Exploring the phenomenon of empathy

Abstract: Although empathy is the phenomenon that connects otherwise isolated individuals, knowledge concerning the nature of this phenomenon is still scarce. This thesis presents three studies on empathy based on qualitative and quantitative data. In Study 1, narrative accounts of empathy situations were collected to identify constituents that exist in both empathizers’ and targets’ experiences of empathy. From both perspectives, the constituents of empathy included the empathizer understanding the target, the target experiencing one or more emotions, the empathizer perceiving a similarity between what the target is experiencing and something the empathizer has experienced earlier, and the empathizer being concerned for the target’s well-being. Similarity of experience occurs at different levels of abstraction. Study 2 consisted of three experiments exploring the role of a person’s actions in how empathetic the person is perceived as being. In the experiments participants read different versions of an empathy story. The results suggested that action is crucial in the experience of empathy from both empathizer’s and target’s perspectives, as well as from the perspective of an unspecified observer. Study 3 explored in two experiments how empathy is related to viewing another individual as a subject/object. The results revealed that subject view and perceived difficulty of the person’s situation together explain a considerable part of differences in empathy. The empirical findings are discussed in a broader context of altruism, morality, similarity of experience, and foreign experience.