From a neurological point of view, what limits affective empathy

Empathy and Compassion as Psychological Skills

Table of Contents

List of figures

Abstract / summary

1 Introduction

2 Definitions and delimitation of terms
2.1 Definition of empathy
2.2 Differentiation of empathy from similar phenomena
2.3 Definition of compassion
2.4 Differences and connections between empathy and compassion

3 Measurement of empathy and compassion
3.1 Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI)
3.2 Saarbrücken Personality Questionnaire (SPF)
3.3 Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition (MASC)

4 differences between empathy and compassion on other levels
4.1 Neural basics and differences
4.2 Cultural differences
4.3 Differences in psychotherapy

5 Disruption of empathy
5.1 Psychopathy
5.2 Autism Spectrum Disorder
5.3 Alexithymia

6 Encouraging empathy and compassion

7 discussion

8 Conclusion



Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI)

Saarbrücken Personality Questionnaire (SPF)

List of figures

Figure 1. Compassion and empathic distress. Schematic model for differentiating between two empathic reactions to the suffering of other people

Figure 2. The limbic system in two views.

Figure 3. Overlapping brain activity in fMRI studies of perceived empathy for disgust,

Figure 4. Empathy network

Abstract / summary

The present bachelor thesis deals with the differences and connections between empathy and compassion from different perspectives. In common usage, these terms are often used synonymously, but significant differences can be identified on several levels. Both constructs describe the ability to empathize with another person emotionally and cognitively, but while empathy shares the same feelings and negative emotions can damage your health, compassion is more about feelings of warmth and To develop sympathy coupled with a motivation for prosocial actions. Despite these distinctions, the two skills are related in that they can merge. In addition to imaging methods, questionnaires such as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) are often used to measure the constructs. At the neural level, activations in the anterior insula and in the anterior cingulate cortex are shown in empathy, while compassion triggers activations in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, among other things. Studies with a cultural reference show that people from Western cultures feel more empathetic participation and less distress than Asian people. With some psychological phenomena, e.g. psychopathy, autism spectrum disorder and alexithymia, certain components of the ability to empathize are limited, but there are numerous ways to promote both empathy and compassion.

The present bachelor thesis deals with the differences and coherences of empathy and compassion from different perspectives. In common parlance these terms are often used synonymously, however, significant differences can be ascertained at several levels. Though both constructs describe the ability to put oneself in somebody else's position emotionally and cognitively, however, with empathizing the same feelings are shared and therefore negative emotions can lead to health damages while with compassion feelings of warmth and condolence linked with the motivation to prosocial actions , arise. Despite these differences, both abilities are connected to each other, as they can lead to one another. Beside imaging techniques, questionnaires, like the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) are often used for the measurements of these constructs. At the neurological level, activations in the anterior insula and in the anterior cingulate cortex appear with empathy, while compassion leads to activations in, inter alia, the media orbitofrontal cortex. Studies with cultural relation show that people from western cultures feel more empathic concern and less distress than Asian people. Some psychological phenomena, for instance psychopathy, autism and alexithymia show limited empathic abilities, nevertheless, there are also numerous possibilities to foster empathy, as well as compassion.

1 Introduction

The terms empathy and compassion denote complex constructs that have been a hot topic for centuries (cf.Hassenstab, Dziobek, Rogers, Wolf & Convit, 2007) and describe the ability to empathize with other people and both joy and that To understand and share the suffering of other people. The importance of these two constructs arises mainly for social reasons, because empathy and compassion are fundamental psychological skills that play an important role in human interaction. They are essential for building and maintaining supporting relationships (Staemmler, 2008) and help to draw conclusions about the mental states of others in order to understand and predict their intentions and actions (Hein & Singer, 2008). In social contexts, empathy and compassion are essential because they are the prerequisites for morality and prosocial behavior (de Vignemont & Singer, 2006).

It seems like empathy and compassion have something in common, but there are some distinct differences on a psychological and neuronal level. Both in everyday language and in scientific literature, the two terms empathy and compassion are often used synonymously, which makes it clear that there is no clear consensus on the definitions (Batson, 2009). Empathy is seen as a complex, multidimensional construct that is researched in various scientific disciplines, such as neurology, psychology, philosophy and economics, while compassion finds comparatively less attention in literature.

The present work deals with precisely this topic, with the aim of clearly delimiting the constructs of empathy and compassion on several levels. First of all, the two terms are defined on the basis of current research and literature results and differentiated from other terms that are also widely used as synonyms. The differences and potential connections on a psychological level are then explained.

The next chapter is about ways of measuring empathy and compassion in order to be able to put the results of the research in the right context. Some well-known psychological test procedures are presented for this purpose.

Chapter four looks at the differences between empathy and compassion on other eye characteristics. First, the neural basis and structures involved in the two processes are explained and then it is examined whether there are differences from a neural point of view. Next, it is examined whether and to what extent the culture and the social environment have an influence on the development or the expression of empathy and compassion and finally whether there are differences between the two skills in psychotherapy from the perspective of the therapist and which of the two skills is more appropriate are involved in therapy.

Another approach to analyzing the conceptual definition and determining the relevance of empathy is the investigation of psychological phenomena in which the ability to empathize is limited or even absent. Accordingly, in the fifth chapter, the disorders psychopathy, autism spectrum disorder and alexithymia are examined with regard to their limited ability to empathize.

In order to give an all-encompassing view of the abilities, development-promoting possibilities and training are presented in the chapter Encouraging empathy and compassion. There are numerous approaches to promote and train both empathy and compassion (Gerdes & Segal, 2011; Singer & Klimecki, 2014; Van den Brink & Koster, 2015).

Finally, the results are discussed and summarized in a conclusion with implications for the future.

2 Definitions and delimitation of terms

2.1 Definition of empathy

According to de Vignemont and Singer (2006), there are almost as many definitions of empathy as there are people who deal with it. In common usage, empathy represents the fundamental ability to empathize with another person, cognitively as well as emotionally, to share their feelings and thus to gain an insight into their motives. The empathic reaction can be triggered by the expressive behavior of another person or by the situation in which they find themselves (Bischof-Köhler, 2006).

The term empathy comes from the German word Empathy ab, which, as Titchener (1909) describes, was introduced by the German artist Theodor Lipps in 1903 and means a process in which observers try to empathize with another person or object. Titchener (1909) translated the term empathy into English empathywhat from the ancient Greek word empátheia (suffer, feel) arises. In the course of time, the concept has been subject to numerous attempts at definition and paraphrase, which led to disagreement and misunderstanding (Preston & de Waal, 2002). To date, the existing definition approaches are heterogeneous and there is no clear consensus.

Empathy shows up in the various research fields of psychology as a multidimensional phenomenon. Depending on the context, other components are assigned to it. Therefore, different theories and models exist side by side, some of which relate to one another and some of which contradict one another. Despite the discrepancies, a consensus can largely be found in one respect: The dominant assumption is that the construct of empathy is composed of both cognitive and affective components (Baron-Cohen, 2009; Blair & Blair, 2009; Davis, 1983; Decety & Jackson, 2006; Decety & Lamm, 2006; Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Rankin et al., 2006; Roth et al., 2016; Shamay-Tsoory, 2009). The cognitive component covers the ability to recognize the emotional states of others and to empathize with them, whereas the affective component describes empathic participation.

Decety and Jackson (2004) even describe three functional components of empathy that can only enable empathy together. This includes, as a prerequisite, the recognition of emotions, for example using facial expressions or verbal utterances, the assumption of perspective as a cognitive component and the affective reliving as the ability to perceive one's own emotions in order to simulate the emotional state of the other person.

2.2 Differentiation of empathy from similar phenomena

The present work is based on the empathy construct of de Vignemont and Singer (2006) with the following definition.

Empathy exists when these conditions are met:

1. One is in an affective state;
2. This state is like the affective state of another person;
3. The state was triggered by observing or imagining the other person's affective state;
4. One is aware that the other person is the source of one's own affective state;

These criteria enable the concept of empathy to be differentiated from related constructs, which are often used synonymously in colloquial language. These constructs include, for example, phenomena of social cognition such as cognitive perspective adoption, theory of mind, emotional contagion, sympathy and compassion. The connections and differences between empathy and compassion will be examined in more detail in the next few chapters. First of all, for a clearer understanding of empathy and as a supplement to the definition, only a few distinctions should be made to the constructs just mentioned.

Both the cognitive perspective adoption as well as the Theory of Mind relate, as the terms already indicate, primarily to the cognitive process of putting someone into another person's position and are not necessarily associated with the same feelings. Thus, the first condition according to de Vignemont and Singer (2006) would not be fulfilled, because there is no emotional involvement in the state of the other person.

In the phenomenon of Emotional contagion Although the first two criteria according to de Vignemont and Singer (2006) are met, the observer is not aware that the origin of his emotional state is in another person. Preston and de Waal (2002) also point out that the same internal state is achieved, but the demarcation between oneself and the other person is abolished. A classic example of emotional contagion is provided by de Vignemont and Singer (2006) when they describe babies starting to cry because other babies are crying without necessarily being aware that they are crying because of the other.

The German term sympathy describes, according to Staemmler (2008), the affection and affection for another person. This is an “emotionally positive attitude that can remain superficial and does not necessarily require a noteworthy empathic commitment” (Staemmler, 2008, p. 28), but an existing sympathy can lead to an empathic reaction (Staemmler, 2009 ) and vice versa, the experience of empathy can lead to sympathy for the person concerned (Decety & Lamm, 2006). De Vignemont and Singer (2006) emphasize that sympathy, like empathy, leads to an affective state triggered by another person, but the two states do not have to be the same, which means that the second condition for empathy is not fulfilled would.

2.3 Definition of compassion

According to Singer and Klimecki (2014), the psychological ability of compassion is characterized by a feeling of warmth, compassion, concern and concern for another person, coupled with a strong motivation to improve the person's condition. In order for compassion to develop, the respective person must first put themselves in the shoes of the other person and understand their emotions.

The German term sympathy becomes the English term compassion equated to which from the Latin com (with, together) and pati (suffer) descends. Also the English term sympathy is used synonymously for the translation of compassion.

Goetz, Keltner and Simon-Thomas (2010) add the terms sympathy, Compassion, and empathic participation as subcategories of compassion, since they are related states. All four terms share central characteristics, such as concern and the resulting concern to alleviate the suffering of another individual. Compassion is usually seen as the emotion from which prosocial interventions and assistance arise (Bischof-Köhler, 2006).

According to Staemmler (2009), there are at least two types of compassion. The first type of compassion is concretely based on the idea of ​​what a person or group of people feels and experiences, coupled with a feeling of benevolence for the person suffering and a resulting opinion, for example through giving comfort. The second type of compassion, on the other hand, is broader and it is a fundamental attitude towards all living beings in which there is an effort to shape one's own lifestyle in such a way that the life of all living beings is positively influenced, existing suffering is reduced and generally less Suffering arises. This type of compassion is practiced by Buddhist monks around the world, for example, and is part of their philosophy of life (cf. Singer & Bolz, 2013). In addition, compassion plays a fundamental role in most religions and secular ethics (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

Singer and Bolz (2013) make an important distinction between compassion and the related emotion pity. Compassion is often confused with compassion and describes a feeling of regret over one's own unhappiness or the suffering of others. In contrast to compassion, however, compassion is not helpful because it creates a feeling of one's own superiority and "also blocks one's own impulses and activities to alleviate the suffering in an appropriate way, and can even increase suffering" (Singer & Bolz, 2013, p.165).

2.4 Differences and connections between empathy and compassion

Staemmler (2008) sums up the relationship between empathy and compassion with the following words: "The traditional understanding of empathy and the (...) concept of compassion have (...) something in common and differ at the same time" (p.29) . Both constructs seem to have some overlap, which is underlined by their frequent equation. Empathy and compassion share elements such as compassion, concern, and concern for the well-being of other people. Here, however, it is often overlooked that the feeling that develops at the sight of another person's suffering can take on different dimensions with empathy and compassion.

Singer and Lamm (2009) emphasize that in empathy as well as compassion one feels something triggered indirectly by another person; however, these are not the same feelings. Feeling empathy for a sad person results in grief in oneself, whereas compassion for a grieving person does not induce sadness in oneself, but rather results in feelings of regret or compassionate concern. As another example of the distinction, Singer and Lamm (2009) cite the fact that a person cannot be jealous of himself if he notices that someone else is jealous of him, but he might feel compassion for the jealous person.

Furthermore, empathy is not necessarily linked to the motivation to engage in prosocial actions to improve the well-being of another person, whereas there is such a link between prosocial behavior and compassion (Hein & Singer, 2008).

Singer and Klimecki (2014) find that compassion, as opposed to empathy, does not mean sharing someone else's suffering in the same way, but rather looking to increase the other person's well-being. So compassion is more about something For feeling a person instead of the same With to feel her. The second criterion for the existence of empathy according to de Vignemont and Singer (2006) is therefore not met.

Despite these differences, the two constructs are related in that they can merge into one another (see Fig. 1). According to Singer and Klimecki (2014), empathy is the basis for further reactions that can result from sympathy. On the one hand, a sense of empathy directed at the other person, e.g. for their predicament, and on the other hand, an uncomfortable feeling of being concerned about oneself, the so-called distress. Decety and Lamm (2006) describe distress as an aversive, self-focused emotional response to understanding another person's emotional state. This reaction is accompanied by an urge to evade the situation in order to protect oneself from the negative feelings (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

Figure not included in this excerpt

Figure 1. Compassion and empathic distress. Schematic model for differentiating between two empathic reactions to the suffering of other people (based on Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

While compassion is accompanied by positive feelings, in the case of negative emotions, empathic distress can lead to an uncomfortable state that adversely affects health. Both Batson & Ahmad (2009) and Eisenberg (2000) were able to confirm with their research that people who feel compassion in a situation help more often than people who suffer from empathic distress. Hein and Singer (2008) therefore suggest that it would make sense to convert empathy, especially in negative situations, into compassion so that prosocial motivation can arise.

Since these two emotional reactions can lead to very different results, it is of great importance to develop an understanding of which factors determine these different social emotions and to find out more about whether and how one can train and change these emotional reactions (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

3 Measurement of empathy and compassion

In order to be able to explore the skills of empathy and compassion, it is first important to establish methods of how these can be measured. In addition to neuropsychological measurements with the help of functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI), numerous test procedures based primarily on psychological parameters are used in research. These test procedures include, for example, behavioral observations (Knafo, Zahn-Waxler, van Hulle, Robinson & Rhee, 2008; Long, Angera & Hakoyama, 2006), experimental paradigms (Birch & Bloom, 2007; Mohr, Rowe & Blanke, 2010; Thakkar & Park, 2010) and the measurement of biological markers (Dziobek et al., 2011; Marci, Ham, Moran & Orr, 2007).

Two well-known self-assessment questionnaires and a film-based method are presented below. These test procedures are mainly used in research to measure empathy. Since there is no adequate distinction to the construct of compassion established, there are hardly any popular psychological methods for measuring compassion.

3.1 Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI)

The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) by Davis (1983) is a self-assessment questionnaire for measuring the ability to empathize and is one of the most frequently used empathy questionnaires in practice (Paulus, 2009). Since empathy is seen as a complex and multidimensional construct with both cognitive and affective components, this test tries to capture empathy holistically in order to be able to differentiate individual differences in empathy.

The questionnaire consists of 28 items (see Appendix 1) with the following four scales of seven items each (Davis, 1983):

1. perspective taking - (PT), example item: I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision.
2. fantasy - (F), example item: I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
3. empathic concern - (EC), example item: I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.


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