Conference Paper

Relationship of Empathy to Co-Rumination and Cortisol Secretion in Female

Conference: National Science Foundation Funded REU Fellowship at OSU - OKlahoma University Summer 2011


The ability of humans to both cognitively and emotionally understand the feelings of others is an important aspect of human communication. As such, many researchers have conceptualized empathy as both a cognitive (i.e., perspective taking) and an emotional (e.g., mirroring others’ affect) social construct (e.g., Davis, 1980). A related construct, co-rumination, is a social process in which individuals (typically females) excessively discuss socially relevant problems with friends (also typically female; Rose, 2002). Co-rumination includes behaviors such as encouragement of discussing problems excessively, discussing a given problem multiple times, speculating about problem causes and outcomes, and a focus on negative affect associated with these problems. As such, the focus of the current research is to examine the relationship between observed empathic and co-rumination behaviors and the stress responses of females in dyadic friendships.

Although previous research has examined the relationship between physiological responses (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure) to empathy, research on the connection between empathy and cortisol has been limited (Nakayama et al., 2007). However, previous research has found a correlation between co-rumination in female dyads and spiking of subsequent cortisol levels (Byrd-Craven et al., 2011). Salivary cortisol is currently a widely studied biomarker, modulated by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (Hellhammer, Wust, & Kudielka, 2008). Taylor et al. (2008) found a relationship between positive psychosocial resources and reduced cortisol reactivity to stress. Same sex friendships may act as a psychosocial resource to increase or induce cortisol reactivity, especially where empathy is expressed.

Same sex friendships may yield different results in terms of cortisol response to expression of empathy in the absence of co-rumination (Byrd-Craven et al., 2011). Elevated cortisol levels may be found in individuals experiencing a stressful event based upon increased activation of the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) within the limbic system (Shirtcliff et al., 2009), and thus individuals with higher cortisol responses to stress may react physiologically to an empathy-inducing social situation congruently to the person with whom they are empathizing. In general, support from a friend may reduce cortisol levels; however, in females it appears that cortisol may actually increase with increased social support (Kirschbaum, et al., 1995; Shirtcliff et al., 2009), and we predict this trend with the expression of empathy (via verbal behaviors) in the current female dyad sample. We also predict that empathetic behaviors will be positively associated with co-rumination behaviors.

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