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Variable: Trait Empathy


Trait empathy broadly refers to the "reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another" (Davis, 1983, p. 113). Empathy is most often thought to be comprised of multiple dimensions, and contain both cognitive and emotional components (Davis, 1996; Deutsch & Madle, 1975; Dillard & Hunter, 1989; Feshbach, 1975; Gladstein, 1983; Johnson, Cheek, & Smither, 1983; Stiff, Dillard, Somera, Kim, & Sleight, 1988).

Empathy can be thought of as a trait, whereby individuals vary on the stable level of empathy they bring to a situation. Empathy has also been treated as a state, meaning that the level of experienced empathy can vary according to situations (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Shen, 2010). The most common measure of trait empathy derives from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a 28-item, four-dimensional measure-perspective taking, empathic concern, emotional contagion, and fantasy-developed by Davis (1980, 1983).

Trait empathy is important in health communication research because the impact of various message strategies (e.g., narrative) may depend, in part, on the level of trait empathy a person possesses. Empathy has been shown to predict prosocial behavior, such as comforting behavior after horror film exposure (Tamborini, Salomonson, & Bahk, 1993), volunteering to help an organization (Stiff, et al., 1988), forgiveness (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997), among others.

More importantly, trait empathy has been associated with transportation (the extent that individuals are absorbed into a story, Green & Brock, 2000, 2002; Hall & Bracken, 2011), which in turn has been shown to influence attitudes about health outcomes, such as belief change upon exposure to messages that advocate moderating alcohol drinking during college parties (Braverman, 2008).

Transportation into a story can impact an individual's beliefs and attitudes. In turn, the degree to which a person is transported into a narrative world can create and change attitudes. Specifically, transportation is theorized to be the primary mechanism that underlies the effect of narrative messages and is hypothesized to mediate the relationship between message exposure and persuasion, particularly in a health context (Green & Brock, 2000, 2002). Such outcomes may be useful when trying to improve individuals' beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors about a particular health issue through narrative messages (Green, 2006; Kreuter, Green, Cappella, et al., 2007; Slater, 2002; Slater & Rouner, 1996).

Further, trait empathy can be a precursor to message-induced state empathy. The latter has been shown to impact persuasion and reduce psychological reactance upon exposure to anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol PSAs (Shen, 2010).

Suggested Measures

The most common measure of empathy comes from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) developed by Davis (1980, 1983). Davis developed an integrative trait empathy measure that is comprised of four dimensions: empathic concern, perspective-taking, personal distress, and fantasy. Empathic concern represents the tendency for an individual to experience feelings of warmth, compassion, and concern for others undergoing negative experiences. Perspective-taking reflects the tendency of an individual to adopt the point of view of other persons. Personal distress indicates an individual's experienced feelings of discomfort and anxiety when witnessing the negative experiences of others. Fantasy indicates a tendency of the individual to identify strongly with fictitious characters in media. All items are measured on a 5-point scale, where 0=does not describe me well/4=describes me very well, (-) reverse coded.

Empathic Concern Scale (α: Males, .68; Females, .73)

  • When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them.
  • When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes don't feel very much pity for them. (-)
  • I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
  • I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person
  • Sometimes I don't feel sorry for other people when they are having problems. (-)
  • Other people's misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (-)
  • I am often quite touched by things that I see happen.

Perspective-Taking Scale (α: Males, .71; Females, .75)

  • Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.
  • If I'm sure I'm right about something, I don't waste much time listening to other people's arguments. (-)
  • I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.
  • I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both.
  • I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the "other guy's" point of view. (-)
  • I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision.
  • When I'm upset at someone, I usually try to "put myself in his shoes" for a while.

Personal Distress Scale (α: Males, .77; Females, .75)

  • When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces.
  • I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation.
  • In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease.
  • I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies. (-)
  • Being in a tense emotional situation scares me.
  • When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm. (-)
  • I tend to lose control during emergencies.

Fantasy Scale (α: Males, .78; Females, .79)

  • When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imagine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening to me.
  • I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
  • I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and I don't often get completely caught up in it. (-)
  • After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters.
  • I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me.
  • Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me. (-)
  • When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself in the place of a leading character.

Convergent and Discriminant Validity

Davis (1983) tested the IRI against four constructs-social competence/interpersonal functioning, self-esteem, emotionality, and sensitivity to others. He predicted various patterns of relationships, such that each of these measures would be related to some IRI subscales. Intelligence was assessed and expected not to correlate with any of the IRI subscales. In addition to completing the 28-item IRI, respondents also completed the Hogan Empathy Scale, the Mehrabian and Epstein Emotional Empathy Scale. At least 225 males and 204 female students responded to these questionnaires. Another 60 males and 54 females were administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). Davis' hypotheses were largely supported, suggesting the convergent and divergent validity of the IRI (see Davis, 1983 for details).


As noted above, the reliability of the subscales is acceptable, ranging from α=.68-.79.

  • Advantages

    • Relatively short and easy to administer
    • Individual subscales can be used according to research needs
    • Convergent and discriminant validity assessed
  • Disadvantages

    • Reliability of subscales marginal
    • Meaning of overall index is unclear
    • Overall index has been found to be less reliable than individual subscales
    • Instrument length/ /time to implement/ burden on participant

Additional Commentary

Raney (2002, 2005) used an 11- item scale from a dissertation (Ordman, 1996) but aside from his research, this scale appears not to have been widely identified or adopted. Mehrabian & Epstein (1972) developed the Emotional Empathy Scale, which was comprised of 33 items across seven subscales. Dillard and Hunter (1989) assessed the psychometric properties of the Emotional Empathy Scale and although they found that the subscales may be useful, they concluded that the composite scale is "meaningless" (p. 104).

Some research has employed fewer than the four subscales according to the needs of their research. For example, Hoffner (2009) used two of the four (empathic concern and personal distress) in her study on exposure to frightening films. Tamborini et al. (1993) used three of the four (fantasy, empathic concern, personal distress) in their study on valenced film exposure and comforting behavior.


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