Empathy Assessment and the Prediction of Social Behavior: Development and Validation of the Social-Emotions Task (SET) for the Measurement of Empathy and Theory of Mind

Schaefer, Hillary Sunshine, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Nosek, Brian, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Empathy is a complex ability requiring a series of prerequisite skills: an emotion must be recognized, a cause inferred, and the perceiver experiences some of the observed emotion (Decety & Jackson, 2004). Poor empathy can result from a disruption in one of these multiple components; consequently, populations with otherwise disparate symptoms can show empathic deficits (Blair, 2008). Many negative consequences are associated with poor empathy, including social deficits and increased violence risk (e.g. Riggio et. al, 1989; Sallquist et. al, 2009). Current assessments of empathy fail to account for its multiple components, rely entirely on self-report, or have been limited to validation in a single population. Clinical and forensic assessments often excessively call on clinical judgment to assess empathy, which is less accurate than statistical or taskbased measures (Dames, Faust & Meehl, 1989), or worse, neglect to evaluate social functioning entirely due to the lack of a reliable measure. The current project introduces and develops a test of empathic capacity and social cognition – called the SocialEmotions Task (SET) – that aims to be useful in research and clinical contexts across multiple populations in the prediction of outcomes such as antisocial behavior and community success. Results show that SET performance is associated positively with good social functioning and negatively with antisocial behaviors and psychopathic traits. Further, it outperforms other empathy measures in the prediction of these outcomes. Using a game-like adaptation of the SET, individuals with implicit racial bias showed poor empathy for angry, Black males. The SET shows promise as a test of empathic capacity and future work aims to validate it in additional populations.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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