Other or Self Oriented? Developing a Measure of Empathy

The topic I chose to design my test is empathy, a concept that has been studied extensively but for which little tests had been devised. What I like about empathy is that it is a concept that is very hard to define. That means that very few scholars agree on its definition. More importantly, it also meant that it would be easy for me to look at existing empathy tests and try to modify it to incorporate new conceptualizations and criteria.

As I was reading through different articles, I noticed that empathy includes a broad range of other concepts and processes. Not only is there affective and cognitive empathy, there is also emotional contagion, affect sharing, prosocial concern, personal distress and perspective taking, to name a few. I was particularly interested in perspective taking, because I think it plays a major role in empathy. I focused my test on that specific construct of empathy because there seemed to be a lot of ambiguity surrounding it. Specifically, whereas many studies differentiated between two kinds of perspective taking, tests designed to assess perspective taking did not.

I thought there must be a good reason for that, and that if I had thought of it, someone in the field of empathy must have thought of it. So I figured, maybe the two kinds of perspective taking are really the same because they lead to similar empathic responses. But then I learned that this is not the case…

Self-oriented perspective taking makes people feel more distressed, because they imagine themselves in the position of the other, facing sad or fearful emotions. They feel the exact emotions of the other person but do not differentiate them from their own experience, which makes them unable to help out as they stay focused on themselves. Unlike focusing on the self, other-oriented perspective encourages focusing on the other. Instead of leading to distress, it leads to feeling of tenderness. It is about imagining the other in their situation, how they as themselves felt when an event happened.

So why keep them together in perspective taking assessment? Would it not help to know whether someone was more prone to experience distress or concern?

I designed a test that would differentiate between these two forms of perspective taking, and their associated consequences. Doing that, I was assuming that other/self-oriented perspective taking is more or less a trait and that some people are more other-oriented while others are more self-oriented.

After compiling the results, I found was that most people who score high on other-perspective taking also do so in self-oriented perspective taking. In other words, people are either high perspective takers or not. They don’t explicitly differentiate between the two kinds of perspective taking, or at least my test could not manage to do so.

Maybe that is why existing scales of perspective taking do not attempt to classify people according to other/self orientation in perspective taking. The nature of the constructs might not allow it. Most probably, the two kinds of perspective taking are contextual and not traits specific to the individual as I assumed. Also, the distinction between the two is so little that it might be too difficult to assess in a self-report questionnaire.

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