Empathy and Flexibility

A construct which is essential to my honors project is empathy. However, deciding on what empathy self-report measure to use has been difficult. Deficiencies in empathy are theoretically related to violent and aggressive behavior yet it has been found that current measures don’t account for much of the variance in these areas. Meta-analytic evidence suggests that currently used measures of empathy account for about 1% of the variance in aggressive behavior. Fortunately, new measures which have not been used in the context of vicarious threat conditioning have been developed. One of which looks especially promising as it seems to solve the problem of the dissonance between aggressive behavior and empathy. Our discovery of this self-report instrument reminds me of several things: 1) It is absolutely crucial to stay flexible with study design up until the study begins, 2) Staying abreast of the literature in all areas of a certain study is necessary to ensure the most helpful use of participants’ time.


Another recent development in the lab is our recent purchase of a camcorder to film our ‘demonstrators.’ One key decision we will have to make in August is whether or not to actually have our demonstrators experience pain upon observation of the object associated with fear. We want the videos to be convincing but we also don’t want our helpful demonstrators to experience pain if it is not totally necessary. What will probably happen is that we will have our demonstrators act as if they experienced shock and see how believable their fake reactions are to a pretend shock. Devices used to administer shocks are expensive so we may be better off not purchasing it. At the same time, studies are delicate and we wouldn’t want to compromise a close replication of the recent study we are basing ours off of. Decisions, decisions. In August, we will step forward with confidence as we start running participants, keeping in mind that flexibility and confidence will be important throughout the academic year.


  1. Hi Alex, this sounds like a thorny topic, especially with the possible effects on your demonstrators. I hope you are able to resolve those ethical problems. I’m looking forward to reading more about your project.


  2. Matt McGuinness says:


    Definitely sounds like a tough situation with regards to the use of a real shock or not. You mentioned a new measure that will help you fix the dissonance between aggression and empathy, what is occurring in this new measure that wasn’t being used before? (I also understand if you don’t want to post for fear of revealing your tests to potential participants, but any info would be good!) As for the shocks, I know if it were me trying to fake pain, a small shock, even if it was barely painful, would probably help me act in more serious pain. But at the same time, I can definitely see the dilemma especially since you would need to purchase the device. Keep us posted on what you lab does go with!

  3. Hi Alex,

    So glad to hear you are making progress with your project! This is a super interesting post and I am glad you are staying thoughtful and flexible when it comes to your project. I have a few comments: first, I wonder if there are mediators to consider when examining the relationship between empathy and aggressive behavior. While the link between the two constructs makes sense to me (i.e., if you empathize with someone and can feel what they feel, that level of awareness about someone’s internal state would preclude you from hurting them), I wonder if something more behaviorally-based would shed light on the underlying mechanisms behind their relationship. Perhaps the rate at which someone performs compassionate acts, or regularly empathizes with diverse groups outside of their own lived experience (e.g., racial and sexual minorities). Empathy is so essential so I am curious to see how you decide to measure it based on the literature and measures available to you.

    Also, I am so so curious about whether you will have your demonstrators experiencing pain. While I see your point about making sure the manipulation is believable, I do wonder if there are other ways to achieve that goal without inflicting harm: maybe ask friends/acquaintances from the theater department? This is a very interesting ethical dilemma/question so I await reading more about what you decide to do.