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Empathy has been considered a central feature of our temperamental dispositions in childhood and adolescence. It plays a central role in the development of prosocial behavior and moral reasoning. However, the links between empathy and the major factors of personality have not yet been well described. This study explores the relationships between an index of empathy and the Big-Five personality model in a sample of 832 Spanish adolescents. As expected, results show that empathy correlates strongly with Friendliness. Positive correlations with Conscientiousness, Energy, and Openness traits have also been observed, but regression analyses show that relationships of empathy with those three factors were of negligible importance. Contrary to expectations, empathy did not correlate with Emotional stability. This pattern of results was replicated across boys and girls.
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RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EMPATHY AND THE BIG FIVE
PERSONALITY TRAITS IN A SAMPLE OF SPANISH
ADOLESCENTS
VICTORIA DEL BARRIO
National University of Distance Education, Madrid, Spain
ANTON ALUJA AND LUIS F. G ARCÍA
University of Lleida, Spain
Empathy has been considered a central feature of our temperamental dispositions in childhood
and adolescence. It plays a central role in the development of prosocial behavior and moral
reasoning. However, the links between empathy and the major factors of personality have not
yet been well described. This study explores the relationships between an index of empathy
and the Big-Five personality model in a sample of 832 Spanish adolescents. As expected,
results show that empathy correlates strongly with Friendliness. Positive correlations with
Conscientiousness, Energy, and Openness traits have also been observed, but regression
analyses show that relationships of empathy with those three factors were of negligible
importance. Contrary to expectations, empathy did not correlate with Emotional stability. This
pattern of results was replicated across boys and girls.
Empathy can be understood as the vicarious affective responses with an
emphasis on the congruent response to others’ emotional state (del Barrio, 2002;
Eisenberg, 2000). Empathy is considered an effective control of aggression in
childhood and adolescence (Bandura, 1999; Tremblay, Pihl, Vitaro, & Dobkin,
1994), as well as an important predictor of prosocial behavior, and the
development of moral reasoning during childhood (Eisenberg, Miller, Shell,
McNalley, & Shea, 1991). This positive role of empathy in interpersonal
SOCIAL BEHAVIOR AND PERSONALITY, 2004, 32(7), 677-682
© Society for Personality Research (Inc.)
677
Victoria del Barrio, Department of Personality, Faculty of Psychology, National University of
Distance Education, Madrid, Spain; Anton Aluja and Luis F. García, University of Lleida, Spain.
Appreciation is due to reviewers including: Oscar Garcia Lopez, PhD, Universidad Europea de
Madrid, c/ Tajo s/n, Villaviosa de Odon, 28670 Madrid, Spain, Email: <oscar.garcia@uem.es>;
Professor Jerome Rossier, Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne, BFSH 2 – Dorigny, CH –
1015 Lausamme, Switzerland, Email: <Jerome.Rossier@ip.unil.ch>
Please address correspondence and reprint requests to: Victoria del Barrio, Department of Personality,
Faculty of Psychology, National University of Distance Education, Madrid, Spain. Phone: 34 97
3792326; Email: <vbarrio@psi.uned.es>
relationships has been shown in American (Bryant, 1985), Colombian (Rey,
2001), and Spanish (Mestre, Semper, & Frías, 2002) samples.
Nowadays, the Five Factor model is considered as the dominant paradigm in
personality research (Matthews & Deary, 1998). Following this model,
Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and
Conscientiousness are the basic traits of personality. Empathy is expected to
correlate with various traits of the Five Factor model. In detail, empathy should
correlate mainly with Agreeableness. This trait is primarily a dimension of
interpersonal behavior, and represents the quality of interaction from compassion
to antagonism (Costa, McCrae, & Dye, 1991). Agreeableness is also strongly
implicated in the prediction of prosocial and aggressive behaviors (Graziano &
Eisenberg, 1997). On the other hand, there are two reasons for expecting a
positive correlation between empathy and Conscientiousness. High scores on this
trait inhibit aggressive behaviors in adolescent populations (John, Caspi, Robins,
Moffitt, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1994), and Conscientiousness correlates
negatively with Eysenck’s dimension of Psychoticism (Aluja, García, & García,
2002), defined by a lack of empathy.
The relationship between empathy and Neuroticism appears less clear.
Whereas prosocial behaviors and concern for others have been related to low
scores on negative emotionality or Neuroticism (e.g. Shiner & Caspi, 2003),
Eysenck defended a positive relationship between empathy and Neuroticism
(Eysenck & Eysenck, 1991).
As far as we know, no study has related the Five Factor model with an index
of empathy in the adolescent population. Thus, the purpose of this study was to
explore the convergent and discriminant validity of empathy in regard to the Big-
Five personality traits.
METHOD
SUBJECTS
Eight hundred and thirty-two children between 12 and 17 years (Mean age:
14.39; SD: 0.92) participated in the study. The sample was composed of 408 boys
(Mean age: 14.39; SD: 0.96), and 424 girls (Mean age: 14.38; SD: 0.88).
Questionnaires were administered in the classroom in the presence of a trained
psychologist.
MEASURES
IECA. The Spanish version of Bryant’s Empathy Index for Children and
Adolescents (Bryant, 1982; del Barrio, Aluja, & García, in press) is a 22-item
questionnaire, with a +2 to -2 response format. Response choices were visually
aided by two circles of increasing size on either the yes, like me or the no, not like
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EMPATHY AND THE BIG FIVE
678
me sides of the paper. All children understood the procedure, as indicated by their
responses to trial items such as “I like ice cream” and “I don’t like soap in my
eyes”. The alpha coefficient in the sample was 0.73.
The Spanish version of the Big Five Questionnaire (BFQ). (Caprara,
Barbaranelli, Borgogni, & Perugini, 1993) is a 132-item questionnaire measuring
five domains (Energy, Friendliness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and
Openness). Note that those terms will be employed hereafter to name the “Big
Five”. The respondent has a 5-choice answer format that ranges from complete
disagreement (1 = very false for me) to complete agreement (5 = very true for
me). Alpha reliability indices in the present sample were 0.65, 0.65, 0.71, 0.73,
and 0.65 for Energy, Friendliness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and
Openness, respectively.
RESULTS
Table 1 shows the statistical descriptives and correlations among empathy and
the Big-Five, separately by sex. Differences between sexes replicate previous
findings regarding empathy (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983), and the Big-Five
(Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001). Girls score higher on Empathy,
Friendliness, Conscientiousness, and Openness, whereas boys show a larger
mean on Emotional Stability. No sex differences were found for Energy.
TABLE 1
STATISTICAL DESCRIPTIVES (MEAN AND STANDARD DEVIATION), CORRELATIONS BETWEEN
EMPATHY AND THE BIG FIVE, AND STANDARDISED REGRESSION COEFFICIENTS
Statistical Correlations Standardised
descriptives with Empathy regression
coefficients
Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls
Energy 77.94 77.71 .171*.129*---- ---
(8.78) (9.10)
Friendliness 76.87 81.97 .359*.401*.30 .38
(8.73) (7.85)
Conscientiousness 76.47 78.73 .232*.184*--- .11
(9.31) (9.69)
Emotional Stability 70.90 66.44 .014 -.113 --- -.13
(9.32) (10.36)
Openness 76.41 78.61 .284*.203*.19 ---
(8.88) (9.10)
Empathy 68.26 80.15
(9.70) (10.29)
p< .01.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EMPATHY AND THE BIG FIVE 679
As expected, the largest correlations were with Friendliness. In order to correct
for the lack of reliability of the scales, a correction for attenuation was computed
for the correlations between Empathy and Friendliness. The corrected
coefficients were 0.53 and 0.58 for boys and girls, respectively. On the other
hand, correlations with Energy, Conscientiousness and Openness were
significant for both sexes, although much lower than those for Friendliness.
Unexpectedly, Emotional Stability was not related with Empathy. It should be
highlighted that the same pattern arises for both boys and girls. Moreover, Table
1 shows also the standardised regression coefficients of the personality traits
included in the final regression model (stepwise method) taking Empathy as the
dependent variable. The adjusted R2were 0.15, and 0.18 for boys and girls,
respectively. The adjusted R2was also obtained with a linear regression using the
enter method. Values were 0.16 and 0.18 for boys and girls, respectively.
DISCUSSION
Empathy is strongly linked to Friendliness for boys and girls. So an important
component of the individual differences in the quality of interpersonal behavior
during adolescence is the ability to respond appropriately to others’ emotions.
But also, Empathy could play a minor role in the need for social encounters, the
control of one’s own impulses, and intellectual curiosity. Our study supports no
relevant relationship (either positive or negative) between Empathy and
Neuroticism. This fact does not confirm Eysenck’s view that feeling anxiety or
fear oneself would engender the ability of feeling another’s emotional state
(Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985). However, caution should be exercised in relying on
this fact since other authors remark that very young adolescents could have
limitations in their ability to recognize their own emotional states through self-
report measures (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987). In general, these results reflect the
importance of the empathy construct in explaining the self-reported differences
in the Friendliness trait during adolescence.
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