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The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences

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Empathy is essential for healthy relationships and overall well-being. Affective empathy is the emotional response to others' distress and can take two forms: personal distress or empathic concern. In Western cultures, high empathic concern and low personal distress have been implicated in increased prosocial behaviour (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1989) and better emotion management and peer relations (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). Various factors have been examined with respect to affective empathy, but the role of culture has received little attention. Previous work suggests that children from East Asian cultures compared to those from Western cultures experience greater personal distress and less empathic concern (e.g., Trommsdorff, 1995), but no work has specifically examined these differences in adolescents or individuals who identify as `bicultural'. The current research examines cultural differences in affective empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) in an adolescent and young adult sample (n=190) and examines how empathy relates to social-emotional health in bicultural individuals. Consistent with research on children, East Asian adolescents reported greater personal distress and less empathic concern than their Western counterparts. The bicultural individuals' scores fell in between the East Asian and Western groups, but revealed significant differences from their `uni-cultural' peers, demonstrating shared influences of community and family. Importantly, however, the relationship between affective empathy and social-emotional health in bicultural individuals was the same as for Western individuals. The current results provide an important first step in understanding the different cultural influences on empathic responding in a previously understudied population - bicultural individuals.
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2010 DOI: 10.1163/156853710X531203
Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 brill.nl/jocc
e Role of Culture in Affective Empathy:
Cultural and Bicultural Differences
Tracy G. Cassels*, Sherilynn Chan, Winnie Chung and Susan A. J. Birch
Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall,
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4
* Corresponding author, e-mail: tracy@psych.ubc.ca
Abstract
Empathy is essential for healthy relationships and overall well-being. Affective empathy is the
emotional response to others’ distress and can take two forms: personal distress or empathic
concern. In Western cultures, high empathic concern and low personal distress have been
implicated in increased prosocial behaviour (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1989) and better emotion
management and peer relations (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). Various factors have been
examined with respect to affective empathy, but the role of culture has received little attention.
Previous work suggests that children from East Asian cultures compared to those from Western
cultures experience greater personal distress and less empathic concern (e.g., Trommsdorff,
1995), but no work has specifically examined these differences in adolescents or individuals
who identify as ‘bicultural’. e current research examines cultural differences in affective
empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) in an adolescent and young
adult sample (n=190) and examines how empathy relates to social-emotional health in bicultural
individuals. Consistent with research on children, East Asian adolescents reported greater
personal distress and less empathic concern than their Western counterparts. e bicultural
individuals’ scores fell in between the East Asian and Western groups, but revealed significant
differences from their ‘uni-cultural’ peers, demonstrating shared influences of community and
family. Importantly, however, the relationship between affective empathy and social-emotional
health in bicultural individuals was the same as for Western individuals. e current results
provide an important first step in understanding the different cultural influences on empathic
responding in a previously understudied population – bicultural individuals.
Keywords
Culture, bicultural, empathy, prosocial behavior, affective empathy, personal distress, empathic
concern
Empathy plays a vital role in one’s social-emotional health and well-being.
e ability to perceive what other people are feeling and appropriately share
that emotional state enables us to react properly to social situations. Higher
levels of trait empathy predict positive outcomes, such as better emotion
310 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
management and relationships with peers, and even leads to a heightened
valuation of others’ welfare and well-being (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1991;
Batson et al., 1995; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). However, the majority of
this work has been done in Western cultures and there is little work outlining
potential cultural differences, both cross-culturally and for those individuals
who are ‘bicultural’ – that is, individuals who are a part of two distinct cul-
tures, usually by birth place and heritage. e current research examines cul-
tural differences in affective components of empathy in an adolescent and
young adult sample and assesses the relationship between social-emotional
health and empathy in a bicultural group of adolescents.
e concept of ‘empathy’ is multifaceted, with distinct components that
influence empathic responding, but which are difficult to quantify for many
researchers (e.g., Choplan et al., 1985; Duan and Hill, 1996). Historically,
there has been much debate over the conceptualization and operationaliza-
tion of empathy (Duan and Hill, 1996; Preston and deWaal, 2002), and
although there are still various conceptualizations in the current literature,
many (if not most) researchers agree that it is valuable to characterize empa-
thy as consisting of two distinct, but interrelated, components: cognitive and
affective. Cognitive empathy refers to one’s ability to recognize and identify
another person’s feelings (e.g., Davis, 1980; Hoffman, 1977). is is distinct
from the affective component in that it focuses exclusively on the cognitive
processes and ignores the emotional reactions to others’ feelings.
Affective empathy, the component of interest herein, refers to one’s emo-
tional responses to another person’s emotion or situation (e.g., Feshbach,
1975; Hoffman, 1977; Eisenberg and Miller, 1987). is does not necessar-
ily require that one feel the same as the other individual, but rather that one’s
own emotions are more in line with the other persons situation than one’s
own (Hoffman, 2000). Typically, this involves experiencing emotions that are
similar to those of the other person, but at times, affective empathy can man-
ifest in different emotions. For example, if Katie bullies Jennifer, Jennifer may
feel fearful. If Anna witnesses the bullying and feels angry, she is displaying
affective empathy; although her anger is different from Jennifer’s fear, it is
more in line with Jennifer’s situation than her own.
Further distinctions are made within affective empathy. Specifically, there
are two possible types of affective empathic responses that one may experi-
ence upon witnessing and recognizing another person’s distress: personal dis-
tress or empathic concern (e.g., Davis, 1980; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1990).
Personal distress is defined as the experiencing of negative emotions as a result
of another person’s distress and specifically involves individuals turning
their focus inward (i.e., focusing their attention on their own emotions),
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 311
thus removing their attention from the person in distress (Schroeder et al.,
1988; Eisenberg et al., 1989, 1998b). In contrast, empathic concern is usu-
ally understood as experiencing feelings of concern for the other individual.
It has an ‘other-focus’ quality, namely a focus towards the situation of the
other person. As such, the correlates of each of these affective subcomponents
are quite different, at least in Western cultures. Personal distress tends not to
predict helping behaviour or other prosocial acts aimed at alleviating the
discomfort of the other individual, but instead, is believed to involve a
self-focused attempt to relieve the anxiety produced by the negative feelings
brought about by experiencing someone else’s distress. On the other hand,
empathic concern is predictive of prosocial behaviour such as altruistic help-
ing, or at least attempting to help alleviate the other’s distress (Mehrabian and
Epstein, 1972; Davis, 1983a,b; Eisenberg and Miller, 1987).
e importance of empathy, and one reason it has captured the attention
of many researchers, lies in its ability to predict various outcomes in Western
culture. As previously mentioned, higher levels of empathy predict better
emotion management and better relationships with peers (Eisenberg et al.,
1991; Batson et al., 1995; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998), and can also facilitate
prosocial behaviour (Eisenberg et al., 1989). More broadly, higher levels of
empathy have been implicated in better overall social-emotional health in
individuals. Social-emotional health is a broad construct that encompasses
many different domains of functioning. It includes, but is not limited to, the
interpersonal (e.g., expressing affection toward others) and intrapersonal
(e.g., regulating one’s own emotions and behaviour) elements of affective
well-being, as well as the quality of one’s social relationships. e ways in
which the unique aspects of empathy predict social-emotional health are
diverse. For instance, displays of empathic concern in response to a less fortu-
nate target have been found to contribute to positive emotional functioning,
as indicated by lower levels of loneliness, but are also positively correlated
with shyness, emotional vulnerability, emotional reactivity, and chronic fear-
fulness (Davis, 1983c). Other research suggests that affective empathy may
exert a beneficial influence on social-emotional functioning by improving
conflict management and decreasing conflict engagement (de Wied et al.,
2007) and by increasing prosocial giving or helping (Davis, 1983b; Eisenberg
et al., 1989). e profound influence of empathy on elements of daily life
provides the impetus to further examine the factors that may affect individual
differences in empathic responding.
ere are several known factors that influence components of empathy or
empathic reactions, such as the ability to regulate one’s emotions (for a
review, see Eisenberg, 2000), levels of compassion (Batson et al., 2005), and
312 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
perceived similarity to the other individual (e.g., Batson et al., 2005; Eklund et al.,
2009). However, another important factor that has received far less attention is
culture (but see Trommsdorff, 1995; Friedlmeier and Tromm sorff, 1999; Trom-
msdorff et al., 2007). Trommsdorff and colleagues (2007) examined various
behavioural empathic responses to another’s distress in four countries (two
Western and two South East Asian) and found that preschool children from
South East Asian cultures displayed more personal distress and fewer instances
of empathic helping behaviour relative to children from Western cultures.
ese results suggest inherent differences across cultures in empathic respond-
ing. Despite these initial findings with children, many questions remain about
the role of culture and cultural identity in empathic responding.
One question that remains is whether the same relationship between
empathy and culture holds in an adolescent population. e aforementioned
work demonstrating cultural differences was performed exclusively with
young children and, thus, it is of interest whether or not the relationships
found remain the same over development. It has been suggested that at least
one mechanism behind these cultural differences stems from differences in
parenting styles (Frieldmeier and Trommsdorff, 1999). at is, the transmis-
sion of empathic behaviour comes from parent-child interactions whereby
the parent serves as the ‘regulator’ of emotions in the child’s emotional
response. In Frieldmeier and Trommsdorf s (1999) study, toddlers experi-
enced the distress of a playmate and the maternal response to their children was
recorded along with the toddler’s emotional response across two cultures –
German and Japanese. e authors found that while mothers in both cultures
responded contingently to their children’s distress and both showed sensitiv-
ity to the child, the pattern of behaviours between the mother and child were
different. German dyads showed more positive emotion regulation compared
to Japanese dyads who showed more negative emotion regulation (i.e., regu-
lation by avoiding the source of distress). ese differences have implications
for empathic responsiveness, as positive emotion regulation has been linked
to other-focused empathic behaviour and negative emotion regulation linked
to self-focused behaviours (for a review, see Eisenberg, 2000). While it is pos-
sible that these early relationships continue to hold across development, it is
also possible that as children age, other factors (e.g., changes in peer relations,
increased exposure to the broader cultural community) may affect their
empathic responding, altering the manner in which they respond to others in
distress. Research into these cultural differences in somewhat older samples
than previously tested (e.g., adolescence and young adults) is needed to deter-
mine if the differences found in childhood remain or if other factors intervene
to change them.
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 313
A second question is what types of affective empathic behaviours are pres-
ent in individuals identified as ‘bicultural’ (i.e., those who simultaneously
belong to two cultures through their heritage, on the one hand, and their
place of residence, on the other). In light of the increasing cultural diversity
in today’s societies and the potentially important role cultural identity plays
in empathic behaviour, there is a pressing need for research examining these
constructs in those who identify as bicultural. Is the construct of empathy in
bicultural individuals influenced more heavily by one of the two cultures they
identify with than the other? Or, is empathy in bicultural individuals reflec-
tive of an amalgamation, or blending, of the two comprising cultures? Fur-
thermore, does the relationship between empathy and social-emotional health
found in Western samples (e.g., Kinnunen and Pulkkinen, 2003) hold in a
bicultural group living in a Western culture? at is, empathy predicts ele-
ments of social-emotional health (e.g., De Wied et al., 2007) and better
social-emotional health predicts academic and social success in Western cul-
tures (e.g., Kinnunen and Pulkkinen, 2003; Márquez et al., 2006), yet what
this relationship looks like in those who are living in a Western culture but also
identify with a different culture (e.g., Asian) remains an open question.
To address these questions, we administered the Interpersonal Reactivity
Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980) as a measure of the affective components of trait
empathy and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Good-
man, 1997) as a measure of social-emotional health to students living in Van-
couver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is a culturally diverse city with
a high prevalence of Asian citizens, Caucasian citizens and Asian immigrants,
making it an excellent locale for examination of the aforementioned research
questions. Given the non-existence of research on empathy and social-
emotional health in this bicultural population, it is difficult to make specific
a priori hypotheses about how and whether empathy and social-emotional
health may differ in this bicultural sample. us, exploratory research is not
only warranted but vitally needed to provide the foundations for further
research in this area.
In short, the current research had three main goals. e first goal was to exam-
ine components of affective empathy in those who identify as ‘Western’ versus
those who identify as ‘Asian’. e second was to determine whether or not
empathy in individuals who identify as ‘bicultural’ differs systematically from
individuals in one or both of the two cultural groups with whom they identify.
e third primary objective was to assess whether, and how, empathy relates
to social-emotional health in those identifying with both Western and Asian
cultural groups (i.e., the bicultural group).
314 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
Methods
Participants
A total of 190 high school and university undergraduate students from the
Vancouver area took part in the study (69 high school; 121 university; mean
age=19.31 years, SD=2.64 years). e sample was predominantly female
(high school sample: 58 female, 5 failed to report gender; university sample:
96 female, 1 failed to report gender). Informed consent was obtained from
all participants, either by the participant or in the case of underage partici-
pants (i.e., those under 18 years of age), parental consent was obtained. Par-
ticipants were given either a gift certificate to a local movie theatre (high
school sample) or received course credit (university sample) for their partici-
pation. An additional 52 participants were run but excluded due to their eth-
nicity (15; all outside the target groups of interest), a failure to report ethnic
information (place of birth or self-identified ethnicity) (24), failure to com-
plete the questionnaires (4), and a lack of proficiency in English (9).
Measures
e Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980). is 28-item index is
used to assess both cognitive and affective components of dispositional empa-
thy. Questions are on a 5-point Likert type scale, with answers ranging from
‘does not describe me well’ to ‘describes me very well’. It is one of the most
widely used self-report measures of empathy in circulation and has both good
internal and external validity (Davis, 1980, 1983c). e IRI provides scores
on four different components of empathy:
1. Personal distress: the tendency to experience distress and/or discomfort
when witnessing another person’s distress (e.g., “Being in a tense emo-
tional situation scares me.”).
2. Empathic concern: the tendency to feel sympathy and/or concern for
others in negative situations (e.g., “I often have tender, concerned feel-
ings for people less fortunate than me.”).
3. Fantasy: the frequency with which one places oneself into fictional situ-
ations (e.g., “After seeing a play or a movie, I have felt as though I were
one of the characters.”).
4. Perspective-taking: the ability to take the psychological point of view of
another person (e.g., “I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the
‘other guy’s’ perspective.” (reverse-coded)).
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 315
Only the first two components were of interest in the current analyses as they
represent the affective facets of empathic responding, although answers for all
four subscales were obtained. In the current sample, the measure demon-
strated good internal validity with all alphas greater than 0.70 with only 7
items per scale. As alpha is dependent upon sample size, we also calculated
internal reliability using the Spearman-Brown prophecy formula for 20 items;
with this, all subscales show very good internal reliability of 0.87 and higher.
Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Goodman, 1997). is ques-
tionnaire consists of 25 items on a 3-point scale with answers ‘not true’,
‘somewhat true’, and ‘certainly true’. e questionnaire provides scores on
five different components of social-emotional health:
1. Emotional symptoms (e.g., I am often unhappy, depressed, or tearful)
2. Conduct problems (e.g., I usually do as I am told (reverse coded))
3. Hyperactivity/Impulsivity (e.g., I am constantly fidgeting or squirming)
4. Peer relationship problems (e.g., I would rather be alone than with
people my own age)
5. Prosocial behaviour (e.g., I try to be nice to other people. I care about
their feelings)
e SDQ was administered only to the high school sample because it has not
been validated for university-aged students. It was initially validated on high
school students up to age 16 but has more recently been used in older adoles-
cents (Van Roy et al., 2008; Cooke and Jones, 2009). Moreover, in our high
school sample there were no mean differences by age on any of the five sub-
scales and there was adequate reliability for all subscales (ranging from 0.79
to 0.91 using the Spearman–Brown prophecy formula for 20 items).
Demographics. Participants were asked to indicate their birthday, gender, and
answer two questions regarding their ethnic identity and country of origin:
(1) What ethnicity do you identify with? and (2) What is your country of
birth? Based on their answers to these two questions, we separated them into
three categories of cultural groups: Western (n=32; 29 university), East Asian
(n=74; 56 university), and Bicultural (n=84; 36 university). Individuals born
in and identifying with the same culture were coded as such. Bicultural
individuals reported being born in a Western country (e.g., Canada), but
identified with an East Asian ethnicity (e.g., Chinese). ere were no cases
where individuals were born in an East Asian country and identified with a
Western ethnicity.
316 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
Procedure
Students completed all questions either online (121; university sample) or in
paper format (69; high school sample). For all high school participants, the
IRI was completed first followed by the SDQ and finally the demographics
questions. For all university participants, the IRI was completed first followed
by the demographics questions.
Results
Preliminary Analyses
Given evidence that females tend to report higher levels of empathy than
males (Eisenberg and Lennon, 1983), we conducted preliminary compari-
sons of the IRI components by gender. In line with previous research, females
rated themselves higher on both of the subscales of interest on the IRI:
Empathic Concern and Personal Distress (Table 1). us, gender was
included as a factor for all future analyses. No effect of age was found.
Culture and Empathy
Multiple ANOVAs were performed with the subscales of the IRI as depen-
dent variables and culture group (Western, Bicultural, East Asian) and gender
as the fixed factors. ere was a main effect of culture for the Personal Dis-
tress subscale, F(2,175)=7.531, P=0.001, but not for the Empathic Concern
subscale. Further examination of the pairwise comparisons showed that West-
ern participants scored the lowest on Personal Distress and this was signifi-
cantly different from both the bicultural group and the East Asian group. See
Table 2 for full results. e bicultural and East Asian groups did not signifi-
cantly differ from each other although the bicultural group’s score (M=13.36)
fell in between the Western (M=10.13) and East Asian (M=14.08) means.
As previous research found differences in children on empathic behaviour
(Friedlmeier and Trommsorff, 1999; Trommsdorff et al., 2007), which is
most comparable to the Empathic Concern subscale, we also performed pair-
wise comparisons on the Empathic Concern subscale. In line with this earlier
work, there was a significant difference between the Western and East Asian
groups’ scores, with the Western group showing higher scores (M=19.53) for
Empathic Concern than the East Asian group (M=17.38). However, the
bicultural group (M=18.32) was not significantly different from either the
Western or the East Asian groups.
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 317
Together, these results suggest there is a Western-East Asian difference in the
experience of personal distress and empathic concern, mirroring previous
results found in children using behavioural techniques (e.g., Trommsdorff
et al., 2007). Of particular interest are the findings that bicultural individuals
who bridge these two cultures show a distinct pattern of affective empathy
which is in some ways similar to, and in other ways different from, the cultural
groups with whom they identify. at is, bicultural individuals’ self-reported
levels of Personal Distress were higher than those in the Western sample and
more in line with their East Asian counterparts. In contrast, bicultural indi-
viduals’ self-reported levels of Empathic Concern were not significantly differ-
ent from either of the groups they identify with (despite those two groups
being different from each other).
Predicting Social-Emotional Health
We examined how affective empathy related to social-emotional health and
well-being for the bicultural group only (due to the small sample sizes for the
other two groups in the high school sample). is was particularly important
in light of the distinct pattern of affective empathy in this group. To assess
this, we used hierarchical multiple regression with the SDQ subscales as
dependent variables for a total of five analyses. Age and gender were not
Table 1
IRI affective subscales by gender
Subscale nMales Females t-test P-value
Empathic concern 184 16.93 19.52 3.32 0.001
Personal distress 183 11.63 14.28 3.16 0.002
e n values vary because of partially missing data for one female on the Personal Distress
subscale of the IRI.
Table 2
IRI subscales by cultural group
Subscale Western Bicultural Asian
Empathic concern 19.533* 18.316 17.378*
Personal distress 10.136**,*** 13.362** 14.089***
* ese two variables are significantly different at α=0.05; **,*** these two variables are
significantly different from each other at α=0.01.
318 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
included as they were unrelated to the SDQ subscales. Given the significant
relationship between gender and both Empathic Concern and Personal Dis-
tress, gender was partialled out of these variables prior to their entry in the
regression equation as predictors. See Table 3 for full results.
Of the five social-emotional health components examined, three were sig-
nificantly predicted by scores on affective empathy. First, affective empathy
accounted for a significant proportion of the variability in Emotional Symp-
toms, R 2=0.162, P=0.024, with Personal Distress acting as a significant,
unique contributor,
β
=0.431, P=0.008. Second, Prosocial Behaviour was also
significantly predicted by affective empathy, R 2=0.163, P=0.024. In this case,
Empathic Concern was the significant, unique predictor,
β
=0.418, P=0.009.
Finally, affective empathy significantly predicted Peer Relationship Problems,
R 2=0.171, P=0.020. Both Personal Distress and Empathic Concern were sig-
nificant predictors with the standardized regression coefficients in the
expected direction: Empathic Concern negatively predicted these problems,
β
=–0.405, P=0.011, while Personal Distress positively predicted them,
β
=0.339, P=0.032.
Discussion
e current research had three main goals: First, to extend findings from the
child literature of empathic differences between Western and East Asian cul-
tures in an adolescent and young adult sample; second, to identify whether
or not individuals who are bicultural differ systematically from one or both
of the aforementioned cultures with respect to empathic responding; and
third, to investigate whether and how empathic behaviours predict social-
emotional health in a bicultural sample born in a Western country.
Table 3
Regression equations predicting social-emotional health from affective components
of empathy
Dependent Model R 2Model Fβ (EC) β (PD)
Emotional symptoms 0.162* 4.063 –0.098 0.431**
Conduct problems 0.003 0.065 0.023 0.042
Hyperactivity/Inattention 0.012 0.263 –0.088 0.111
Peer relationship problems 0.171* 4.320 –0.405* 0.339*
Prosocial behaviour 0.163* 4.082 0.418** –0.040
*α=0.05; **α=0.01.
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 319
With respect to our first goal, we found that adolescents and young adults
differ systematically on empathic responding by culture, in line with previous
studies looking at empathy differences in young children (e.g., Trommsdorff,
1995). Our Western sample reported greater levels of Empathic Concern and
less Personal Distress when confronted with another person’s negative emo-
tional state, relative to our East Asian sample. e higher levels of Empathic
Concern and lower levels of Personal Distress in the Western group suggest a
more ‘other-oriented’ emotional response to another’s distress. ese ‘other-
orienting’ emotions are related to greater levels of prosocial and helping
behaviours in Western culture (e.g., Underwood and Moore, 1982; Eisenberg
and Miller, 1987; Findlay et al., 2006). Moreover, greater levels of these
behaviours are also linked to better social and emotional health outcomes
(e.g., de Wied et al., 2007; Haughen et al., 2008). With many East Asian
individuals immigrating to Western cultures later in life, considerations of
these differences may be vital for understanding the process of integration
and enculturation into Western societies (a subject we return to in the ‘Impli-
cations’ section).
Second, we explored the empathic responding of individuals who straddle
Western and East Asian cultures. Our bicultural sample consisted of individ-
uals who were born and raised in Canada, but were of East Asian ethnicity
and self-identified with both cultures. We found a distinct pattern of
empathic responding for these bicultural individuals relative to the Western
and East Asian groups. For both Empathic Concern and Personal Distress,
the bicultural individuals’ scores were in between those of the Western and
East Asian groups, but the pattern of responding was overall more similar to
that of the East Asians. Specifically, the bicultural group was no different
from either the Western or East Asian groups for Empathic Concern, but was
significantly different from the Western group (and not the East Asian group)
with respect to Personal Distress. One possibility for the lack of group differ-
ences between the bicultural and Western group on Empathic Concern is
that there are multiple processes or mechanisms (e.g., family and peer social-
ization) at work for these bicultural individuals resulting in differences in
some social-emotional abilities, but not others. Another possibility is that
there is a small, but real effect, and our results reflect a type II error due to
the small size of our Western sample. e lack of difference between the East
Asian and bicultural groups on both Empathic Concern and Personal Dis-
tress suggests that heritage plays a critical role in the development of empathic
responding. Given the difference between the Western and bicultural groups
on Personal Distress, it is quite possible that meaningful differences also exist
on Empathic Concern, but are masked by a small sample size.
320 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
Our final goal pertained to the relationships between empathic behaviours
and social-emotional health; particularly, do the significant relationships
found in Western individuals also occur in those who are bicultural? Or do
the empathic differences found in the bicultural group result in a different
relationship with social-emotional health? e driving force behind this goal
was to understand if East Asian individuals living in a Western culture share
the same, or similar, empathic predictors for social-emotional health. is is
critical as we found empathic differences between our bicultural and Western
groups on elements of affective empathy and it was important to determine if
these differences are implicated in the relationship with social-emotional
well-being.
Consistent with research on Western individuals (e.g., Haughen et al.,
2008), we found that affective empathy was strongly predictive of elements
of social-emotional health in our bicultural sample. Specifically, we found
that higher Empathic Concern predicted more Prosocial Behaviour, and
greater Personal Distress predicted greater negative Emotional Symptoms
while both lower Empathic Concern and higher Personal Distress predicted
greater Peer Relationship Problems. is implies that the empathic differ-
ences found between bicultural and Western individuals may have widespread
effects on social outcomes. is combination of findings: (1) that affective
empathy predicts social-emotional health in a similar manner to Western
groups (i.e., greater Personal Distress is associated with more Emotional
Symptoms and Peer Relationships Problems) and (2) that there are differ-
ences in bicultural individuals’ self-reported affective empathy (i.e., more
Personal Distress than in the Western group), provides impetus for future
research to further examine potential differences in the nature of social-
emotional health outcomes across these cultural groups.
Implications, Limitations and Future Directions
e current study is one of the first of its kind to examine and establish cul-
tural differences in affective empathy in a non-child sample, in addition to
examining the effects of biculturalism on the components of affective empa-
thy. Based on a plethora of findings that parents are a critical source of social
and emotional learning at a young age and friends become increasingly vital
to social learning as children age (for a review, see Harris, 2006), bicultural
individuals are the ideal population for examining the relative influences of
home versus community factors on empathy. Additionally, with many
countries becoming more diverse there are many children born in one culture
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 321
from parents who belong to another. is can result in children trying to
straddle two different cultural perspectives, behaviours, and norms in order
to socialize both at home and outside the home, the effects of which are still
largely unknown.
Our results imply that the bicultural individuals seem to adopt compo-
nents of both groups’ affective empathy, perhaps to facilitate socialization in
both groups. e failure to find significant differences between the bicultural
group and both Western and East Asian groups in their experiences of
empathic concern is possibly because this factor is influenced equally by
interactions within the family and interactions with peers. is could result
from a change in relative importance of family versus peers across develop-
ment. If young bicultural children are initially socialized at home, it is possi-
ble that they most resemble the parents’ cultural group empathically; however,
as these children enter schools in a Western culture and interact more with
others in a Western culture, they may somewhat alter (or feel compelled to
alter) what they learned at home to integrate and gain friends. e significant
role peers have in social development for school-aged children supports such
a change (e.g., Harris, 1995; Laursen et al., 1996; Tarrant, 2002; Chen et al.,
2008).
e findings with respect to the experience of personal distress, however,
were somewhat different. e bicultural group’s lack of difference from the
East Asian group and significant difference from the Western group suggests
that the family (or perhaps heritage, in the case of individuals whose families
have ‘Westernized’) primarily influences this component of empathy. If the
family is the initial source of socialization for empathic behaviour, we would
expect lower levels of empathic concern and higher levels of personal distress.
Whereas empathic concern may become more influenced by peers with age,
it is possible that personal distress is more resistant to change. One possible
reason could be the early, and foundational, role of socialization by parents
through their teaching of emotion regulation (Frieldmeier and Trommsdorff,
1999). Frieldmeier and Trommsdorff (1999) found that during a scenario
where a play partner was in distress, East Asian (Japanese) mothers (of chil-
dren aged two) did not expect her child to autonomously regulate her emo-
tions and help the partner, but rather focused primarily on providing comfort
for her own child. In contrast, Western (German) mothers did expect their
children to regulate their own emotions and to provide help to a partner in
distress. In turn, the Western mothers’ behaviour emphasized their partner’s
emotional state and the need to help. us, individuals in an East Asian (i.e.,
‘collectivist’) culture may inhibit empathic concern by increasing personal
distress and affecting the way individuals are taught to regulate their own
322 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
emotions in distressing situations. Postulation aside, further research is needed
to determine the precise causes of these cultural differences and the role each
culture plays in the empathic responding of bicultural individuals.
Our findings also have crucial behavioural implications. According to our
results, East Asian individuals are more likely to feel ‘self-orienting’ emotions
in response to another’s distress, which in turn have been linked to lower lev-
els of self-reported prosocial or helping behaviours (at least in Western cul-
tures). is is seemingly in contrast to research suggesting higher levels of
prosocial behaviour in East Asian cultures (Suzuki and Greenfield, 2002).
is is not necessarily a logical impossibility, however. One possibility stems
from work on emotion regulation that suggests feelings of personal distress
can lead to prosocial behaviour when it is the quickest path to alleviate self-
focused anxiety (Batson, 1998). Given that East Asian individuals also show
higher levels of perspective-taking, which is related to higher levels of inter-
dependence (Wu and Keysar, 2007), these individuals may be more attuned
with others around them and their increased tendency to experience personal
distress may induce helping as the easiest or most salient way to simultane-
ously reduce their own distress. Spun somewhat differently, it may be that the
nature of the relationship between personal distress and prosocial behaviour
is different in East Asian cultures (and those bridging East Asian and Western
cultures), than it is in Western cultures. us, while the means of empathic
socialization for East Asians could be different, the end result with regard to
prosociality might remain the same.
Another possibility has to do with one’s sense of self. According to previ-
ous work exploring cultural differences in self-concepts and self-construals,
North Americans hold a more consistent sense of self than East Asians, such
that the core representations of their identity remains largely uninfluenced by
others (Heine, 2001). Perhaps this quality of maintaining one’s psychological
independence from others may decrease the likelihood that the self will
‘absorb’ the emotions of others. Rather than internalizing the distress of oth-
ers, Westerners may empathize with those in distress by exhibiting concern
rather than experiencing the corresponding negative emotions themselves.
On the other hand, East Asians’ sense of self may be more dependent upon
those around them, and in the context of empathic responding, adopting
others’ emotions may be a key means by which East Asians better understand
others and foster strong relationships (Morling et al., 2001). Again, this
intertwining of emotions could lead to prosocial behaviour in order to allevi-
ate the self-focused anxiety. It may be worth emphasizing that we are not
suggesting that East Asians and this bicultural group are more ‘self-focused’
in an egocentric way; rather we surmise that this ‘self-focus’ is related to their
T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326 323
collectivist heritage which leads them to adopt the other person’s distress ‘as if
it were their own’.
is latter possibility may also explain the current results with respect to
empathy and social-emotional well-being. at is, if individuals are internal-
izing the experiences of others, these negative experiences can affect the
observer’s emotional response and in turn, social relationships. Unfortunately,
to our knowledge, no previous work has examined the role of cultural differ-
ences in empathy and their relationship to social-emotional health. us,
future work should further examine the relationships between empathic
responding and social-emotional health in East Asian groups – both those
living in Asia and those in Western settings where the higher rates of personal
distress and lower rates of empathic concern have been associated with nega-
tive outcomes in Western groups.
ere are, however, some limitations to the current study that must be
taken into consideration. First, the measures included, for both empathy and
social-emotional health, were self-report. ere are known issues with respect
to self-report questionnaires, namely the tendency to respond in a socially-
appropriate or self-serving manner; furthermore, it is unclear how accurate
individuals are at assessing their own cognitive and emotional states (for a
review, see Eisenberg and Fabes, 1990). If possible, future research should
focus on assessing the relationships between empathy and social-emotional
health using behavioural measures of empathy. Second, the Asian group con-
sisted only of individuals who were born in Asia but who have spent at least
some time living in Canada. Although they did not self identify with their
new Western culture, it is possible that this time spent in Canada, however
limited it may have been, could have influenced them enough to make them
meaningfully different from Asian individuals who were born and raised in
an Asian country and continue to reside there. us, our Asian sample may
also be seen as being somewhat ‘bicultural’. Comparisons with a ‘pure’ Asian
sample are necessary before making firm conclusions involving this group.
In sum, the current results suggest that there are cultural and bicultural
differences with respect to affective empathy. Specifically, East Asian adoles-
cents and young adults reported less empathic concern and greater personal
distress than their Western counterparts. e scores of those who self-
identified as bicultural fell in between the East Asian and Western groups, but
revealed significant differences from their ‘uni-cultural’ peers, demonstrating
shared influences of family and community. e mechanism behind these
differences warrants further investigation, but these data provide a vital first
step in a better understanding of the role of culture in empathy. e current
results also demonstrated that the relationship between empathy and levels of
324 T. G. Cassels et al. / Journal of Cognition and Culture 10 (2010) 309–326
social-emotional health in a bicultural sample is similar to that for Western
individuals. at is, affective empathy was strongly predictive of elements of
social-emotional health. Specifically, we found that higher empathic concern
predicted more prosocial behaviour, and greater personal distress predicted
greater negative emotional symptoms, while both lower empathic concern
and higher personal distress predicted greater peer relationship problems. is
‘bicultural’ group, which as of yet has been understudied, clearly merits fur-
ther research – both as a means to better understand the effects on those who
bridge two cultures (something that has become increasingly common in
recent years) and as a means to advance understanding of the differing roles
family factors and broader community factors play in empathic development.
Acknowledgements
is research was supported by a fellowship to T.G.C. from the Social Sci-
ences and Humanities Research Council in Canada as well as a grant to Susan
Birch from the UBC Hampton Research Endowment Fund. e authors are
indebted to the officials, school principal (Rob Schindel), teacher (Heather
Jensen) and students from Windermere Community School in the Vancou-
ver School District, Vancouver, BC, Canada, and to the students of the Uni-
versity of British Columbia for their participation. anks are also due to
Steve Heine for comments and advice on an earlier draft of this article and
the anonymous reviewers who provided us with crucial feedback.
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... However, culture may shape empathic responding (Atkins, Uskul, & Cooper, 2016;Cassels, Chan, Chung, & Birch, 2010;Chopik, O'Brien, & Konrath, 2017). Notably, cross-cultural studies on theory of mind have shown that culture influences the task performance and developmental trajectory of the ability to understand others' mental states (Hughes et al., 2014;Moriguchi, Okumura, Kanakogi, & Itakura, 2010;Naito & Koyama, 2006). ...
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... Magdalena, a woman, feeling "sorry" for PWUD is notable because it not only showcases her apparent affective empathy for PWUD (Chung et al. 2010), but because this captures a perhaps gendered and intersectional form of affective empathy related to the heightened physical and emotional vulnerability that some women PWUD may experience in relationships with men (Ezell et al. 2021). ...
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Chapter
Empathy (a caring concern for the thoughts and feelings of others) has been a focus of studies at the national and international level since the late 1980s when Japan delayed introduction of microcomputers into elementary schools in part due to concerns that technology would turn young children into “non-thinking machines.” (Children & Computers in Schools, 1996). In the early 1990s, three years of study by the USA authors of the current chapter, in conjunction with colleagues in Japan and Mexico, found no tangible evidence of those specific concerns at the early primary school level, but did uncover evidence of a construct they labeled Computer Seclusion emerging at the middle school level (Computers in the Schools, 1996). Since those early studies, many other trends based on the original IEA items customized by Japan have emerged. Among these are the extensive gender gap regarding empathy that is now known to exist for young learners from the first grade through completion of secondary education. Another is that empathy is positively related to many other characteristics, such as self-concept, study habits, and creative tendencies. In this chapter findings from empathy data gathered from 5000 middle school students in 2009, compared with previous studies using the same item set and more recent findings in the literature, will be used to present implications for best practices regarding the current strong interest in empathy as a contributor to twenty-First century skills that appear to be declining among today’s youth in our society. Conjectured reasons for these declines are also included in the chapter, as well as coaching historical findings in the context of the newly-emerging importance of social emotional intelligence.KeywordsEmpathyMeasures of empathyEmpathy normsEducational technology
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