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Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 14, No.

2, 1990

Empathy: Conceptualization, Measurement,

and Relation to Prosocial Behavior 1
Nancy Eisenberg 2 and Richard A. Fabes
Arizona State University

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,

AIthough the development of emotional empathy is not an entirely new

topic of study (e.g., Murphy, 1937), developmental and social psychological
research on empathy and related vicariously induced emotional reactions
has increased markedly in the last two decades. Part of the reason for the
interest in this topic has been the theoretical link between empathy or sympathy and both social competence (Saarni, 1990) and positive social
behaviors such as altruism (Hoffman, 1984; Hume, 1777/1966). If empathy
1This 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 (1(04 HD00717) to Nancy Eisenberg. A version of this paper
w a s presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans,
February 1990.
2Address all correspondence, including requests for reprints, to Nancy Eisenberg, Psychology,
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287.
0146-7239/90/0600-0131506.00/0 1990 Plenum Publishing



Eisenberg and Fabes

and related emotional reactions play a role in the development of valued

social behaviors, they are of obvious conceptual and applied significance.
However, some of the initial empirical findings were not consistent
with theoretical expectations. For example, in a meta-analytic review, Underwood and Moore (1982) found that empathy was not significantly related to prosocial behaviors (i.e., voluntary behaviors intended to benefit
others). Findings such as these raised serious questions about the ways in
which we had been conceptualizing and measuring empathy. It is these
questions that we have been attempting to address in our recent work.

One salient conceptual problem with the literature pertaining to empathy is that the term has been used to refer to a variety of different emotional responses. In recent studies with adults, Batson (1987a) has
demonstrated that it is very useful to distinguish among various modes of
vicariously based emotional responses. In our work, we were particularly
interested in differentiating sympathy from personal distress reactions. We
define sympathy as an other-oriented response involving some vicariously
induced emotion (e.g., concern) whereas personal distress, as defined by
Batson (1987a), is a self-focused, aversive emotional response to another's
distress. According to Batson's (1987a) and others' work (e.g., Eisenberg,
Shea, Fabes, et al., 1989; Schroeder, Dovidio, Sibicky, Matthews, & Allen,
1988), personal distress is associated with egoistic motivation and therefore
positively related to prosocial behavior primarily when there is not an easier
way than helping to reduce one's own distress. In contrast, sympathy, which
is associated with altruistic, other-oriented motives, is positively related to
altruism even if it is easy to escape from the stimuli evoking the vicarious
emotional reaction.
In our view, both sympathy and personal distress often result from
empathy--an emotional response that stems from another's emotional state
or condition, is congruent with the other's emotional state or condition,
and involves at least a minimal degree of differentiation between self and
other (Eisenberg, Shea, Carlo, & Knight, in press). Sympathy differs from
empathy in that sympathy involves the other-oriented desire for the other
person to feel better and is not the same as merely feeling what the other
person feels. In our view, cognitively taking the perspective of another often
leads to empathy, which then, in combination with additional cognitive
processing, frequently results in sympathy and/or personal distress (see
Eisenberg, Shea, et al., in press, for more detail).



Another conceptual limitation in much of the research pertaining

to the relation between vicarious emotional responding and prosocial behavior is the failure of many investigators to differentiate among various
modes of prosociaI behavior. Not all modes of prosocial behaviors would
be expected to be equally associated with sympathy or personal distress,
or associated in the same situations. For example, as has been argued
by Batson (1987a), personal distress appears to be associated with helping
primarily when helping is the only way to alleviate the helper's own
vicariously induced distress; such helping is egoistically rather than
altruistically motivated. In addition, much prosocial behavior may be performed to obtain rewards and social approval, or to avoid conflict with
peers (see Eisenberg, 1986). In contrast, sympathy but not personal distress would be expected to be associated with altruism (i.e., prosociaI behaviors that are not motivated primarily by the expectation of external
rewards or punishments or the avoidance of externally produced aversive
In summary, early findings in regard to the association of empathy
with prosocial may have underestimated the relation because of the failure
of investigators to differentiate among various modes of vicarious emotional
responding and various types of prosocial behaviors. Recent research with
adults suggests that such distinctions are critical, and in our recent work
we have tried to conceptually and empirically distinguish among various
types of emotional responses and prosociaI behaviors.

In our research program, we have used a variety of indexes to try to
differentiate between sympathy and personal distress. Specifically, we have
used physiological and facial indexes, in addition to the more traditional
self-report indexes, to address questions of social psyChological and
developmental interest. We did so because we fett we were unlikely to substantially enhance our understanding of empathy using only the methods
that were common a few years ago.
In most of the existing research 5 years ago, self-report indexes of
empathy and related responses were the sole measure of emotional
responding, particularly in research with children. However, based on a
recent meta-analytic review (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987), it has become clear
that there are substantial problems in using solely self-report indexes of
empathy, particularly with children (this probably is why Underwood and
Moore, 1982, found no relation between empathy and prosocial behavior
in their review). To summarize briefly, contrary to theory, children's self-


Eisenberg and Fabes

reports of empathy in emotionally evocative contexts and their scores on

the commonly used picture-story indexes of empathy are unrelated to their
prosocial behavior. Picture-story indexes involve presenting a child with
stories and/or pictures depicting another person in an emotionally evocative
context and then asking the child how he or she feels. Children who report
feeling what the story protagonist would be expected to feel are said to
have empathized, Children's self-reports on picture-story indexes appear
to be affected by demand characteristics (Eisenberg-Berg & Hand, 1979)
or other factors such as the sex of the experimenter (Eisenberg & Lennon,
1983). Moreover, although self-report indexes appear to be somewhat more
valid for adults than for children-for example, adults' self-reports of sympathy have been positively associated with their prosocial behavior-it also
is clear that adults' self-reports of empathy and related reactions are influenced by concern with others' or their own evaluations. Evidence of this
is that gender differences in empathy are huge for self-report questionnaires of empathy in which it is obvious what was being indexed, but are
smaller or nonexistent for other types of indexes that are less self-evident
with regard to their purpose (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983). Moreover,
adults' self-reports of empathy have been associated with indexes of social
desirability in some studies (Cialdini et al., 1987; Eisenberg, Miller, et al.,
In contrast to the findings for such self-report indexes of empathy,
there does seem to be a positive association between empathy and
children's prosocial behavior in studies involving indexes of empathy that
are not self-reported (see Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). Thus, given the clear
problems with self-report indexes when used with children (especially young
children) and our developmental interests, it seemed unlikely that we would
progress significantly in our understanding of empathy and related responses if we did not turn to a different methodology. Moreover, there
were hints in the scarce relevant literature involving physiological indexes
that physiological measures might prove interesting and fruitful. Thus, we
turned our research efforts in that direction.
As mentioned previously, in most of the existing research self-report
indexes of empathy were the only measures used. As it became clear that
there were substantial problems in relying solely on subjects' self-reports
of empathy, researchers have began to incorporate a variety of nonverbal
indexes into their research. Given the important progress made in recent
years toward the development of reliable facial and physiological indexes
that can be used as markers o f empathy-related emotions, questions have
been raised as to which indexes best measure empathy, sympathy, and personal distress. We now briefly review the major advantages and disadvantages for each type of measure.



Self-Report Indexes of Empathy. As Batson (1987b) has noted, the advantages of measuring empathy using self-reports are obvious. First, such
measures are easy to administer and use and can be completed in a relatively short amount of time. Second, verbal indexes can provide a relatively
differentiated measure of vicarious emotional responding, whereas other
measures may provide only a more diffuse index of empathy.
The value of self-report measures rests on the assumptions that the
research participants are aware of what they are feeling and can (and will)
report feelings accurately. There are, however, several good reasons for
questioning these assumptions. First, concern must be raised regarding the
degree to which individuals can decipher and accurately communicate their
emotional states. This concern is especially strong when self-reports are
used with young children who may have difficulty comprehending questions
or producing accurate responses regarding their emotional states. Moreover, children's ability to differentiate among closely related emotional
states (such as sympathy and personal distress) may be limited. For example, in our own research (Fabes, Eisenberg, & Miller, 1990), children's
reports of personal distress were found to be positively related to their
reports of sympathy and negative affect. Thus, children's reports of personal
distress may tap sympathy as well as (or instead of) personal distress (also
see Batson et al., 1988, for similar findings with adults).
A second concern regarding the reliability of self-reports is the previously mentioned bias that may result from self-presentation and social
desirability biases (see earlier discussion). This disadvantage may increase
in importance during the preschool years as children (particularly boys)
become increasingly reluctant to express negative affect (Brody, 1984).
Thus, subjects' self-reports often may tell us as much about how respondents want to see themselves or to be seen as how they actually feel or
respond in empathy-inducing contexts.
Facial Indexes of Empathy. Facial responses are highly accessible indexes of individuals' emotional responses. Considerable research has established the universality and reliability of some facial emotional responses
(e.g., Ekman & Friesen, 1975) and interrater agreement generally has been
high on measures of facial empathy across various emotional stimuli (see
Marcus, 1987). Because facial measures of empathy can be collected in
ways that make them less subject to self-presentation or social desirability
bias (e.g., collected through a one-way mirror or with hidden cameras in
the absence of the experimenter), they may have an edge over self-report
measures of empathy.
However, facial emotional responses of emotional responding can be
falsified (e.g., they can be neutralized or masked; Shennum & Bugental,
1982). Similar to the findings regarding the verbal expression of negative


Eisenbergand Fabes

affect, negative facial expressions of sympathy and personal distress appear

to be increasingly masked with age during the elementary-school years
(Strayer, 1983), which decreases the strength of their predictiveness.
Moreover, individual differences in facial expressiveness may limit its
predictive power. Notarius and Levenson (1979) found that those individuals who naturally inhibited their facial expressions tended to show
less facial expressivity when exposed to a threat of shock than did those
individuals who were judged to be natural expressors. Thus, the predictiveness of facial indexes may vary according to the stimuli, the subjects, and
the context in which they measured (Fabes et al., 1990).
Physiological Indexes of Empathy. The great advantage to the use of
physiological indexes of empathy is that such indexes suffer less from the
self-presentational bias that may influence verbal and facial indexes (see
Eisenberg, Fabes, Bustamante, & Mathy, 1987). Moreover, as is discussed
shortly, there is reason to believe that physiological indexes can be used
as markers of empathy-related emotions, tn addition, because physiological responses can be recorded continuously, they allow researchers to
assess changes in emotionality across time, whereas verbal (and to some
degree facial) indexes generally are used to assess empathy at a few points
in time.
The major disadvantages of physiological indexes of empathy lie in
the problems associated with their interpretation. Although physiological
changes may reflect discrete emotional responses, they also are influenced
by a wide range of nonemotional factors (e.g., attention, cognition, physical
activity, or extraneous external stimuli). Decisions regarding the proper
baseline and how to handle individual differences in baseline physiological
responding are tricky ones. Additionally, subjects' reactivity to the
physiological equipment may affect their responses. The mechanics involved in physiological equipment may affect their responses. The
mechanics involved in physiological recording typically not only constrain
subjects' movements but also may be uncomfortable or frightening, particularly to children.
In summary, there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each
type of index of vicarious emotional responding and the predictiveness of
each mode of index varies from study to study. For these reasons, we
believe that using one type of index over another as a definitive index of
empathy-related responses is not optimal. Thus, when we started this program of research, two of our goals were to differentiate between sympathetic and personal distress reactions using non-self-report measures, and
to examine the relations of these indexes to prosocial behavior. In this
paper, we summarize the results of a series of studies, providing more detail
for some studies that are not already published.




In our first studies, we used heart rate (HR), as well as facial and
self-report indexes, as a marker of sympathy and personal distress. There
are conceptual and empirical reasons to expect different H R patterns to
be associated with sympathetic and personal distress reactions. Specifically
it is likely that sympathy (frequently resulting from empathic sadness),
which involves an other-oriented focus of attention, is associated with the
intake of information concerning the needy other, interest in the other,
and an outward attention. This type of information processing has been
associated with H R deceleration in the psychophysiological literature
(Cacioppo & Sandman, 1978; Lacey, Kagan, Lacey, & Moss, 1963). Of
course, H R deceleration could also reflect an outward orientation unaccompanied by sympathy because physiological changes are affected by many
factors including cognitive processes. However, in situations involving needy
or distressed others, other-oriented cognitive processes such as role taking
might also be expected to lead to increased helping (Underwood & Moore,
In contrast, when vicarious responding results in an aversive reaction
such as apprehension, anxiety, or discomfort, it would be expected to be
associated with the processing of information relevant to one's own situation. Cognitive elaboration, anxiety, and active coping have been associated
with H R acceleration across a variety of studies (e.g., Cacioppo &
Sandman, 1978; Craig, 1968; Lacey et aL, 1963; Lazarus, 1974); thus, a selffocused, personal distress reaction can be expected to be associated with
H R acceleration.
The pattern of expected findings for facial expressions is somewhat
more obvious; we hypothesized that sympathetic persons would exhibit
concerned attention on their face and perhaps empathic sadness when
confronted with distressed or needy persons whereas people experiencing
personal distress would exhibit facial anxiety or distress (including nervous
smiles). In our research, facial expressions have been coded using an adaptation of Ekman and Friesen's (1975, 1978, 1982) facial coding system.
For every designated time period (e.g., every 5, i5, or 30 s on the
videotape, depending on the study), the coders scored the child on a
variety of emotions with a 5-point scoring system (1 = no display of the
emotion; 5 = strong display of emotion). Fear, sadness, and happiness were
coded using criteria very similar to those of Ekman and Friesen (1975,
1978, 1982). However, maximum responding during the time period and
specific facial expressions were coded, not specific facial movements.
Personal distress was coded if the child displayed a reaction similar to
Ekman and Friesen's mild apprehension expression (e.g., eyebrows some-


Eisenberg and Fabes

what raised and pulled together), or exhibited nonfunctional, nervous

mouth and chin movements such as the tightening or biting of the lips.
Concerned attention was viewed as indicative of sympathetic reactions because it seemed to reflect other-oriented attention (Eisenberg, Fabes, et
al., 1989). The criteria were the eyebrows pulled down flat and forward
toward the bridge of the nose, furrowing in the center of the brow (for
some children), eyelids not pulled in tight or raised, head and body
oriented forward, and the bottom eyelids sometimes raised slightly. Hurt
expressions sometimes were coded using Patrick, Craig, and PfKachin's
(1986) criteria (e.g., upper lip raised, cheek raised, lids tight), but always
were very infrequent (see Eisenberg, Fabes, et al., 1988, 1989, 1990; Eisenberg, Schaller, et al., 1988, for more details).
In a series of four studies, we sought to determine whether we could
use HR, as well as facial expressions and self-reported reactions, to differentiate between emotional reactions in situations designed to elicit either
primarily sympathy or primarily personal distress. In the first study, preschoolers (4- to 5-year-olds) and second graders were exposed to three
short videotapes designed to elicit the emotions of personal distress (mild
apprehension or anxiety), sympathy, and empathic sadness. In the distress
tape, the children viewed a boy and girl frightened in a thunderstorm; this
tape was expected to elicit mild anxiety and apprehension akin to personal
distress. In the second tape, a young girl facially and vocally exhibited sadness because her pet had died; this tape was expected to elicit empathic
sadness and sympathy. In the third tape (the cognitive sympathy tape), a
girl with spina bifida who exhibited neutral to positive affect was shown
having difficult walking. We expected this tape to elicit empathic sadness
and sympathy, but only for children who could use more than the child's
vocal and facial cues to make inferences about the child's situation (see
Eisenberg, Fabes, et al., 1988, for details).
In general, the results supported the validity of our indexes. H R accelerated during the most evocative part of the distressing tape and
decelerated during the evocative parts of the sadness and cognitive sympathy tapes. Facial sadness was highest during the overtly sad tape and
lowest during the distressing tape whereas facial fear and distress were
highest in the distressing tape. Moreover, children's self-reports differed
across tapes in a manner consistent with the content of the tapes, although
their self-reports were somewhat more differentiated with age.
Similarly, in two more recent studies, we examined elementary school
children's (unpublished data) and adults' (Eisenberg, Fabes, et al., in press)
HR, facial, and self-reported reactions to two f i l m s - a sympathy-inducing
film and a distressing film. In one study, third and sixth graders viewed
the aforementioned tape about the child with spina bifida and a film in



which two boys became frightened because they were home alone and there
was a strange man lurking outside the house (Feshbach & Feshbach, 1986).
Children reported more happiness, sadness, and sympathy, and less distress,
in response to the sympathy film (in comparison to the distress film), Fs
(1, 111) = 8.67, 23.98, 23.44, and 45A0ps < .004, .001, .001, and .001. They
also exhibited less facial personal distress and more concerned attention
while watching the sympathy film, j~' (t, 102) = 3.91 and 5.54, p s < .051
and .023. In addition, according to a linear trend analysis, there was a Film
x Linear trend interaction, F (1, 110) = 5.96, p < .05; H R accelerated
during the most evocative portion of the distressing film, F (1, 110) = 15.91,
p < .001, but not during the evocative portion of the sympathy film.
Similar results were obtained in a study in which college students
viewed the spina bifida film and a distressing film (about a young man
who has picked up a hitchhiker who threatens to cut off his head). The
adults reported emotional reactions consistent with the content of the
f i l m s - m o r e persona! distress was reported for the distressing film and
more sympathy in reaction to the sympathy film, all p s < .001. Relatively
little facial affect was observed in response to either film, atthough the
subjects did exhibit more facial distress in response to the distressing film.
H R decelerated during the most evocative portion of the distressing film,
perhaps because it was already heightened due to the frightening content
in earlier sections of the distressing film clip. Consistent with this explanation, H R was marginally higher during the most evocative portion of the
distressing film than during the analogous portion of the sympathy film,
p < .058.
The fourth relevant study involved a different method of inducing
vicarious emotional responses. A mood induction procedure was used to
induce personal distress and sympathetic reactions (Eisenberg, Schaller, et
at., 1988). Elementary school children and adults reminisced about two
situations, one in which they had felt anxious about their own welfare and
one in which they had been concerned about someone else's welfare. They
also talked about neutrai topics, for example, their route to school.
Throughout the inductions, H R and facial expressions were monitored;
moreover, participants reported how they felt while reminiscing (distressed,
sympathetic, and positive or negative mood).
Again the results generally were consistent with the conclusion that
HR, facial indices, and self-reported reactions could be used as markers of
sympathy and personal distress. H R was higher in the distress than in the
sympathy induction; facial sadness and concerned attention were highest in
the sympathy induction (findings for facial distress were tess clear); and
self-reports differed in ways consistent with the content of the inductions
(with the exception of males' reports of personal distress).


Eisenberg and Fabes

Thus, summarizing across these four studies, it appeared that we

could use H R as well as facial and self-report indexes as rough markers
(Cacioppo & Tassinary, 1990) of sympathy and personal distress in an attempt to examine the relation between vicarious responding and prosocial
behavior. We now turn to studies in which we did so.



In a series of studies, we have examined the relation of vicarious

emotional responding to prosocial behavior. In one study, second and fifth
graders and adults were exposed to a videotape of a purported television
show about real people in the local community who had been in an
automobile accident. The tape was filmed in a hospital, where two children
were in bed with injuries. On the tape, their mother described the
problems the children were having with their therapy and school work,
and their fears about being held back in school. Participants' facial and
H R responses were recorded while they watched the tape, and they also
reported their emotional reactions to the tape. In addition, their H R and
facial responses were monitored while they read (or were read) a letter
in which the mother in the tape asked for assistance (Eisenberg, Fabes,
et al., 1989).
With regard to HR, H R deceleration during the most sympathy-inducing portion of the film was associated with helping more than the minimum amount allowable. In addition, facial sadness (for adults) and
concerned attention (for children) were positively related to prosocial
responding, although the results for children were qualified by interactions
with grade and sex (and, therefore, were not as clear as the results for
adults). In addition, there was some evidence that personal distress was
negatively related to children's prosocial responding and that self-reports
of sympathy were associated with adults' helping. Moreover, in an unpublished study in which we examined the association between H R and
helping in a similar situation, H R acceleration was associated with low
levels of helping the family in the hospital film (Fultz, Eisenberg, & Fabes,
In a more recent study, we sought to determine whether H R and
facial indexes would predict prosocial behavior for young children. Preschoolers were exposed to a film of injured children in the hospital (a
simpler version than used in prior studies) and given the opportunity to
assist the needy others by packing crayons in boxes for the hospitalized
children rather than playing with attractive toys. Children's self-reported



reactions were unrelated to their prosocial behavior directed toward the

hospitalized children, However, there was evidence that H R acceleration
was associated with low or no helping whereas deceleration was associated
with higher levels of helping. For boys, the facial measures were consistent
with the H R data; boys' helping was positively related to facial sadness and
negatively related to facial personal distress. Thus, the data supported the
conclusion that sympathy and personal distress are differentially related to
prosocial behavior even in 4- and 5-year olds (Eisenberg, Fabes, et al.,
In another recent study (unpublished data), we generally have replicated these findings with a sample of third and sixth graders. In this study,
H R acceleration during the most evocative portion of the film was associated with low donating, F (1, 43) = 4.26, p < .05. In addition, H R was
significantly related to donating when change in H R was correlated with
the continuous index of donating, partial r (120) = -.26, p < .004. For the
entire sample but especially for boys, facial concerned attention when viewing a handicapped child was associated with donating to help such children,
partial r (61) = .25, p < .051 for boys (controlling age, order of films, and
perspective taking set); moreover, happiness was negatively related to boys'
donating, partial r(61) = -.29, p < .023. Children's self-reported reactions
to the films were not significantIy related to helping, although girls' selfreported sadness and distress both were marginally positively related to
donating, all p < .10.
In the previously described studies, HR, facial, and self-report
measures were used primarily to predict helping directed toward the object
of subjects' vicarious response. In other words, in most of our work, as
well as in most of the recent social psychological literature, the focus has
been on situationally induced personal distress and sympathy-and their
relation to prosocial behavior--not on dispositional sympathy and personal
distress or the relation of sympathy and personal distress to dispositional
prosocial behavior. In our early studies, however, we did look at the relation
of our various indexes of v/carious responding to self-report questionnaire
measures of empathy, specifically, the Bryant (1982) and Davis (1983)
measures. In general, we found some modest associations between facial
or self-report measures of empathy, but virtually no relations for H R
(Eisenberg, Schalter, et al., 1988) except for younger children (i.e., preschooIers and second graders; Eisenberg, Fabes, et al., 1988). For younger
children only, scores on the Bryant empathy scale have been associated
with H R deceleration while viewing an empathy-inducing film.
In the aforementioned study with preschoolers (Eisenberg, Fabes, et
al., 1990), we further examined the issue of whether preschoolers' facial,
HR, and self-reported reactions in the experimental context could be used


Eisenberg and Fabes

to predict characteristic levels of prosocial behavior in a natural setting.

Specifically, children's reactions to the hospital film and another film in
which a boy and girl hurt themselves were examined in relation to their
dispositional prosocial behavior in the classroom. Compliant prosocial behaviors and defensive reactions to others' attempts to obtain objects or
space were observed in the classroom (spontaneously emitted prosocial behaviors occurred too infrequently to be reliably coded). Because compliant
behaviors in the classroom have not been associated with other-oriented
moral reasoning (Eisenberg-Berg & Hand, 1979; Eisenberg, Pasternack,
Cameron, & Tryon, 1984) and appear to be performed by compliant
children who may lack some social skills (Eisenberg, Cameron, Tryon &
Dodez, 1981), we expected compliant prosocial behavior to be associated
with markers of personal distress rather than sympathy. Another reason to
expect such a relation is that it is difficult to escape a reaMife peer who
is requesting assistance, and personal distress tends to be associated with
helping in difficult escape contexts (Batson, 1987a; Eisenberg, McCreath,
& Ahn, 1988).
Consistent with expectations, we found significant correlations between facial vicarious responding (averaged across two films) and dispositional compliant prosocial behaviors and assertive behaviors (defense) in
the preschool classroom. Boys who exhibited personal distress facial reactions engaged in more requested prosocial behavior in the classroom; in
contrast, concerned attention reactions were negatively associated with requested prosocial behaviors. Moreover, for the total sample (both sexes),
personal distress facial expressions while viewing the films were negatively
correlated with assertive, defensive behavior whereas facial concerned attention and report of sympathy were positively related to defensive behaviors. As in our previous work, there were few findings linking HR
change to dispositional indexes of behavior. Overall, then, the findings supported the view that children who exhibit relatively high levels of personal
distress are relatively compliant and nonassertive, and may assist others
primarily to reduce their distress-related reactions and/or due to lack of
ability to assert themselves. Children who are likely to experience personal
distress may have difficulty dealing with others' negative emotions and
therefore may be highly motivated to curtail conflict and exposure to
others' negative emotions (if they cannot easily escape contact). In contrast,
children who are less compliant and relatively more likely to assert themselves appear to be those who exhibit or report sympathy. Consistent with
this pattern, in a study involving only facial and self-report indexes of
vicarious responding, preschoolers' facial personal distress was positively
related to compliant sharing in a play session with a peer whereas facial
sadness/concern was positively related to spontaneous sharing with the peer



(self-report indexes were unrelated to prosocial behavior; Eisenberg,

McCreath, & Alan, 1988). Findings such as these highlight the importance
of considering motivation when examining the relation between vicarious
emotional responding and prosocial behavior.
In summary, in a series of studies involving non-self-report indexes
of vicarious emotional responding, we have obtained data supporting the
argument that sympathy and personal distress are differentially related to
children's and adults' prosocial behavior, particularly altruistic behavior.
Findings in regard to self-reported emotional reactions frequently have
been quite weak for children-a pattern that is consistent with the view
that non-self-report indexes of empathy and related constructs are particularly useful for research involving children. Nonetheless, there are still
many issues to be examined--for example, the degree to which situational
measures of sympathy and personal distress predict dispositional characteristics (e.g., altruism and egoism) is unclear (see Batson, Bolen, Cross,
& Neuringer-Benefiel, 1986; Eisenberg, Miller, et al., 1989), particularly for
non-self-report markers of responding and for children.


The findings in regard to H R discussed thus far are consistent with
the view that H R can be used as a marker of sympathy- and personal distress (at least in some contexts) and can be used to predict prosocial behavior directed toward the object of one's sympathy. However, in our
research, H R acceleration and deceleration generally were not related to
dispositional indexes of prosocial behavior or vicarious emotional responding. This might be due to HR, as we have used it, being primarily an index
of focus of attention, and being highly situationally dependent. We typically
assessed linear trends in H R during very specific, evocative portions of
films; we were not using H R as a general measure of arousability or some
related construct. Thus, it is not surprising that H R has seldom related to
any of our dispositional measures.
If HR, particularly H R deceleration (our marker of sympathetic
responding), is primarily a measure of focus of attention or related processes, it may not in itself tap into the emotional component of sympathy
or personal distress. Thus, in recent work, we have started to examine the
usefulness of skin conductance (SC) as an rough marker of intensity of emotional reactions in empathy-inducing contexts.
In many social psychological studies, SC has been viewed as an indirect marker of intensity of autonomic and emotional arousal (e.g., Craig


Eisenberg and Fabes

& Lowery, 1969; Lanzetta, Cartwright-Smith, & Kleck, 1976; MacDowell

& Mandler, 1989; Winton, Putnam & Krauss, 1984), although it may reflect
other processes and a variety of emotional responses. Indeed, SC has been
used as an index of empathy for decades (e.g., Craig & Lowery, 1969;
Stotland, 1969). Thus, it is possible that SC is associated with relatively
intense sympathetic and personal distress reactions.
Unfortunately, the role of situational or dispositionat autonomic
arousabitity (an aspect of temperament; Derryberry & Rothbart, 1988) in
situational vicarious emotional responding has seldom been examined. In
one of the few relevant studies, self-reported empathy on the Mehrabian
and Epstein questionnaire (which includes items possibly tapping empathy,
sympathy, personal distress, fantasy empathy, and other constructs) was
positively related to a questionnaire index of arousal seeking and negatively
related to stimulus screening (Mehrabian, 1977). Certain types of people
such as extroverts and emotionally arousable persons may be physiologically
underaroused and may seek out or create stronger emotional responses,
including vicariously induced emotions, in order to increase their internal
level of stimulation (Larsen, 1984; Larsen, Diener, & Emmons, 1986). In
one study that is especially pertinent to an understanding of sympathy, individuals who scored higher on a questionnaire index of dispositional affective intensity used more statements reflecting empathy or perspectivetaking when describing their reactions to emotionally evocative slides
(Larsen, Diener, & Cropanzano, 1987). However, it is possible that the
aforementioned findings regarding an association between vicarious emotional responding and emotional arousibility were due to the fact that some
people are more willing to report emotional reactivity (on any self-report
index, be it related to empathy or arousal), or are more aware of their
emotional responding.
Because personal distress reactions are, by definition, aversive and
distressing, it is quite possible that they typically are more arousing than
are sympathetic reactions or empathic sadness. Indeed, it has been
hypothesized that if people are overaroused as a result of empathizing,
they are likely to experience their emotional reaction as personally distressing (Eisenberg, Bernzweig, & Fabes, in press; Hoffman, 1982).
Moreover, sadness appears to involve less arousal than does distress
(Mehrabian, 1980), and caring, compassion, sympathy, and pity are seen
as somewhat lower in intensity and activity than are distress, worry,
anxiety, and tenseness (Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O'Connor, 1987).
Thus, empathic sadness and sympathy might be expected to be less
physiologically arousing than are feelings of personal distress, although
both would be expected to be positively correlated with dispositional in-



tensity of affective responding and fantasy empathy. In addition, sympathy may contain elements of positive affect as well as negative effect,
e.g., feelings of warmth toward others (e.g., it frequently is assessed with
adjectives such as soft-hearted). Thus, it is questionable whether SC reactivity in studies of empathy and related emotional reactions reflects intensity of sympathy and personal distress or primarily intensity of
distress-related reactions.
Our initial data suggest that SC is a better index of personal distress
than sympathy, although it atso may reflect intensity of sympathy to some
degree. In the recent study of third and sixth graders discussed previously
(unpublished data), SC (frequency of phasic responses, mean amplitude
and rise time of phasic responses, and maximum amplitude and rise time
of phasic responses, standardized within subject) was significantly higher
in response to the evocative portion of the distressing film than the
analogous portion of the sympathy-inducing film. Across grades, all five
standardized indexes of SC were higher for the distress film than for the
sympathy film, although the effect for the mean frequency index was considerably weaker, p < .044, than those of the other indexes, all p < .001.
However, there was a Grade x Film interaction. All five indexes of SC
response were significantly higher for the distress than the sympathy film
for older children, all ps < .003; however, for third graders, the only indexes
of SC that were significantly higher for the distress film were maximum
amplitude and maximum rise time, ps < .006 and .002. Thus, although in
general children exhibited more SC in response to the distress film, this
pattern was clearer for the older children.
Similarly, in a study involving college studies (Eisenberg, Fabes,
Schaller, et al., in press), SC (i.e., number of phasic responses and mean
amplitude of phasic responses, standardized within individuals) was higher
during the evocative portions of a distressing film (the hitchhiker film
described previously) than during the sympathy-inducing portions of the
spina bifida film, all ps <.001. Moreover, tonic level was higher during the
distressing film.
Additional data in these studies suggested that SC was an index of
personal distress rather than sympathy, particularly for girls. In the study
involving children, high SC (a composite index of all five measures of SC)
was positively related to girls' (but not boys') facial personal distress and
negatively correlated with scores on the Bryant (1982) questionnaire
measure of empathy. SC, unlike facial expressions (for boys) and HR, also
was unrelated to donating. In addition, in the study involving adults, SC
during the distress film was positively related to self-reported distress in


Eisenbergand Fabes

reaction to that film, but was unrelated to self-reported reactions during

the sympathy-inducing film.
In summary, although our data are only suggestive and much more
research is needed, it appears that SC may be a better correlate of personal
distress than sympathetic reactions. Sympathy may involve empathic sadness and a warm feeling toward others more than the anxiety or distress
that is likely to be reflected in high SC. In addition, people who are relatively physiologically aroused may experience their vicariously induced emotional reactions as aversive and, as a consequence, may tend to become
self- rather than other-focused.
Our latter proposition is consistent with recent theory and findings
in the literature on self-focus and negative affectivity. Wegner and
Giuliano (1980) proposed that physiological arousal may induce selffocused attention as a result of the individual's attempt to understand
that arousal. Although most researchers (e.g., Wood, Saltzberg, &
Goldsamt, 1990) have examined the relation between self-focus attention
and sadness (but not empathic sadness), self-focused attention also seems
to be associated with general feelings of anxiety or nervousness (Wood,
Saltzberg, Neale, Stone, & Rachmiel, 1990). Thus, self-focused attention
appears to be associated with general negative distress rather than sadness alone. Such a general distress state is similar to personal distress
reactions that may arise when people are exposed to others' negative
states or conditions.
Based on the argument presented above, we would expect individuals
who are high in irascibility and negative affectivity (e.g., the propensity to
experience negative emotions; Watson & Clark, 1984) to be especially likely
to become self-focused when exposed to others in distress. Moreover, because distress and self-focused attention have been found to be negatively
associated with problem-focused coping (Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, et al.,
1990), we would also hypothesize that individuals who experience high
levels of arousal, distress, and self-focused attention when exposed to others
in need would be less likely to help another person when escape is relatively
easy than would those who experience sympathy and other-oriented attention. Alternatively, perhaps an optimal level of empathic arousal is most
likely to result in sympathy whereas higher levels of empathic arousal frequently lead to personal distress, except for individuals who are relatively
skilled at regulating and coping with their own emotional arousal. In any
case, the limited research suggests that individual differences in emotional
arousability and in the capability for coping with emotion may be important
moderators of individuals' emotional and behavioral reactions to others in
need or distress.



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