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Psychological Bulletin

1988, Vol. 103, No. 3,324-344

Copyright 1988 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.


0033-2909/88/J00.75

The Relation of Empathy to Aggressive


and Externalizing/Antisocial Behavior
Paul A. Miller and Nancy Eisenberg
Arizona State University
A number of researchers have proposed that empathy, sympathy, or both, defined primarily in affective terms, may inhibit aggressive and antisocial behaviors (N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1982; S.
Feshbach, 1970; Parke & Slaby, 1983). Apart from brief reviews, however, no systematic review
of the research concerning the relation of empathy/sympathy to aggression and other antisocial,
externalizing behaviors has been conducted. In this review, we organized the relation of empathy/
sympathy to relevant negative behaviors principally by mode of assessing empathy (i.e., picture/
story, questionnaire methods, facial/gestural reactions, and experimental inductions) and analyzed
empirical findings with meta-analytic techniques. Empathic/sympathetic responding was negatively
related to aggression and antisocial, externalizing behaviors for questionnaire methods and negatively but nonsignificantly related for other indexes of empathy. Child abuse also was associated with
low levels of empathy/sympathy, as was the receipt of such abuse. Relations between the empathy
indexes and aggression/externalizing behaviors were generally the same for male and female subjects,
especially after controlling for sample size. We discuss conceptual issues related to the pattern of
findings, as well as directions for future research.

Over the years, philosophers have debated the mechanisms

recent research, such affective processes appear to be positively

underlying or mediating prosocial and moral behavior. Kant

associated with moral development (see Eisenberg & Miller,

(1788/1949), for example, proposed that moral principles and

1987; Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987).

behavior engendered by such principles are based on rational

It also has been suggested that sympathetic and empathic re-

processes and are influenced little by emotion. On the other

actions play an important function in the reduction or inhibi-

hand, Hume (1777/1966) argued that affective responses such

tion of aggressive or antisocial actions toward others (N. D.

as sympathy and benevolence are primary motives underlying

Feshbach, 1978, 1987; N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1982; S.

individuals' moral actions. More recently, some theorists have

Feshbach, 1970; Parke & Slaby, 1983). That is, individuals who

sought to integrate emotional and cognitive influences in their

vicariously experience the negative reactions of others that oc-

analyses of moral action (e.g., Blum, 1980; Hoffman, 1987).

cur because of their own aggressive behavior may be less in-

The diversity of philosophical positions is reflected in the the-

clined to continue their aggression or to aggress in future inter-

oretical and empirical approaches that psychologists have taken

actions. Moreover, if sympathy and empathy inhibit negative

in their investigations of moral development. Until recently, the

social behaviors that have hurtful effects for others, including

bulk of the research literature concerned the role of rational

aggressive behavior, lower levels of individuals' empathic capac-

moral principles and social-cognitive skills such as perspective

ity or its expression may be associated with delays, arrests, or

taking in moral reasoning and behavior (e.g., Blasi, 1980; Kohl-

other dysfunctions of sociomoral development. These may in-

berg, 1981; Rest, 1983; Underwood & Moore, 1982). There is

clude greater incidence of antisocial behaviors and other forms

now, however, a considerable body of research in which the role

of externalizing psychopathology. Thus, one might expect indi-

of empathy or sympathy, denned primarily in affective terms,

viduals from normal as well as clinical populations who express

has been examined in relation to moral and positive social be-

aggressive, delinquent, and antisocial behavior to exhibit less

havior (e.g., Batson & Coke, 1981; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987;

empathic responsiveness toward others than do other people.

see Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987). Especially when one considers

Indeed, a deficiency in the capacity to respond to others empathically may be a contributing factor to dysfunctions in social
interaction that attain clinical levels (Gibbs, 1987).
The primary objectives of this review were to examine two

This work was funded in part by National Institute of Mental Health


National Research Service Award 1F32MH09263-01 to Paul A. Miller
and National Science Foundation Award BNS-8509223 and National
Institute of Child Health and Development Career Development Award
1 K04HD00717 to Nancy Eisenberg.
We would like to express our gratitude to William Stock for advice
regarding meta-analytic procedures.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Paul
A. Miller or Nancy Eisenberg, Department of Psychology, Arizona State
University, Tempe, Arizona 85287.

related issues: (a) whether individuals who are relatively aggressive in their interactions with others also tend to be lower in
empathic/sympathetic responsiveness or both and (b) whether
individuals who exhibit antisocial and other forms of negative
behavior that have negative consequences for others (but are not
solely or clearly aggression per se) differ from other people in
empathic responsiveness. Before reviewing the research, however, we consider definitional issues regarding empathy and ag-

324

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

gression among clinical and nonelinical populations, as well as


theoretical issues regarding the relation of empathy to aggression and externalizing negative behaviors.

Definitional Issues
In the psychological literature, empathy has been denned as
both a cognitive and affective response. Moreover, the terms
sympathy and empathy have often been used interchangeably.
For example, both sympathy (e.g., Cooley, 1902/1956; Mead,
1934) and empathy (e.g., Hogan, 1969) have been defined as
the ability to identify others' emotional states or to assume the
emotional role of the other, that is, to achieve a cognitive understanding of the feelings of the other person. Others, however,
have denned empathy (N. D. Feshbach, 1978; Hoffman, 1984;
Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972; Stotland, 1969) and sympathy
(Batson, in press; McDougall, 1908/1950; Smith, 1759/1948)
mostly in affective terms, that is, as a vicarious emotional response to a person's affective state or situation that is similar to
or at least congruent with that state. In the latter sense, sympathetic responses are not necessarily denned as matching the
emotions of the other person; they are merely consistent with
the other's state. For example, a person may report feelings of
concern regarding someone else's distress.
For the purposes of this review, empathy is denned as an emotional response evoked by the affective state or situation of the
other person. This emotion may be either identical or similar to
the state of the other and involves at least a minimal degree
of self-other differentiation. Thus, empathy includes responses
such as emotional matching and, in general, the vicarious experiencing of emotions consistent with those of others. Sympathy,
on the other hand, is defined as an emotional response, elicited
by the emotional state or situation of the other person, that is
not identical to the other's emotion and involves feelings of concern or sorrow for the other person. Frequently, especially for
individuals mature enough to differentiate between their own
and others' internal states, empathy can be expected to lead to
sympathy or to co-occur. In the literature, however, it often is
not possible to ascertain whether authors are referring to empathy, sympathy, or some combination. Therefore, for the sake of
simplicity, in such cases we use the term empathy to refer to
both sympathy and empathy.
Most theorists believe that empathy, albeit characterized by
its affective component, involves cognition as well as affect. For
example, some have suggested that the ability to differentiate
among and identify others' affective states and the ability to take
the cognitive and affective perspective of others (i.e., role take)
are prerequisites for empathizing with someone (Batson, in
press; N. D. Feshbach, 1978). Others have argued that less advanced cognitive processes, such as classical conditioning, may
be all that are necessary for some modes of empathic responding (Hoffman, 1984). Most likely, cognitive processes affecting
empathic expression operate at levels consistent with normal
cognitive-developmental processes, thus becoming more sophisticated with age and more evident among older than younger people (Hoffman, 1984).
A number of definitional issues are also related to the concepts of aggression and negative, externalizing behavior. As recent reviewers have indicated (Attili, 1985; Parke & Slaby,

325

1983), defining aggression has proven to be a controversial issue. In early research, the focus was on the injurious or hostile
intent of the aggressive act wherein the goal was harmful or destructive consequences to the person or object (e.g., Berkowitz,
1962; Dollard, Dobb, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). Many
researchers currently draw distinctions among aggressive behaviors on the basis of intent, for example, distinctions among
instrumental aggression used to claim an object or to gain status in a group (e.g., Campbell, Muncer, & Bibel, 1985; S. Feshbach, 1970; Parke & Slaby, 1983), retaliatory aggression in response to provocation, and aggressive behaviors used simply to
succeed in game playing (see Attili, 1985). Other researchers
have included other social-cognitive criteria, in which the characteristics of the aggressor, social context, nature of the recipient's response to the act, and observer perceptions determine
whether a behavior is aggressive (e.g., Bandura, 1973; Dodge,
1980; Perry, Perry, & Rasmussen, 1986). In reviewing the literature, however, it often was not possible to determine how researchers defined and operationalized aggressive behavior.
Moreover, the types of aggression included in empirical studies
have varied considerably (e.g., from verbal remarks to physical
violence). Thus, to provide a comprehensive assessment of the
relation of aggression to empathy, we included in this review a
range of behaviors defined as aggressive. Moreover, because
other negative behaviorssuch as cheating, lying, and stealingfrequently involve aggressive encounters and possible injury to others, we also examined the relations of such behaviors
to empathy and sympathy.
There also exist a number of systems for classifying psychopathological behavior, including antisocial behavior. An especially promising approach has grown out of efforts to develop
behaviorally based classification systems for psychopathology
(see Achenbach, 1978; Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1979; Quay
& Parsons, 1971; Spivak, Swift, & Prewitt, 1971). With these
systems, forms of psychopathology among children and adolescents are differentiated as a function of expressed, observable
behavior. In factor analytic research of relevant behaviors, investigators have repeatedly identified two "broadband" clinical
groups (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1984). These groups have
been labeled "undercontrolled versus overcontrolled" or "internalizing versus externalizing" (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1979,
1984).
Of relevance to this discussion is the category of externalizing
behavior. The negative behaviors of externalizing individuals
tend to be expressed outwardly and are likely to directly affect
other people and society at large. Externalizing behaviors range
from threatening, attacking, and fighting with others to general
disobedience and serious conduct disorders (see Achenbach &
Edelbrock, 1979), behaviors that seemingly reflect less awareness of or concern for the affective consequences of one's behavior for others.
Because of the general recognition of this differentiation in
clinical research (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1984) and the role
of aggression and other negative social behaviors in externalizing conditions, we included externalizing behavior in our review
of the relevant research. Although no equivalent behaviorally
based classification system exists for adults' behaviors, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the
American Psychiatric Association (1980) contains diagnostic

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PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

categories for adults and children similar to the Achenbach


(1978) classification system. Thus, when appropriate, we included samples of adults' externalizing behaviors in our review.

Theoretical Issues
As noted above, social and developmental psychologists have
used empathy to refer to the ability or tendency to be vicariously aroused by the affective state of another person. This vicarious arousal often is assumed to engender sympathetic concern for the other, aversive arousal within the observer (labeled
personal distress; see Batson & Coke, 1981), or both (Batson,
in press; Hoffman, 1984). According to some theorists (e.g.,
N. D. Feshbach, 1982; Hoffman, 1984), observation of others'
expressions of distress or pain often results in the observer's
experiencing similar distress by means of vicarious emotional
responding. When the observers themselves are the instigators
of aggression, they may vicariously experience the negative
arousal induced by their own actions (i.e., they experience personal distress). Reduction of aggressive behavior in interactions
with others would therefore be reinforcing for the aggressor because it would result in less vicarious negative arousal (N. D.
Feshbach, 1978; N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1982). Some
theorists (e.g., Hoffman, 1984) further suggest that feelings of
(or anticipation of) such distress will inhibit immoral behavior
primarily when the individual feels responsible for the distress
state of the other person.
For those who experience sympathy rather than (or in addition to) personal distress as a result of empathizing, one would
also expect a reduction in negative behavior because of the desire to improve the other's condition and to rectify any harm.
Sympathy may evolve from a sense of connectedness with others and a positive valuing of others (Staub, 1986), both of which
should preclude harming others. Moreover, the role-taking activities that often are part of sympathizing and mature empathy
should result in a reduction of misunderstandings, accompanied by a lessening of conflict and aggression (S. Feshbach &
N. D. Feshbach, 1986).
Consistent with the aforementioned theorizing, such situational factors as the immediacy and intensity of pain cues have
been associated with lower levels of aggression (e.g., Baron,
1971; Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972). These cues should evoke
aversive personal distress reactions or sympathetic concern, either of which could inhibit aggression. In some research, however, a victim's expression of pain has been associated with increased aggression, especially under conditions of prior anger
arousal or strong provocation (S. Feshbach, Stiles, & Bitter,
1967;Hartmann, 1969; Perry & Perry, 1974). Moreover, and of
particular relevance to this review, the presence of cues indicative of pain appears to be associated with higher levels of aggression in people with established histories of aggressiveness and
delinquency (Perry & Perry, 1974). Thus, aggressive individuals
may not respond vicariously to others' emotions or interpret
others' pain cues in the way that less aggressive individuals do.
Part of the reason for aggressive children's relative indifference to pain cues may lie in the fact that aggressive children
may make interpretations of others' behaviors in social interactions that differ from those made by less aggressive children
(Dodge, 1980; Gouze, Rayais, & Bieber-Schneider, 1983). That

is, aggressive children appear to interpret social cues in ways


that are relatively likely to elicit feelings of personal distress,
threat, or anger, resulting in behavior consistent with their interpretation of the situation rather than the affective state of the
other person. Consistent with this view, Gough (1948) and Hare
(1970) have suggested that a history of antisocial behavior is
the result of a deficiency in perspective taking, which would be
expected to be associated with lower levels of sympathy (S.
Feshbach & N. D. Feshbach, 1986; Hoffman, 1984). Thus, the
relation between empathy (and sympathy) and aggressive/antisocial behavior may occur for a variety of reasons, reasons
linked to both the cognitive and affective components of empathy.
A type of aggression of special note is serious aggression toward family members. Researchers have found that abusive parents, in comparison with nonabusive parents, tend to engage in
more negative, coercive interactions with their children (Burgess & Conger, 1978; Reid, 1986); respond less appropriately to
their children (Fontana & Robison, 1984); express more negative affect; and use more punitive rearing strategies (Howes &
Feshbach, 1986; Trickett & Kuczynski, 1983). Conversely,
mothers' communication of concern and altruistic administrations to their children and others (called empathic caregiving)
have been positively related to their use of reasoning (e.g., references to consequences for others or moral principles) and expression of emotion in child-caused distress situations (ZahnWaxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979). Thus, it is reasonable to
suggest that abusive parents, in comparison with other parents,
may be less sympathetically or vicariously aroused by their children's pain cues and negative emotional reactions (also see
N. D. Feshbach, 1987).
Moreover, to the extent that abused children's needs and feelings are not recognized or responded to appropriately in interactions with an abusive parent, they may have little experience
of empathic responding themselves or opportunity to learn to
identify and experience the affective cues and states of others.
Furthermore, if Staub (1986) is correct that sympathetic responding evolves from positive feelings toward others and feelings of interconnectedness with others, abused children should
be relatively unlikely to develop high levels of empathic/sympathetic responding. Consistent with this view, according to the
limited relevant data, the development of empathy in children
appears to be enhanced by supportive parenting (Barnett, 1987;
Zahn-Waxier et al., 1979). It is also possible, however, that the
abused child, because of exposure to the strong negative emotions of the abusive parent, may become acutely sensitive to
emotional cues portending punishment or stress (Squires,
1979). In such cases, the abused child may show awareness of
others' negative affect but express inappropriate social responses to them, for example, defensiveness, rejection, or aggression as opposed to nurturant, positive social responses. This
may be because abusing parents do not provide models of appropriate behavioral and emotional responding to others in
need and are likely to use child-rearing practices (e.g., physical
punishment and unexplained prohibitions) that do not promote empathic or prosocial responsiveness (N. D. Feshbach,
1987;Zahn-Waxleretal., 1979).
On the basis of the theoretical considerations above, we hypothesized that aggressive behavior, including physical and ver-

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION


bal aggression, as well as abusive behavior, should be negatively
related to empathy. We expected this relation to hold both for
dispositional indexes of empathy and for situational measures
of empathy, that is, measures of both the trait of empathy and
empathy toward the potential recipient of the person's aggression. We hypothesized that dispositional empathy would be associated with low levels of aggression because individuals who
tend in general to empathize should be more likely to do so in
any given situation. Moreover, we reasoned that other actions
included in the category of externalizing behaviors (e.g., lying,
stealing, conduct disorders, and antisocial behavior), which are
somewhat different from or more inclusive than aggression,
should be negatively related to empathy. We predicted this because such behaviors have negative consequences for others,
consequences that are similar to, if not often more serious than,
those for aggression in general. Finally, we hypothesized that
victims of abuse would exhibit relatively low levels of empathy
themselves because of their socialization experiences. Prior to
turning to our review, we must describe the data set and computational procedures used to conduct our meta-analyses.

Methods of Analysis
Description of the Data Set
As far as we are aware, there are only two reviews of the relation of
empathy/sympathy to aggression, and these reviews are brief (N. D.
Feshbach, 1978, 1987). Consequently, we conducted a comprehensive
search of all relevant researchincluding published studies, unpublished manuscripts, and dissertationsusing relevant document
sources (e.g., Social Sciences Citation Index, Educational Resources Information Center, Psychological Abstracts, recently published reviews,
and so forth). Whenever necessary, we sent letters requesting relevant
information from authors with unpublished or in-progress work. The
objective of this wide search was to avoid the "file drawer" bias that can
occur because studies involving nonsignificant findings are less likely to
be obtained and included in reviews of research (Rosenthal, 1979).
The grouping of studies for the analyses was influenced by several
theoretical and methodological issues in the empathy and aggression
literature. In prior reviews of empathy and gender (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983) and empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg & Miller,
1987), the significance of the relation of empathy to the criterion measures was a function of the method used to assess empathy. Thus, in our
first grouping of studies, we examined the empathy-aggression relation
according to the mode of measuring empathy. We identified four frequently used methods of empathy assessment for studies pertaining to
aggression: (a) picture/story methods, wherein individuals' self-reported responses to hypothetical stories (e.g., narratives, slide stories,
short films, or some combination) are scored in terms of the degree to
which their reported affect matches that of a story protagonist; (b) facial
affect/gestural reactions to others' emotions or states as depicted in films
or picture/story stimuli; (c) individuals' self-reports on questionnaires
or scales that assess empathic/sympathetic tendencies across events and
situations; and (d) experimental induction procedures designed to elicit
empathic responses, principally through manipulations of observational set or degree of perceived similarity with a purported victim.
To some extent, the empathy indexes have been used more or less
with particular age groups. For example, picture/story measures have
been used solely with very young and elementary-school children,
whereas self-report questionnaires and induction procedures generally
have been used with older children, adolescents, and adults. Measures
of facial affect and gestural responses, initially used with younger children as an alternative to picture/story methods, are just beginning to be

327

used with adults as indexes of empathic responsiveness (see Marcus,


1987).
The definition of empathy also varies to some extent as a function of
the method of assessment. In picture/story methods, empathy typically
is operationalized as the matching of one's emotional response to that
of a story character. Self-report questionnaires and induction methods
have involved the assessment of sympathetic concerns as well as emotional matching and personal distress reactions in various situations.
Similarly, facial/gestural methods may tap a range of affective reactions,
including individuals' emotional matching, sympathetic responding,
and personal distress reactions.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each method for assessing
empathy (see Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987;
Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987). Self-report indexes of empathy often may
reflect individuals' desire to conform with gender-role stereotypes (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983). Picture/story indexes seem to be particularly
vulnerable to demand characteristics and to confounding factors, such
as sex of the experimenter (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983). Facial indexes
are a promising mode of assessing empathy but may be ineffective for
people who mask their emotions. In brief, no single measure of empathy
is ideal; a multimethod approach to the assessment of empathy is desirable but has seldom been used.
The second group of the research findings that were examined included externalizing behaviors (e.g., conduct disorders and antisocial or
problematic social behaviors) that were not explicitly or solely aggressive in nature. Studies were included in these analyses if they assessed
(a) externalizing behaviors, classified as such by using standard clinical
indexes (e.g., Achenbach & Edelbrock's, 1979, system), or (b) problematic social behaviors typically associated with externalizing behaviors
(e.g., acting out behaviors). We assessed the relation of empathy to externalizing/antisocial behaviors by using actual or estimated measures of
association, derived in a number of cases by comparing the empathy
level of these groups with that of samples from the normal population.
In the third grouping of analyses, studies concerning individuals who
were either the victims or perpetrators of abuse were examined separately because of the distinctive familial context in which these externalizing behaviors occurred and the fact that abuse can include behaviors
in addition to overt aggression (e.g., neglect). We examined studies concerning the victims of abuse, all children in this case, independently of
data concerning adult abusers. Generally, the expression of empathy
among each of these two groups was compared with normal or control
samples.

Methods of Evaluation and Data Reduction


We analyzed the literature in the following manner: First, we computed meta-analyses for each grouping of studies. When relevant, analyses were conducted to address questions of conceptual import to a group
of studies. Finally, in some meta-analyses, we also reviewed the data
qualitatively.
In general, the term mela-analysis refers to statistical procedures
used to aggregate the results of independent studies relevant to testing
hypothesized relations between variables. A variety of methods for computing meta-analyses have been used (e.g., Cooper, 1979; Hedges & Olkin, 1986). The steps that we followed in conducting the meta-analyses
are outlined in more detail elsewhere (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Hedges
& Olkin, 1986). Briefly, the procedure first involved converting all statistics (e.g., F values, I values, and proportions) into indexes of association (see Ferguson, 1976; Stock, Okun, Haring, Kinney, & Miller, 1979,
for formulas). Next, we transformed the estimated or actual correlations
into z values by using r-to-z transformation tables available in a standard statistics text. Third, we computed a frequency-weighted estimate
of the common correlation (Z.,) with the formula z+ = Sf., [(< - 3)
(zi)}/(N 3X), in which N = the total number of subjects across all

328

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

samples, n = the number of subjects in a given sample, and K - the


number of samples (Hedges & Olkin, 1986). Then, to determine
whether the hypothesized relation among the variables (i.e., expressed
as the common correlation) differed from 0, we computed the following
z statistic: z = z+ V(N- 3K), in which N = the total number of subjects
across all samples. We then tested the significance of the effect by using
the standard normal curve ( f o r p = .05 and z 1 .96) and critical values
for a two-tailed test. We chose two-tailed tests to provide a more conservative test of the empathy-aggression relation because of the large Ns in
some analyses (and because they have been used in determining the
significance of analyses in the meta-analytic work of others, such as
Hedges & Olkin, 1986). We then calculated confidence intervals for this
effect for the sample and population estimates of z+ (Hedges & Olkin,
1986).
We also conducted tests of the homogeneity of the estimated common correlations with the following formula: Q = 2 fc[(;~ 3)z?) 1 2 ("i ~ 3)z,- ) /2
\;-i
/ (.1

i/ 3A). The objective of this computation was to

'

test the assumption that the correlations reported in the samples for a
given meta-analysis came from a single underlying population (see
Hedges & Olkin, 1986). If this assumption is not met, it suggests that
the estimates of the common correlation from the samples may not fit
the model of a single underlying population correlation. Accordingly,
the test for the homogeneity of the common correlations is reported
prior to testing for the significance of z+. However, we conducted tests
of significance of the common correlation even when the estimates of r
did not meet the assumption of homogeneity. In such cases, we deemed
the outcomes of these tests important but viewed them with caution
because of the heterogeneous nature of the samples.
We encountered several issues in selecting samples to include in a
given meta-analysis. As described above, we organized data related to
the empathy-aggression relation by mode of assessing empathy (i.e.,
self-report questionnaires and facial/gestural, picture/story, and induction methods). Sometimes, more than one statistic concerning the relation between empathy and aggression was reported in a single study. To
conform to the requirement that the data for each sample (not study or
article) within a meta-analysis should represent an independent estimate of the empathy-aggression relation, we reviewed multiple empathy indexes in any given study separately, according to the mode of assessment (e.g., facial/gestural and picture/story measures).
When indexes obtained with the same method of assessing empathy
were available for the same sample (e.g., two self-report questionnaires),
we usually averaged the statistics and used the mean in the meta-analysis. For some samples, a composite score for empathy was reported (e.g.,
a composite of responses to several picture/story vignettes). We used
this composite score in the analysis if either (a) no other statistic was
available or (b) the composite score was deemed the most adequate and
did not mask potentially significant patterns of association (e.g., age or
gender differences). Moreover, if a given measure of association exhibited considerable variation across subgroups (e.g., sex or age), then we
treated the subgroups as separate samples. In general, we reported all
available measures of a given relation in the tables (unless there were
many) but averaged these estimates and used mean values when computing the meta-analyses.
Because relatively few studies concerning externalizing behavior were
available, we first combined the modes of assessing empathy (e.g., selfreport questionnaires and facial/gestural methods) in the analysis of the
relation between empathy and externalizing/antisocial behavior and
abuse. We computed additional analyses, however, for each commonly
used method of assessing empathy (i.e., picture/story and questionnaire
methods) for exploratory purposes.
The procedure for combining different modes of assessing empathy
raises the possibility that indexes for two different modes of assessing

empathy would have to be averaged in a single sample (e.g., picture/


story and self-report on questionnaire measures). There were no cases,
however, in which a researcher used two different modes of assessing
empathy with the same sample. When multiple empathy measures were
used, they were of the same type (e.g., self-report on questionnaires;
Lee, 1983). In this case, we averaged the data by using procedures described previously.
Finally, in a number of the studies, specific statistics on the relation
of empathy to the relevant behaviors were not provided. Sometimes, all
that was reported was that a particular comparison was significant or
nonsignificant. At other times, the results of comparisons were not reported at all, leaving one to infer that they were nonsignificant. When
the findings were reported as significant, we assumed them to be so at a
probability value of .05 for a two-tailed test. We used the assumption of
a two-tailed test because it is commonly used among researchers and
because it was the criterion that we used to assess the significance of the
results of our meta-analyses. When merely nonsignificance was reported, we could not estimate a precise index of association because
there was no means for determining the p value. In such cases, we assumed that the nonsignificant findings averaged out, across studies, to
a correlation of 0 (see Cooper, 1979).
In summary, we organized the analysis of the relation of empathy to
aggression according to the method used to assess empathy. We organized the analyses of the relation of empathy to externalizing/antisocial
behaviors first independently of the mode of assessment of empathy and
then by the two predominant modes of assessing empathy found (i.e.,
picture/story and questionnaire methods). We collapsed studies relevant to the relation of empathy and abuse across measures of empathy
for children and adults. The computation of the various meta-analyses
included (a) a test of the homogeneity of the estimates of the common
correlation, (b) computation of a weighted estimate of the common correlation (z+), (c) a test of the significance of the common correlation
using the standard normal curve, (d) computation of confidence intervals for z + , and (e) computation of estimates of the population values
for z+ and its confidence intervals (see Hedges & Olkin, 1986).

Review of the Empirical Research


Relation of Empathy to Aggression
Picture/story assessments of empathy.

Picture/story meth-

ods have been the most commonly used procedure for assessing
children's empathy. The most popular of these has been N. D.
Feshbach & Roe's (1968) Affective Situations Test for Empathy.
With procedures of this sort, children typically are presented
with narratives (accompanied by visual stimuli) depicting other
children in emotion-eliciting situations (e.g., the story protagonist loses her dog). After listening to each story, the child is
asked to report how he or she feels. A response is considered
empathic if it is identical or similar to the emotion that the story
character is likely to have experienced.
In early research of this type (N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach,
1969; N. D. Feshbach & Roe, 1968), children were required to
verbally describe their feeling state in response to story events.
More recently, because of concerns about confounding children's verbal ability with their actual experience of emotion, a
number of researchers have added nonverbal methods for assessing empathy (e.g., lannotti, 1975). With this approach, children are asked to point to pictures of facial expressions depicting different emotions to indicate their response to story events.
Some researchers have modified the original procedure or
have scored empathy differently. Specifically, they have coded

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

intensity of affective response (N. D. Feshbach, 1980,1982) or


emotional responses to different aspects of the story situation
(lannotti, 1975; lannotti & Pierrehumbert, 1985) or have
scored both empathy and sympathy (Staub & Feinberg, 1980).
Researchers have noted other problems with picture/story assessments of empathy. Principally, these problems have involved (a) the effect of sex of experimenter on boys' versus girls'
responding (children score higher if interviewed by same-sex
experimenters; Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983), (b) the problem of
repeated elicitations of different emotions in a very short period
of time, and (c) the use of short hypothetical events that may not
evoke much emotion (Hoffman, 1982). Furthermore, Eisenberg
and Miller (1987) found this mode of assessing empathy to be
unrelated to indexes of prosocial behavior. Thus, there is reason
to believe that many picture/story measures are less valid than
other indexes of empathy.
Having discussed some of the issues that researchers have
faced with this assessment method, we turn to the results of
studies concerning the relation of aggression to picture/story
indexes of empathy. We located 11 relevant studies (including
18 samples). (See Table 1.) These samples were homogeneous
with regard to their estimate of the common correlation, x2(l 7,
JV = 18) = 20.61, /is. The common correlation (z+) was -.06
(z = 1.33); thus, the trend was in the predicted direction, but it
was not significant. The confidence interval at the 95th percentile for z+ was -.14 to .03. The population estimate for z+ was
.06, and its high and low confidence interval values were .14
and .03, respectively.
The association between picture/story indexes of empathy
and aggression appeared more consistent with expectations for
the older age groups. When we omitted preschool samples from
the analysis, the estimates of the common correlation for the
samples of the older groups were homogeneous, x2(8, N = 9) =
7.26, ns. The estimate of the common correlation was significant and in the predicted direction (z+ = -. 13; z - 2.52, p <
.02) for nine samples. The sample confidence interval ranged
from -.24 to -.03. The corresponding population estimate for
z+ also was .13, and its associated confidence interval matched
the sample values.
One possible reason for the low correlation between empathy
and picture/story indexes is that picture/story indexes often include the assessment of empathy with others' positive as well as
negative emotions. Empathy with positive emotions has been
positively related to boys' aggression, whereas empathy with
dysphoric emotions has been negatively related (N. D. Feshbach, 1982). Moreover, adult males' empathizing with positive
emotions has been associated with cognitive role-taking skills,
whereas empathizing with negative emotions has been associated with empathic concern (i.e., sympathy; Davis, Hull,
Young, & Warren, 1987). Thus, it is possible that the relation
of picture/story indexes to aggression would be more consistent
if researchers would separate findings for empathy according to
positive and negative emotions.
Self-report on questionnaires. Questionnaire indexes of empathy have been used primarily with older children and with
adults. Generally, questionnaires reflect the assumption that the
trait of empathy is being assessed because individuals report
their emotional reactions to others across a broad set of situations.

329

The Mehrabian and Epstein (1972) scale of emotional tendency is the most frequently used index of empathy for older
adolescents and adults. Bryant (1982) developed a modified version of this scale for use with children 6 years of age and older.
Both scales tap a variety of individuals' emotional reactions,
including (a) susceptibility to emotional contagion, (b) understanding of the feelings of familiar or unfamiliar people, (c)
emotional responsiveness to others' emotions, and (d) sympathetic feelings toward others. It is likely, however, that some
items also assess the tendency to experience personal distress,
as well as other types of emotional or social-cognitive reactions
or both.
Indexes of aggression for adults in studies involving questionnaire indexes of empathy frequently have been measures of reactions in laboratory situations. For example, aggression often
has been operationalized as the frequency or intensity of noise
or shocks supposedly administered to another person during a
learning task or as ratings of individuals' aggression toward others in simulated interactions (e.g., Aleksic, 1976; Gaines, Kirwin, & Gentry, 1977). For children, indexes of aggression more
often have been based on observational measures or ratings by
parents, teachers, or peers.
Questionnaire studies concerning the relation of empathy to
aggression are presented in Table 2. We located nine studies,
including 15 samples. The samples were not homogeneous regarding their estimates of the common correlation, x2(14, N =
15) = 23.72,p < .05. The common correlation was .18, which
was highly significant (z = 4.90, p < .001); the confidence interval for z+ was -.11 to -.25. The estimates of the population
correlation and associated confidence intervals were identical.
Moreover, when we inspected the individual samples, the negative relation appeared to be consistent across the entire range of
ages of the samples, from middle childhood to adulthood, as
well as for subgroups varying in level of aggression (e.g., Aleksic,
1976; Hoppe & Singer, 1976).
Facial/gestural indexes of empathy. The use of facial/gestural indexes is a relatively new methodology for the assessment
of empathic responsiveness. Consequently, the number of available studies is quite limited, and all involve younger children,
for whom the technique was originally designed. This method
was developed, at least in part, to offset the problem of requiring
children to report their emotions verbally.
We located five studies, involving 10 samples (Table 3). The
samples were homogeneous regarding their estimate of the
common correlation, x2(9, N = 10) = 3.64, ns. The common
correlation (z+) was -.06, ns(z = .84, ns), and the confidence
interval was -.20 to .08. The population estimates for the common correlation and the corresponding confidence interval
were -.06 and -.21 to .08, respectively.
In a previous analysis of the relation between facial affect
measures of empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg &
Miller, 1987), type of empathy stimuli affected the estimate of
the common correlation. (The relation was stronger for films
than for slide stories.) We therefore recomputed the analyses
with slide stories removed. The estimate of the common correlation, however, remained nonsignificant (for films only, z+ =
-.07,z = .92).
In several studies, measures of children's positive as well as
negative facial affect were used. Conceptually, however, the rela-

330

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

Table 1
Relation of Picture/Story Indexes of Empathy to Aggression

Study
Bazar

Age, sex, and N

4-5 years

Measure of empathy
Affect matching

(1976/1977)
M,;v=36

F,tf=36

N. D. Feshbach
(1980, 1982)

G3-G4
M,N=50<

F,N=501

N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach


(1969)

Howard
(1983)

4-5 years
M,JV=24
F,AT=24
6-7 years
M, N = 20
F,JV=20
4 years

Videotape affectmatching task


Affect matching
Euphoric affect
Dysphoric affect
Affect Matching X
Affect Intensity
Euphoric affect

Dysphoric affect
Affect matching'
Affect Matching X
Affect Intensity'
PASTE

Affect matching

M,JV=17

F,N= 18

Measure of aggression

Estimate
ofr

Relation to
hypothesis

Teachers' ratings of
children
Teasing
Physical force in disputes
Wildness in games
Teasing
Physical force in disputes
Wildness in games

NR"
NR'
NRa
NR"
NR"
.24"

0
0
0
0
0
-

Ratings in general

ns
ns

0
0

Teachers' ratings

MR'
.28=
.28'
-.28=
-.28
-.28'

Peers', teachers' and selfratings of aggression

Peers' ratings
Self-ratings
Ratings in general
Ratings in general
Ratings in general
Teachers' ratings of peerdirected verbal and physical
aggression

Observers' ratings of peerdirected aggression


Physical
Nonphysical
Physical
Nonphysical

Huckabay
(1971)

GlandG3,
MandF,
N=60

PASTE

Teachers' ratings of overt


physical and verbal
aggression

lannotti
(1975)

K and 03,

Affect matching
Emotional matching*
Situational matching"

Self-report of aggression in
hypothetical situations

lannotti & Pierrehumbert


(1985)

2 years
(retested at 5
years for
empathy),
M and F,N =
44

Affect matching

Observers' ratings of peerdirected aggression

3-6 years
M,Ar=21

Affect matching

Marcus, Roke, & Bruner


(1976)

M,N=60

Emotional matching*
Situational matching11

F,N-n
Nielsen
(1976)

Latency and
adolescence, M

Staub ( 1 986) and Staub and


Feinberg(1980)

G3-G4

M,JV=20
F,N=26

Affect matching

Teachers' ratings of peerdirected physical and verbal


aggression
Teachers' ratings

.43
.10=

+
+
+

-.44=
.24=

+
-

-.24
.00
.22
.19

-.26

.06
-.23

-.52
.21

.14
.39

S1

us
ns
ns

0
0
0

Observers' ratings of peerdirected hostile and


instrumental aggression
(verbal and physical)
Parallel matching affect'
Parallel matching affect
Sympathetic affect

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

331

Table 1 (Continued)

Study
Steinman
(1979)

Age, sex, and N

GlandG3,
M,AT=72

Measure of empathy

Measure of aggression
Disrupting peers' winning a
game in an experimental
situation

PASTE

Estimate
ofr
-.09

Relation to
hypothesis

Note. M = male; F = female; G = grade; K = kindergarten; PASTE = N. D. Feshbach and Roe (1968) Affective Situation Test of Empathy; Affect
matching = empathy was assumed if the participants' reported affect matched that of the hypothetical other; NR = not reported; + = negative
relation between measure of empathy and aggression; - = positive relation; 0 = no relation.
" Assumed to be 0. b The correlation was Kendall's tau. c Estimate of r was computed from the Mann-Whitney U statistic. d The author did
not report the sample size by sex. Therefore, an equal number of subjects was assigned to each sex. Estimated from the report of
significance. f The author reported negative correlations between empathy and aggression for girls, regardless of type or intensity of empathic
affect. Therefore, we combined euphoric and dysphoric empathic affects in the table. 8 Matching of one's own affect to the facial cues of another if
facial and situational cues are incongruent. " Matching of one's own affect to situational rather than facial cues if facial and situational cues are
incongruent. ' Although the results were significant (S), the sample size could not be obtained for computing the estimate of r. Therefore, we
omitted this study from the meta-analysis. ' No boys reported sympathetic reactions.

tion between sad or negatively toned facial affect and lower lev-

relation between empathy and aggression was negative and,

els of aggression is clearer than the relation of positive facial

thus, in the predicted direction for four of the five samples.

affect to aggression. Positive affect could reflect an individual's

Sex differences

in the research concerning aggression.

Re-

enjoyment of the anguish of the "victim" (leading to a positive

searchers have frequently noted gender differences in the enact-

relation with aggression) or their discomfort or social anxiety

ment of aggressive behaviors (Eagly & Steffen, 1986). Moreover,

(which would be expected to result in less aggression). However,

Eisenberg and Lennon (1983) observed sex differences as a

recomputation of the analyses relating only negative facial

function of the type of empathy measure. Consequently, we ex-

affect to aggression proved nonsignificant (z+ = -.01).

amined the relation of empathy to aggression for each sex by

Experimental inductions of empathy. A common strategy for

computing analyses within and across the three modes of mea-

studying the relation of empathy to other personality character-

suring empathy (i.e., picture/story, facial/gestural, and ques-

istics has been to experimentally induce empathy and then


compare individuals' subsequent behavior (e.g., aggression)

tionnaire methods). (We omitted experimental induction stud-

with that of individuals in a control group. Such studies gener-

sessed directly.)

ies because empathic responding was inferred rather than as-

ally have involved adults, although we did locate one study con-

Across the three modes of empathy assessment, there were

ducted with adolescents. In all the relevant studies, empathy


was manipulated with one of two approaches: (a) manipula-

16 studies, including 23 samples for males. The estimate of the


association between empathy and aggression was homoge2

tions of individuals' beliefs that they were similar to another

neous,

person or (b) manipulations of individuals' observational sets

was significant, p < .01). The confidence interval was from -.16

by means of encouraging them either to imagine how another

to .02. Population estimates of z+ and its associated confi-

felt or to objectively observe them. Manipulations that increase

dence interval were identical.

(22, N = 23) = 32.58, ns (z+ = -.09, z = 2.58, which

perceptions of similarity are believed to enhance empathic re-

For females, there were 13 studies, involving 15 samples. The

sponding because people seem to empathize more with people

estimates of the association between empathy and aggression

like themselves (see N. D. Feshbach, 1978; Krebs, 1975; Staub,

met the assumption of a common underlying population corre-

1986). Similarly, instructions to imagine how another feels are

lation, x2(14, N= 15) = 14.95, ns. The estimate of the common

assumed to increase role taking and, consequently, empathic

correlation (z+) was -.06 (z = 1.10), which was nonsignificant,

responding, whereas instructions simply to observe another are

and the associated confidence interval for z+ was -.15 to .04.

expected to decrease the likelihood of individuals doing so (see

The population estimate for z+ and its confidence interval were

Batson, in press; Stotland, 1969).

the same as the sample estimates.

We located five studies, involving six samples (Table 4). The

When we examined the relation between aggression and em-

samples were homogeneous, x2(5, N = 6) = 4.20, ns. The esti-

pathy separately for different indexes of empathy, the relations

mate of the common correlation (z+) was .08 (z = 1.37, ns),

were nonsignificant for both sexes for picture/story and facial/

and the confidence interval was . 19 to .03. The estimate of the

gestural measures. For questionnaire methods, there was a non-

population correlation .08, and its corresponding confidence

significant trend (z+ = .11, p < .15) for females in the pre-

interval was-. 19 to .03.

dicted direction, whereas for males, the relation was significant

The lack of a relation between aggression and experimental

(z+ = -.16,

z = 3.24, p < .003). In summary, the estimates

manipulations of empathy did not seem to be due to ineffective

of z+ were approximately equal for males and females for the

manipulations; in five of the six studies, the inducements of similarity or perspective taking were effective. It is possible, how-

different modes of assessing empathy: However, only the results

ever, that the manipulations did not always affect individuals'

may have been due, at least in part, to the considerably larger

empathic reactions per se, even if they did alter their perspective

sample size for males).


Empathy training and aggression. Another approach to ex-

taking or feelings of similarity. It should also be noted that the

for males were significant for questionnaire methods (which

332

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

Table 2
Relation of Questionnaire Indexes of Empathy to Aggression

Study

Age, sex, and N

Measure of
empathy

Measure of aggression

Estimate
ofr

Relation to
hypothesis

Aleksic
(1976)

14- 16 years,
incarcerated
delinquents,
M,JV = 80

M&E

Administration of noise in a
learning task
Intensity X Duration"

-.25

Bryant
(1982)

Gl

Bryant scale
(1982)

Teachers' ratings of peerdirected physical and


verbal aggression

-.57

U,N= 14
F,JV= 12
G4
M,N = 54
F, N = 57
G7
M,N = 41

Gaines, Kirwin, &


Gentry
(1977)

F,N=52
College students,

M,N= 17

.19

.07

+
-

-.01
-.14
-.46C

+
+
+

-.45

Self-report of
empathic
motivationb

Administration of shock in
a learning task

Hoppe & Singer


(1976)

Patients at
psychiatric
hospital for
criminal
offenders,
M,,V= 115

M&E

Criminal offenses varying in


aggression

Hunter(1984/
1985)

14- 18 years,
incarcerated
delinquents,
M,;V=59

M&E

Number of aggressive
incidents

-.27

Letourneau
(1981)

Abusive and
nonabusive
mothers, F,

M&E

Aggressive responses in roleplaying situations

-.30

Mehrabian &
Epstein
(1972)

Study 1: College
students, M
andF

M&E

Administration of shock in
a learning task
Immediate condition (can
see victim)
Nonimmediate condition
Questionnaire measure of
aggression

-.29"

ns

0
+

-.03

ns

N=60

N=44
N=44
Study 2: College
students,
M&F,

M&E

Polk (1976)

College students,
M,A'=45

M&E

Administration of noise in a
learning task

Rein (1974)

College students,
M,N= 67)

Modified
M&E

Administration of shock in
a learning task
Duration
Mean intensity
Maximum intensity

-.31

.00
-.23
-.14

0
+

Note. M = male; F = Female; G = grade; M & E = Mehrabian and Epstein's (1972) scale; Bryant scale = Index of Empathy for Children and
Adolescents (Bryant, 1982); + = negative relation between measure of empathy and aggression; - = positive relation; 0 = no relation.
The Intensity X Duration index was deemed a better overall measure of aggression, although separate intensity and duration measures were also
available. b Obtained in a postexperiment interview. c The authors only reported significant F ratios for univariate analyses in which the mean
aggression scores for both the empathy and fear motivation groups were similar and lower than the means for other experimental groups. Because
no separate comparisons were reported between empathy and fear and other experimental groups, we derived the estimate of r on the basis of a p =
.05 significance level, even though the reported univariate p levels were more significant. d Estimated from the report of significance.

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

333

Table 3
Relation Between Children's Facial/Gestural Indexes Qf Empathy and Am ression

Study

Ekman, Liebert, Friesen,

Age, Sex, and TV


5-6 years

Harrison, Zlatchin,
Malmstrom, &
Baron (1972)
M,/V=15

F,7V=15

Measure of empathy
Facial reactions" to
aggressive films

Measure of aggression

Pleasant
Interest
Happy
Pain
Sad
Pleasant

Facial reactions during


administration of
picture/story
measure

M , J V = 17
F,JV = 18

Marcus, Roke, & Bruner


(1985)

3-7 years

Facial reactions during


administration of
picture/story
measure

K, G2, G4, G6

F,/V=43
Steinman(1979)

6-8 years, M

_b
+b

-f
+

obb
o
0

.08

_-

ns

Physical
Nonphysical
Physical
Nonphysical
Teachers' ratings of physical and
verbal peer-directed
aggression

-.10
-.01
.04
.32

-.13
-.12

Facial reactions'to
films of children
in negative
situations
Pleasure
Sadness
Pleasure
Sadness

Teachers' ratings of verbal hostile,


and physical aggression
toward peers

Facial reactions to film


of two young men

Intensity by duration of aggression


toward peer in experimental
game

fighting

G5,N=25

+b

Observers' ratings of peer-directed


aggression

M,N=2\
F,N= 11
Solomon (1985)

.18
-.22
.40
-.10
-.10

ns
ns
ns

Happy
Pain
Sad
4 years

Relation to
hypothesis

Aggressive game and play behavior


in experimental situations

Interest

Howard (1983)

Estimate
ofr

Pain
Joy
Pain
Joy

0"
0
0"
-.37

.36"

.13"
-.36"
.13d

Note. M = male; F = female; K = kindergarten; G = grade; + = negative relation between empathy (exhibiting the same emotion as the other or
exhibiting sympathy) and aggression; = positive relation; 0 = no relation.
1
We included the affective reactions that seemed most relevant to the issue at hand. Therefore, arousal (undifferentiated), anger, and surprise were
omitted. b A positive relation between positive affective reactions to aggressive films and aggressive behavior is consistent with the hypothesis of a
negative relation between empathy and aggression. c Because it was difficult to determine whether children's anger responses to the film situations
were in behalf of (i.e., empathic) or against the protagonist, we omitted anger reactions from the analyses. d We computed the estimate of r by
averaging children's facial affect during pain cue and high-action-violence scenes in which actors' facial pain expressions were shown in one condition
and not visible in a second condition.

amining the relation of empathy to aggression is to determine

been to enhance cognitive role taking and problem-solving

whether training in empathy could (a) reduce individuals' ag-

strategies rather than affective empathy (e.g., Chandler, 1973;

gressive behaviors, (b) improve their social interactions with

Goldstein & Michaels, 1985; lannotti, 1978; Spivak & Shure,

others, or (c) both. Consequently, we reviewed literature on em-

1974). Generally, the results of these efforts have been inconsis-

pathy training and aggression. (See also Goldstein & Michaels,

tent; some researchers have reported decreases in delinquent

1985, for a review of empathy training methods.) We found,

behavior (Chandler, 1973) and a greater capacity to role take in

however, that the focus of many of the training programs has

conflict situations (Berlin, 1978), whereas others have found no

334

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

Table 4
Relation of Experimental Inductions of Empathy to Aggression
Type of experimental
manipulation

Study

Age, Sex, and N

Aleksic(1976)

Study 1: 14-16
years,
incarcerated
delinquents,
M,AT=80
Study 2: 14- 17
years,
incarcerated
delinquents,
M,AT=20

Observational
and direct
experience sets
versus no set"

Delivery of noxious noise in


learning experiment
Intensiy by duration"

Similarity of feelings
to other person's

Delivery of noxious noise in a


learning experiment
Duration
Intensity

17-19 years,
Polish, F,
N=9Q

Observe other's
thoughts and
feelings versus no
set

Intensity of shock delivered in a


learning task
Duration of shock delivered

Imagine self as other


versus no set
Focus on selfe versus
no set

Delivery of noxious noise in a


learning experiment

Similarity of
personality
manipulated

Administration of shock in a
learning task
Duration
Maximum intensity
Mean intensity

Eliasz(1980)

Polk (1976)

Rein (1974)

Measure of aggression

Estimate
ofr

Relation to
hypothesis

-.13

ns
-.71C

0
+

.08"

-.04

College students,
M

College students,

-.36
ns

.01
-.12
-.10

Note. M = male; F = female; + negative relation between the experimental manipulation of empathy and measure of aggression; - = positive
relation; 0 - no relation.
" Data were insufficient for comparison of observational set conditions separately. However, all the empathic observation conditions had lower mean
scores than the no-set (control) condition.
" The Intensity X Duration index was deemed a better measure of aggression, although intensity and
duration measures also were available. ' We computed the estimate of r from the analysis of variance F value reported for the comparison of the
d
experimental and control groups.
The no-set (control) group was used for comparison with the two observational set conditions. ' The focuson-self condition was included because a positive relation between empathic inhibition (as self-focus would be expected to elicit) and aggression is
consistent with the hypothesis of a negative relation between empathy and aggression.

change between empathy training and control groups after

198 l;Eisenberg& Miller, 1987;Hoffman, 1984). Thus, training

treatment (Bigler-Williams, 1984; lannotti, 1978) or have ob-

of the affective components of empathy may promote the reduc-

tained mixed results (Kameya, 1976).

tion of negative social behaviors as well as improve individuals'

One possible reason for these inconsistent findings is that ex-

prosocial interactions with others.

periences relevant to the enhancement of the affective component of empathy are necessary for reducing aggressive or antisocial behavior toward others. One research effort that has em-

Relation of Empathy to Psychopathology


and Physical Abuse

phasized affective (as well as cognitive) empathy training has


shown that the participants, in comparison with a control

In this section, we examine data for samples in which individ-

group, reduced their aggressive behavior toward others (N. D.

uals' behaviors were antisocial or could reasonably be catego-

Feshbach, 1980, 1982; N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1982).

rized as belonging to an externalizing condition. Moreover, we

Although this effect was also found for a group of children who

review data relevant to physical abuse.

received training in social problem-solving strategies, it is con-

Externalizing and antisocial negative behavior. We identified

sistent with previous research to expect aggressive behavior to

a variety of behaviors as externalizing for the purpose of this

be mediated by social-cognitive factors as well as empathy (see

review. These included negative behaviors that were assessed by

Dodge, 1980; Parke & Slaby, 1983; Perry et al., 1986). Moreover, children who received training in affective empathy also

using (a) other-ratings of problem behaviors that were then

exhibited more prosocial behavior, which was not observed for

classification systems; (b) observations/ratings of behavior by

the cognitive problem-solving control group (N. D. Feshbach

peers, teachers, adults, or correctional staff that were catego-

& S. Feshbach, 1982). This, too, is consistent with theory and

rized on the basis of relevant problem behaviors but without

research suggesting that affective empathy may mediate proso-

using behaviorally based systems; (c) experimental paradigms

cial and other, related social behaviors (see Batson & Coke,

in which relevant behaviors were the focus of investigation; and

placed into diagnostic categories by using behaviorally based

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

(d) self-report scales of psychopathology or related behaviors


(Table 5). To determine whether a particular self-report scale
actually measured behaviors of an externalizing nature (e.g.,
H. J. Eysenck & S. B. G. Eysenck, 1976), we compared scale
items with the behaviors described in other behaviorally based
classification systems (see Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1979).
One problem encountered when computing analyses with
these studies was statistical. In computing our meta-analyses,
estimates of the common correlation for individual studies were
weighted according to the size of the sample. Thus, the results
of especially large studies could strongly affect the estimate of
the correlation when combined with the results of smaller studies. In the analyses of data related to the association between
externalizing behavior and empathy, there were two studies in
which self-report data were obtained from a large number of
subjects (i.e., S. B. G. Eysenck, 1981; Saklofske & Eysenck,
1983). Because these two studies may have had an overwhelming effect on the results of the analyses, we computed two sets
of analyses, one including these two large studies and one excluding them.
We located 13 studies, including 19 samples. The samples
were heterogeneous with regard to a common underlying population correlation, x2(18, N = 19) = 56.83, p < .001. The estimate of the common correlation was highly significant (z+ =
-.24, i = 11.85, p < .001) and in the predicted direction. The
confidence interval for the sample estimate ranged from -.20
to -.28. The population estimate of the common correlation
was .23, and its corresponding confidence interval ranged
from-.19 to-.27.
When we excluded the two studies (including 4 samples) with
the large sample sizes from the analysis, the resulting test for the
homogeneity of these samples was met, x2( 14, N= 15)= 15.66,
ns. The estimate of the common correlation (z+) was .13,
which, although smaller, remained highly significant (z = 4.20,
p < .001), with a confidence interval ranging from -. 19 to -.07.
The population estimate of the common correlation and its confidence interval were the same as sample values. Thus, the consistent pattern of negative association in both analyses supports
the notion that lower levels of empathic responsiveness are associated with externalizing negative behaviors.
We further analyzed the relation of externalizing/antisocial
behaviors to empathy by breaking the empathy indexes into two
groups: those involving picture/story indexes of empathy and
those involving questionnaire indexes. (All but one study fell
into these two groups; see Table 5.) For the three studies (five
samples) involving picture/story indexes, the common correlation was -.06 (z = .86, ns). The confidence interval ranged from
.07 to -. 19. Population values were quite similar. These studies
were homogeneous in their estimate of the common correlation,
X2(4, N=5) = 4.36, ns.
For the 10 studies (and 14 samples) involving questionnaire
indexes of empathy, the common correlation was .26 (z =
12.14, p < .001). The confidence interval for the sample ranged
from -.21 to -.29. The population estimates for z+ and its confidence intervals were nearly identical. This group of studies
was not homogeneous, %2(13, N = 14) = 44.96, p < .001. Finally, when we omitted data from the two self-report studies
with large samples sizes (leaving 8 studies with 10 samples), the
common correlation was -. 15 (z = 4.28, p < .001) and the con-

335

fidence interval was -.21 to -.08. This group of studies was


homogeneous in their estimate of the relation, x2(9, N = 10) =
10.265, ns. Overall, then, questionnaire but not picture/story
indexes of empathy were negatively related to externalizing and
to aggressive behaviors.
Finally, the pattern of common correlations revealed a consistently negative relation between empathy and externalizing/
antisocial behavior for both males and females. There were no
discernible differences between the sexes across mode of assessing empathy, especially when we omitted the two questionable
studies.
Physical abuse. We located relatively few studies concerning
the level of affective empathy among physically abusive parents
or children who had been the victims of physical abuse. Thus,
although we computed meta-analyses with these samples, we
also reviewed them qualitatively.
The analysis of the relation of empathy to physically abusive
parental behavior was based on four studies (Table 6). These
studies were not homogeneous with regard to their estimates of
the degree of association, x2(3, N = 4) = 9.78, p < .025. The
common correlation (z+) was -.09 (z = 1.71), which was marginally significant and in the predicted direction (p < . 10). Confidence intervals for the sample ranged from -.20 to .01. The
population estimate of z+ and its corresponding confidence interval were the same as for sample estimates.
In reviewing these studies, it was difficult to interpret the
findings of the Disbrow study (Stotland, Mathews, Sherman,
Hansson, & Richardson, 1978). In this study, significantly lower
levels of empathy were found among abusive families in a preliminary analysis, but subsequent results were nonsignificant
(but were unreported in the chapter). In addition, Stotland et
al. indicated that a composite derived from the empathy scales
was one of a number of variables that significantly discriminated abusive from nonabusive families. Because unreported
nonsignificant results were assigned a correlation of 0, incorporating the results of this large sample (N = 175) with unclear
findings may have diluted the overall estimate of the effect. Consequently, we discarded the Disbrow study and recomputed the
analysis. As before, the assumption concerning the homogeneity of the samples was not met, x2(2, JV = 3) = 6.87, p < .05.
This time z+ was .18, which was significant (z = 2.41, p < .02),
and the confidence interval ranged from -.33 to -.03. Population estimates for z+ and its corresponding confidence interval
were -.18 and -.32 to -.03, respectively. Thus, though only
a few studies are available, there appears to be some basis for
concluding that lower levels of empathic responsiveness may be
a characteristic of parents who have histories of physically abusive behavior toward their children. Given the small number of
studies and the omission of the Disbrow study (Stotland et al.,
1978), however, these results should be considered tentative.
In contrast, the relation between the experience of physical
abuse and the capacity for empathy was stronger (Table 7). The
estimate of the degree of association was heterogeneous for the
three relevant studies, x2(2, N = 3) = 7.34, p < .05. The estimate
of the common correlation (z+) was -.46 (z = 3.82), which was
significant (p < .001). The confidence interval for z+ ranged
from -.22 to -.69. Corresponding population estimates for z+
and its confidence interval were -.43 and -.22 to -.60. In two
studies, researchers found high negative relations between the

336

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

Table 5

Relation of Empathy to Externalizing Negative Behaviors

Study
Bazar (1976/1977)

Age, sex, and N

4-5 years

M,W=36
F,JV=36
Bryant(1984; personal communication, March
21, 1986)

S. B. G. Eysenck
(1981)

N. D. Feshbach
(1980, 1982)

Cohorts at 7 and 10
years, M and F

7-year-olds retested
at 10 years
for externalizing
behaviors,
JV=67
10-year-olds retested
at 14 years
for externalizing behaviors, N = 73
13-14 years, British

Picture/story measure

Affect matching"
Sympathetic affect
Affect matching
Sympathetic affect
Bryant scale

Junior 16 Questionnaire

M,N= 101

Empathy Scale

F,;v=306

Empathy Scale

G3-G4

M,7V=50

F.A^SO

Hoppe & Singer


(1976)

Measure of empathy

Adult

Videotaped affectmatching task


Affect matching
Euphoric affect
Dysphoric affect
Affect Matching X
Affect Intensity
Euphoric effect

Dysphoric affect
Affect matching'
Affect Matching X
Affect Intensity

Measure of
externalizing behavior

Estimate
off

Relation to
hypothesis

.10
.08
.09
-.08

-.03

-.04

-.37
-.29
-.29
-.18

+
+
+
+

Ratings in general

MR'
NR"

0
0

Peers' ratings
Self-ratings
Teachers' ratings
Ratings in general
Ratings in general
Ratings in general

NR<
NR"
.28
NRf

0
0
_

Teachers' ratings of
peer-directed
behavior
Under-control scale

Mothers' ratings of children's externalizing behavior"

Self-report of
Psychoticism0
Antisocial behavior
Psychoticismc
Antisocial behavior
Teachers', peers', and
self-ratings of antisocial behavior

M&E

Criminal offense classification

Picture/story measure

Behaviors in an experimental situation


Cheating
Lying
Lack of resistance to
temptation

-,28s
-.28

0
-

-.08"''

-.06
-.13
-.16

+
+
+

-.10

M psychiatric
offenders,
N= 115; College students,
N= 101
Huckabay(1971)

Hunter (1984/
1985)

6-8 years, M and F,


JV = 60

14-18 years, incarcerated delinquents, Af= 59

M&E

Number of serious
violent offenses

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

337

Table 5 (Continued)
Study
Hunter (1984/
1985)

Age, sex, and N


1 4- 18 years, incarcerated M delinquents, N =

Measure of empathy
M&E

Measure of exteraalizing behavior


Conduct-disorder
score'

Estimate
ofr

Relation to
hypothesis

-.13

-.38

-.30

-.23

Correctional
staff ratings
psychopathic-delinquent

.10'
-.18'

Self-report of sociopathy

-.36

Classification of severity of sotiopathy

-.47

Self-report of level of
Machiavellianism

-.34

59
Psychopathic delinquency scorek
Self-report of psychopathic delinquency1
Kurtz & Eisenberg
(1983)

Lee (1983)

G3, M and F, AT = 86

Adolescent M psychopathic delinquents, N =

M&E

Davis IRI, M&E

12

Behaviors in an experimental situation


Resistance to deviation composite (latency, frequency,
and duration)

Control group,
JV=18
Marks, Penner, &
Stone (1982)

Study 1: College students, M, N =

40

Self-report of empathic
anxiety to modeled
distress

Study 2: College students, M, N =

20
Rushton,
Chrisjohn,
&Fekken
(1981)

College students, M
andF,iV= 135"

M&E

Saklofske &
Eysenck
(1983)

7-15 years, Canadian

Junior 16 Questionnaire

.09

Stotland FE Scale

M, N = 542
F, N = 508

Watson, Grisham,
Trotter, &
Biderman
(1984)

College students,
17-38 years, M
andF,AT= 160

Self-report of psychoticism"

Empathy Scale
M&E

-.43
-.20

+
+

Pathological narcissism0

-.20

Pathological narcissism0

-.25

Note. M = male; F = female; G = grade; Picture/story measure = self-report of feelings that match emotions depicted in picture/story stimuli;
Bryant scale = Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents (Bryant, 1982); Junior 16 Questionnaire = Junior Impulsiveness QuestionnaireEmpathy Scale (S. B. G. Eysenck, 1981; S. B. G. Eysenck, Easting, & Pearson, 1984); M & E = Mehrabian and Epstein's (1972) scale; Davis IRI =
Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1979); Stotland FE Scale = Fantasy Empathy Scale (Stotland, Mathews, Sherman, Hansson, & Richardson,
1978); NR = not reported; -I- = negative relation between measure of empathy and externalizing negative behavior; - = positive relation; 0 = no
relation.
"Only accurate, congruent affective reactions were included here, although the author also assessed congruent but inaccurate empathic
reactions. " A profile of externalizing behaviors derived from the Child Behavior Checklist (cf. Achenbach, 1978; Achenbach & Edelbrock,
1979). " A subscale of the Junior Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (H. J. Eysenck & S. B. G. Eysenck, 1976). * The author reported results by
sex but only a total sample size. Therefore, the sample size was divided evenly by sex. ' Assumed to be 0. f The author reported negative correlations between empathy and antisocial behavior for girls, regardless of type or intensity of empathic effect. Therefore, we combined euphoric and
dysphoric empathic affects in the table. * We computed the estimate of r from the report of significance. h For this comparison, the author used
the male norming sample reported by Mehrabian and Epstein (1972). 'We determined the sign of the estimate of r and the relation to the hypothesis
by comparing the mean scores of the psychiatric and control groups. ' A profile of behaviors derived from the Behavior Problem Checklist (Quay,
1966; Quay & Peterson, 1975). k The Analysis of Life History Checklist rates individuals' psychopathic delinquent behaviors on the basis of
reported background information (Quay, 1964, 1966). 'The Personal Opinion Inventory is a self-report measure of psychopathic delinquency
(Quay & Parsons, 1971). " The relation between empathy and externalizing behavior may have been attenuated somewhat because total Davis IRI
scores were reported, rather than the empathic concern scale scores alone. " The actual sample size for this comparison was not reported. We
estimated N conservatively on the basis of the lowest sample size reported for related measures. " Two different scales of psychopathologic narcissism
were used.

338

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

Table 6
Relation of Empathy to Physical Abuse: Abusing Versus Nonabusing Groups

Study
Gynn-Orenstein (1981)

Age, sex, and N


Adult, F

Measure of
empathy

Type of abuse

Estimate
ofr

M&E

Court-defined physically
abusive behavior

-.20"

Relation to
hypothesis
_

Physically

abusive,
N= 17
Control group,
JV = 17

Howes, Feshbach, Gilly,


&Espinosa(1985)

Adult, F
Physically
abusive,
N=26
Control group,

P&PEmpathy
Measure
Empathic
Distress
Scale

Clinic-defined physically
abusive behavior

-.20"*

Letourneau(1981)

Adult, F
Physically
abusive,
N=30
Control group,
JV=30

M&E

Physically abusive behavior


defined by social service
agency

.34"

Stotland FE Scale

Physically abusive/neglectful
versus control families

iw

Stotland, Mathews,
Sherman,
Hansson, &
Richardson (1978),
or Disbrow study

Adult, M
andF,
matched
couples and
matched
single
parents,
JV=179

Note. F = female; M = male; M & E = Mehrabian and Epstein's (1972) scale; P & P Empathy Measure = Parent and Partner Empathy MeasureEmpathic Distress Scale (N. D. Feshbach & Caskey, 1985); Stotland FE Scale = Fantasy Empathy Scale (Stotland, Mathews, Sherman, Hansson, &
Richardson, 1978). + = negative relation between measure of empathy and abusive behavior; - = positive relation; 0 = no relation.
" We determined the signs of the estimate of r and the relation to the hypothesis by comparing the mean scores of the nonabusive and abusive
groups. b We computed the estimate of r from the report of significance, assuming p < .05, two-tailed test. This finding was based on analyses
using all five Stotland empathy scales. A latter analysis showed that a composite of items drawn from these scales effectively discriminated abusing
from nonabusing parents.

expression of empathy toward others and the experience of


abuse. In a third study, Squires (1979) obtained a slightly posi-

treated children responded at greater than chance levels with


prosocial behaviors.

tive association. The latter finding may have been due, at least in

The latter result raises the possibility that the abused children

part, to two factors. First, the abused children may have scored

were generally higher in aggression than nonabused peers,

higher in empathy because they were a full year older on the

which might account for their lower levels of empathic respon-

average than the nonabused children. (Lennon and Eisenberg,

siveness. Inspection of the foregoing studies revealed no differ-

1987, showed that scores on picture/story assessments of empa-

ences in level of aggression between abused and nonabused

thy generally relate positively with age.) Second, the author's

groups in two samples but did reveal differences in the range of

definition of abuse included much less serious forms of inter-

negative and affective reactions assessed, not all of which could

personal aggression than in the former studies. Moreover,

be considered aggressive (e.g., fear and anger as well as physical/

Howes and Eldredge (1985) obtained results consistent with

nonphysical aggression in the third sample). Thus, more clearly

these overall findings in a study of five abused (mean age = 20

operationalized measures of aggression may be needed to fully

months) and nine nonmaltreated children (mean age = 20

address this possibility.

months). These children's responses to peers' distresses were


observed in free and structured play situations. In free play,

Summary and Conclusions

abused children responded to peers' distresses at greater than


chance levels with aggression, whereas nonmaltreated children

The results of our review indicate that empathy is negatively

responded with prosocial behavior. In addition, in the struc-

related to aggression, externalizing and antisocial behaviors,

tured situations abused children responded (at greater than

and enactment and receipt of physical abuse. However, esti-

chance levels) with aggression and failed to respond (at greater

mates of the common correlation (z+) were in the low-to-mod-

than chance levels) with prosocial behaviors, whereas nonmal-

erate range (-.06 to -.46) for these associations. In addition,

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

339

Table?
Relation of Empathy to Physical Abuse: Abused Versus Nonabused Children

Study

Age, sex, and If

Measure of empathy

Type of abuse

Main & George


(1985)

1 -3 years, M and F
Physically abused,
Ar=9
Control group,
N=9

Expression of concern to
distressed peer in a
nursery setting

Physical injuries inflicted


by parent/caregiver

Squires (1979)

4-9 years, F
Physically abused,
AT- 13
Control group,
ff-10

Picture/story measure

Physical injuries denned


by regional medical
center

Straker&
Jacobson
(1981)

5- 10 years, M and F
Physically abused,
N= 19
Control group,
N= 19

Picture/story measure

Physical injuries inflicted


by parent/caregiver

Estimate
ofr

Relation to
hypothesis

-.62"'b

.05"'c

-.56""

-t-

Note. M = male; F = female; Picture/story measure = self-report of matching affect to picture/story stimuli; + = negative relation between measure
of empathy and abuse; - = positive relation; 0 = no relation.
" We determined the signs of the estimate of r and the relation to the hypothesis by comparing group means of abused and nonabused children. b We
computed the estimate of r on the basis of the proportions of abused and nonabused children's expression of empathic concern for others'
distresses. c The positive relation found here may be due, at least in part, to the fact that age and empathy were significantly related and the fact
that the abused group children were more than a year older on the average than the normally reared children. Moreover, extent of physical abuse
was not as severe as reported in the other samples. d The authors reported N = 19 for control and abused groups but, when comparing groups on
empathy scores, reported a (ft. of 17, which resulted in an extremely high estimate of r (.70). It seemed appropriate to estimate r more conservatively
on the basis of the stated sample size of 38; thus we used a <ft of 36 in the calculations.

the significance of several of these estimates was influenced by


age, mode of assessing empathy, or method of assessing negative
behaviors.
Specifically, we found a significant negative relation between
empathy and aggression when empathy was assessed with questionnaires and negative but nonsignificant relations for facial
affect, experimental induction, and picture/story methods. Age
differences appeared to influence the results for picture/story
methods; the relation between these indexes and aggression was
significant only when we excluded preschoolers from the analyses. Overall, then, our analyses provide modest but not entirely
consistent support for the notion that empathic responsiveness
may be an inhibitor of aggression. Several factors may account
for the pattern of findings.
First, questionnaire methods of assessing empathy differ
from picture/story and facial affect methods in several potentially important ways. The story stimuli involved in picture/
story procedures clearly involve hypothetical events. The affective content of the stimuli (i.e., sadness, happiness, fear, and
anger) changes from story to story, sometimes requiring rapid
changes in state if one is to be responsive to the stimuli. Also,
children are asked to report their feelings to an adult experimenter, which may make this procedure more susceptible to
demand characteristics than other empathy indexes (see Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983;Hoffman, 1982). In addition, picture/
story methods have been used exclusively with younger children, who generally may be less consistent in self-report of empathic responses. Finally, researchers who have used this measure of empathy often have not differentiated between empathizing with positive and negative emotions.

Facial/gestural indexes of empathy have also been used with


picture/story methods and with films, both of which frequently
involve stimuli that are clearly hypothetical. Although assessing
children's facial affect responses to these stimuli may minimize
the influence of demand characteristics, the presentation of
multiple emotional stimuli still requires them to change their
affective state somewhat rapidly if they are to respond empathically. Perhaps of most importance, because facial affect measures of empathy were developed, in part, to minimize young
children's reliance on verbal report of feelings, this mode of assessing empathy has been used only with children.
In contrast to picture/story and facial/gestural measures of
empathy, questionnaire methods contain many items and
therefore tap individuals' responses to a wide variety of situations. Questionnaire methods of assessment also do not require
a direct empathic response to others in specific hypothetical situations; individuals are merely asked to report their general
style of emotional responsiveness to others in personally relevant events (e.g., "It makes me sad to see a girl who can't find
anyone to play with"). Finally, questionnaire methods have
been used with an older age group; respondents have been
adults, adolescents, and school-age children. Given that the relation of empathy to other modes of behavior (e.g., prosocial
behavior; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987) has been found to be less
consistent for younger children than for adolescents or adults,
one might expect a similar pattern of findings for aggression. It
was not possible, however, to determine on the basis of our analysis whether the inconsistent results are due to differences in
methods of assessing empathy for the age groups or represent
actual age differences in the relation between empathy and ag-

340

PAUL A. MILLER AND NANCY EISENBERG

gression. Thus, the moderating effect of age on the relation be-

pretation of others' behavior in emotionally arousing situations

tween empathy and aggression is an important issue for future

rather than as a consequence of a deficit in their capacity to

research.

respond empathically to others' feelings. To the extent that indi-

The results of the meta-analysis concerning the relation of

viduals' cognitions influence their vicarious affective responses

empathy to both externalizing and antisocial behaviors gener-

toward others, their (mis)perception of the situation may pre-

ally are consistent with those pertaining to aggression. Empathy

clude empathic responding without necessarily implying any

and externalizing/antisocial negative behaviors were signifi-

lack of capacity for empathy.

cantly negatively related for questionnaire but not picture/story

Although gender differences have been noted either in re-

measures of empathy. This pattern of relations did not appear

search on aggression or in some indexes of empathy (see Eagly

to be affected by method of classifying negative behaviors. If one

& Steffen, 1986; Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983; Parke & Slaby,

assumes that externalizing behaviors often represent relatively

1983), we observed few differences in the relation of empathy

extreme or problematic forms of antisocial behavior, these re-

to aggression. Overall, relations of empathy to aggression and

sults can be viewed as providing additional support for the view

externalizing behaviors were of similar magnitude and in the

that empathic responding often may inhibit aggressive and anti-

predicted (negative) direction for both males and females. How-

social behavior.

ever, the results were sometimes slightly higher and more sig-

It is quite possible that the results of our meta-analyses may

nificant for males. Because the common correlations were of

underestimate the degree of association between empathy and

similar magnitude, these differences appeared to be due, at least

aggression or antisocial behavior. This is possible for several rea-

in part, to the larger sample sizes for males. Generally, these

sons. First, the indexes of empathy often included empathic re-

data are consistent with the idea that empathic responsiveness is

actions to both positive and negative affective states or situa-

an inhibitor of aggression regardless of the sex of the individual.

tions of others (e.g., "Some songs make me happy" and "Anoth-

An important issue that has not been addressed in any of the

er's laughter is not catching for me"). The clearest current

relevant research is the role of sympathy versus personal dis-

theorizing concerns the regulatory role of empathy in response


to others' negative affective states and corresponding levels of
aggression, but it is much less apparent that individuals' empathy to positive affective reactions would be expected to influence their aggressive acts toward others. Thus, if individuals'
empathic reactions to others' negative affective states were assessed separately from reactions to others' positive affective reactions, the relation of empathy to aggression might be expected to be stronger.
We also found considerable variation in the criterion measures of aggression (e.g., rating scales, shock and aversive noise
administrations, game disruption, and role-playing responses)
and externalizing behavior (e.g., conduct disorders, lying/stealing, and ratings of antisocial behavior). It is questionable
whether some of these measures of aggression could reasonably
be expected to be influenced by individuals' empathic responsiveness. For example, game disruption was used as an index of
aggression in some research, but how it might be mediated by
empathic responsiveness is not clear. Game playing may be influenced more by existing normative rules and modeled com-

tress reactions in the inhibition of aggression and antisocial behavior. It is logical to assume that these two different types of
reactions would inhibit aggression for different reasons, one
egoistic and the other altruistic. Individuals who experience
personal distress in reaction to another's distress should inhibit
their aggression as a means of reducing their own aversive internal state. In contrast, people who experience sympathy (i.e.,
empathic concern) should inhibit their negative behaviors because of concern for the other's feelings or physical state. Moreover, experiencing these two different reactions could be associated with different attributions about the victim. For example,
people who feel personal distress may be more likely than those
who experience a preponderance of sympathy to derogate or
blame the victim in an attempt to distance themselves from the
other and reduce their own distress (see Hoffinan, 1984). These
attributions concerning the controllability of the other's status
as a victim might then be expected to affect the potential aggressor's future prosocial and antisocial responding (Eisenberg,
1986;Weiner, 1986).

petitive behavior than by concern for others' feelings or vicari-

Another issue that has been inadequately examined is the de-

ous responsiveness to those feelings. In fact, in situations in

gree to which the purely cognitive aspects of empathizing (e.g.,

which empathic reactions should conceptually be more likely

perspective taking) and the affective component of empathy

to influence aggressive behavior (e.g., during the administration

differ in their relation to aggressive and antisocial behavior.

of aversive noise or shock accompanied by the victim's pain

Some data are consistent with the argument that the relation

cues), the relation of empathy to aggression was somewhat more

between empathy and aggression cannot be solely accounted

consistent with expectations.


It is also likely that the inhibition of aggressive and antisocial

for by the relation of role-taking abilities to aggression (e.g.,

reactions often is mediated by factors other than empathic re-

humbert, 1985). However, role-taking abilities have been nega-

sponding. If this is so, the correlation between empathy and ag-

tively related with aggressive behavior in some research (e.g.,

N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach, 1969, 1982; lannotti & Pierre-

gression will be lowered by the inclusion of studies in which

Letourneau, 1981; see S. Feshbach & N. D. Feshbach, 1986).

factors other than empathy influenced the inhibition of aggres-

Unfortunately, to our knowledge, no one has explicitly tested

sion. For example, Dodge (1980) found that aggressive boys

whether perspective-taking skills mediate (Baron & Kenny,

were more likely than nonaggressive boys to interpret the other

1986) the effects of empathy on aggressive and antisocial re-

person's behavior as aggressive or hostile, especially when the

sponding. An empirical test of this issue could be computed if

other's intent was ambiguous. Thus, individuals inclined to re-

researchers would obtain indexes of both empathy constructs

spond aggressively may do so as a result of inappropriate inter-

(i.e., affective and cognitive) as well as aggression, preferably in

RELATION OF EMPATHY TO AGGRESSION

341

a situation in which the individual empathized with and then

affect in interacting with their children on a task and that these

had an opportunity to aggress against the target person.

behaviors were significantly and positively related to parental

In some theoretical conceptions of the relation between em-

empathy. Thus, abusive parents' interactions with their chil-

pathy and aggression, situational experiencing of empathy, not

dren may be characterized by a lack of empathya lack that

dispositional empathy, has been stressed. Cues of the other's

has long-term negative consequences for children's socioemo-

distress are viewed as eliciting distress in the observer, which

tional development.

inhibits further aggression (e.g., N. D. Feshbach & S. Feshbach,

In conclusion, empathic and sympathetic responding appear

1982). In our review, however, the relation between empathy

to be linked to a number of negative behaviors that affect indi-

and aggressive behavior was not strong in those studies in which

viduals' functioning in a variety of interpersonal realms. The

both empathy toward a given person and aggression toward the

processes underlying these relations need further explication,

same individual were assessed (i.e., the experimental induction

however. There is a need to attend to differentiations in type of

studies). Rather, the relations were strongest between questionnaire indexes of dispositional empathy and aggressive or exter-

vicarious responding (e.g., sympathetic versus personal distress) and to possible differences in the nature of empathy in

nalizing behavior. This general pattern of findings suggests that

relation to positive versus negative emotions. In addition, in-

the tendency to experience another's distress may moderate

dexes of empathy clearly do not always assess similar con-

(Baron & Kenny, 1986) the relation between affective responsiv-

structs. When distinctions of these sorts (as well as among types

ity in a given situation and behavior in that situation. The

of aggression) are considered, models of the relation of empathy

differential roles that situational and dispositional empathy

to antisocial behavior should be conceptually clearer, and the

may play in inhibiting negative behaviors are intriguing but are

results of empirical work on these models should be more con-

virtually unexplored.

sistent than they are currently. Nonetheless, we obtained initial

We obtained two important findings concerning the relation

relatively clear evidence of a modest negative relation between

of empathy to the receipt or enactment of physical abuse. Abu-

empathy and aggressive and antisocial behavior. Thus, it seems

sive parents scored lower on indexes of empathic responsiveness

appropriate for practitioners and researchers interested in the

than did mothers from the "normal" population. Moreover,


children who were victims of abuse exhibited less empathy than

inhibition of individuals' aggressive and antisocial behavior toward others to pay greater attention to the construct of empathy

did nonabused children. Overall, these results are quite consis-

in their work.

tent both with researchers' predictions (e.g., N. D. Feshbach,


1987; Squires, 1979) and with previous research on the deleterious effects of abusive rearing practices on children's social interactions and emotional attachments with others (e.g., George
& Main, 1979).
Specifically, abusing parents, in comparison with other parents, have been found to be relatively more negative in their
relationships with their children, to use more coercive and punitive socialization practices, and to express relatively higher
levels of negative affect after children's social transgressions
(e.g., Burgess & Conger, 1978; Reid, 1986; Trickett & Kuczynski, 1983). In turn, children with histories of parental abuse
exhibit long-term problems in social adjustment, aggressive and
antisocial behavior, and difficulties in maintaining relationships
with others. (See reviews by Lamphear, 1985; Wolfe, 1985.) It
is likely that abusive parents' relative inability to respond in a
supportive and empathic manner to their children is related to
their children's social and emotional difficulties. That is, abusive parents may be less likely than other parents to (a) identify
or understand their children's feelings, especially in distress or
other situations involving their children's needs; (b) adopt their
children's emotional/cognitive perspective; (c) respond vicariously to their children's affective states (N. D. Feshbach, 1987;
Howes & Feshbach, 1986); and (d) encourage their children to
react positively (i.e., emotionally and behaviorally) toward others. Thus, it seems reasonable to find deficiencies in empathic
responsiveness associated with less adequate parenting.
Consistent with this reasoning, N. D. Feshbach (1987), in a
study of a nonclinical sample, found that maternal and paternal
empathy were negatively related to children's externalizing and
internalizing behavior and to inconsistencies in parental discipline practices. Moreover, Howes and Feshbach (1986) found
that abusive parents showed less investment, involvement, and

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Received October 7,1986

Revision received September 22, 1987


Accepted November 9, 1987