Empathy and Helping Behavior in College Students

Jack Sidman (Ph.D., 1968)

Thesis directed by Associate Professor Peter G. Ossorio

The rationale for the present research was developed from a critical review of literature concerning empathy and psychotherapy, lay therapy, and empathy assessment procedures. Four major purposes of the study were: (1) to develop a satisfactory group assessment of empathic ability; (2) to specify the empirical relationships of empathy and helping; (3) to explore the relationships of several previous experience and personality variables to empathic ability; and (4) to provide some preliminary normative data on the social practices of college students with respect to helping others with personal problems.

The experimental subjects of the research were 117 college students, primarily freshmen and sophomores. A conceptually relevant procedure for assessing empathy involving judging of subjects' responses to short stories was developed. Subjects read short stories and answered questions about them which were designed to assess empathic performance.

Helping was assessed by means of three procedures. Data on whom subjects helped and with what types of problems were obtained from the Helping Inventory. The Critical Incidents Assessment obtained subjects' detailed descriptions of what they did to help another person both in a situation where they tended to fail and in a situation where they tended to succeed. These failure and success protocols were rated by two judges in terms of the tactics and strategies of helping used by subjects. Subjects' ratings of how typical it was for them to use each of 47 different behaviors in helping (a) their roommates and (b) their mothers were obtained from the Typicality Questionnaire.

The various possible correlates of empathic ability studied were assessed through the self-report Background Questionnaire and interviewer's judgments of high and low empathic subjects.

On the basis of the group assessment of empathic ability subjects were assigned to three "known" groups of high, medium, and low empathy. Approximately 50% of the two extreme groups were, then, interviewed.

Some findings were:

1. Subjects' levels of empathic achievement were generally consistent although some substantial situational effects upon various subjects' levels of performance occurred. Generally, females were more empathic than males.

2. More empathic subjects tended to help others more frequently and more appropriately.

3. In analyses based on three levels of empathic ability, occasional statistically significant relationships were found between subjects' level of empathic achievement and choice of tactics used in their efforts to help others, although the hypothesized relationships of empathy and strategies of helping were not supported.

4. The self-report and interview data indicated that more empathic subjects had both a greater amount of experience with various kinds of psychological stress and more success in dealing with different kinds of stress.

5. A number of other background and personality variables were related to empathy. These included reading experiences, attitudes towards others, and coping with one's own problems. The high empathic subjects were also seen as significantly less defensive during the interview.

6. There were a number of descriptive findings and sex differences with respect to how the college students helped others, whom they helped, and with what types of problems.

The results were interpreted in the light of several methodological considerations. The Short Story Empathy Assessment was judged to be a potentially effective procedure for assessing empathic ability (e.g., r = .76 with interview ratings of empathy for 38 extreme group subjects). However, the level of empathic performance of the college students sampled here was generally low. Thus, the fact that some of the data showed consistent trends in the predicted direction but did not achieve statistical significance was explained in terms of the low level and small spread of empathic performance obtained from the sample of subjects used. Finally, the data suggested that high empathic subjects differ from low empathic subjects not so much in terms of whom they help, how they help or what they help with; but, rather, in terms of how they help particular sorts of people with particular sorts of problems. [404 pp.]