J., & Kleck, R. E. (1976). Effects of nonverbal dissimulation on emotional experience and autonomic arousal.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 354–370.
Larsen, R. J. (1984). Theory and measurement of affect intensity as an individual difference characteristic.Dissertation Abstracts International, 5, 2297B. (University Microfilms No. 84-22112)
Larsen, R. J., Diener, E., & Cropanzano, R. A. (1987). Cognitive operations associated with individual differences in affect intensity.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 767–774.
Larsen, R. J., Diener, E., & Emmons, R. A. (1986). Affect intensity and reactions to daily life events.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51 803–814.
Lazarus, R. S. (1974). A cognitively oriented psychologist looks at biofeedback.American Psychologist, 30 553–561.
MacDowell, K. A., & Mandler, G. (1989). Constructions of emotion: Discrepancy, arousal, and mood.Motivation and Emotion, 13 105–124.
Marcus, R. F. (1987). Somatic indices of empathy. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.),Empathy and its development (pp. 369–374). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Mehrabian, A. (1977). Individual differences in stimulus screening and arousability.Journal of Personality, 45 237–250.
Mehrabian, A. (1980).Basic dimensions for a general psychological theory. Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn, & Hain.
Murphy, L. B. (1937).Social behavior and child personality. New York: Columbia University Press.
Notarius, C. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1979). Expressive tendencies and physiological response to stress.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 1204–1210.
Patrick, C. J., Craig, K. D., & Prkachin, K. M. (1986). Observer judgments of acute pain: Facial action determinants.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 1291–1298.
Saarni, C. (1990). Emotional competence: How emotions and relationships become integrated. In R. A. Thompson (Ed.),Socioemotional development (pp. 115–182). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Schroeder, D. A., Dovidio, J. F., Sibicky, M. E., Matthews, L. L., & Allen, J. L. (1988). Empathic concern and helping behavior: Egoism or altruism?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 24 333–353.
Shaver, P., Schwartz, J., Kirson, D., & O'Connor, C. (1987). Emotion knowledge: Further exploration of a prototype approach.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 1061–1086.
Shennum, W. A., & Bugental, D. B. (1982). The development of control over affective expression in nonverbal behavior. In R. S. Feldman (Ed.),Development of nonverbal behavior in children (pp. 101–121). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Stotland, E. (1969). Exploratory studies in empathy. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.),Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 271–314). New York: Academic Press.
Strayer, J. (1983, April).Emotional and cognitive components of children's empathy. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Detroit.
Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1984). Negative affectivity: The disposition to experience aversive emotional states.Psychological Bulletin, 96 465–490.
Wegner, D. M., & Giuliano, T. (1980). Arousal-induced attention to the self.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38 719–726.
Winton, W. M., Putnam, L. E., & Krauss, R. M. (1984). Facial and autonomic manifestations of the dimensional structure of emotion.Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 20 195–216.
Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., & Goldsamt, L. A. (1990). Does affect induce self-focused attention?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58 899–908.
Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., Neale, J. N. Stone, A. A., & Rachmiel, T. B. (1990). Self-focused attention, coping responses, and distressed mood in everyday life.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58 1027–1036.
Underwood, B., & Moore, B. (1982). Perspective-taking and altruism.Psychological bulletin, 91 143–173.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R.A. Empathy: Conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior. Motiv Emot 14, 131–149 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00991640
- Social Psychology
- Emotional Response
- Prosocial Behavior
- Methodological Issue
- Important Concept