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What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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4 Empathy

The statements that you have just completed form a measure of ‘empathy’. People often struggle to define empathy, or to understand how it differs from related concepts such as sympathy. The word itself derives from two roots. One is the ancient Greek word empatheia which means passion or physical affection (Jamieson, 2014). The second root is the German adaptation of the term—em (into) and pathos (feeling). This sense of feeling into someone else’s emotional state sets empathy apart from sympathy. To put it simply sympathy is feeling sad for someone else’s misfortune. If I hear that a friend Sam has lost her job, sympathy might involve thinking, Oh no, that must be awful for Sam, I would hate to lose my job. Empathy is much more involved than sympathy and means psychologically experiencing someone else’s cognitive perspectiveand emotional state, whilst still maintaining a sense of your own identity as separate (Coplan, 2014). Being empathic towards Sam would involve thinking it through from Sam’s perspective, such as thinking, Oh no, I know Sam is the breadwinner in her house, and she is so hard working, she really gets a lot from her job, it’s not just the money, it’s that she really enjoys her work, and it means a lot to her identity to be seen as good at her job. Empathy is, therefore, a process that involves imagining what it is like to be the other person, rather than just imagining how the circumstances that have befallen someone else might feel to you.

This image shows a person sat on a bench outside in a grassy field reading a book.

The empathy measure you completed is called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. It was created by Davis in 1983. He argues that empathy is not a one-dimensional construct but instead comprises a cluster of different aspects which include both how we think and how we feel emotionally.

The scale you filled in has four subcomponents and your score on each subscale is shown below.

The first subscale was personal distress. Questions 6 In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease and 24 I tend to lose control during emergencies were examples of questions that tapped into personal distress. This measured the extent to which you feel uneasy or anxious in difficult interpersonal settings.

The second was empathic concern. Questions 9 When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them, and 20 I am often quite touched by things that I see happen were examples of questions which measured the extent to which you feel concern for unfortunate others.

The third was the fantasy scale. The questions 1 I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about things that might happen to me and 16 After seeing a play or a movie, I have felt as though I were one of the characters measured the extent to which you are likely to imaginatively inhabit the feelings and actions of fictional characters in books and films.

The final scale was about perspective taking. The questions 21 I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both and 25 When I’m upset at someone I usually try to ‘put myself in his shoes’ for a while measured your tendency to take the perspective of someone else. Davis suggests that the perspective taking score is the most cognitive aspect of empathy with the others being more linked to our emotional responses to other people.

Have a look at your scores and take a moment to reflect on them. Given the descriptions of the subscales, are those scores as you expected? For example, if you scored highly on perspective taking but lower on the other three, can you relate to the idea that you tend to think your way into other people’s predicaments rather than emotionally feeling your way into them? Does your fantasy scale score seem to relate to how likely you are to become quickly involved with characters from literature?

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Keep in mind that your scores on the subscales are not objective measurements of your empathy, so don’t be alarmed if you scored higher or lower than expected. There are [at least] two reasons for this. First, the scores are based on your self-assessment which may be less accurate or generous than if your friends or family had responded to the statements on your behalf. Second, the scores are based on general statements which may produce a different response depending on context. For example, it might be true (and perfectly understandable) that When I see someone who badly needs help in an emergency, I go to pieces when the person in question is a close relative. However, you may find that you cope much better when the person is a stranger.

You will return to some of these concepts after the first reading exercise which is the next activity you will do.