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Are you Choosing the Wrong Empathy Measure?

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  • The ambiguity plaguing the definition of empathy has not only been constrained to its content (i.e., assessing decoding or encoding) but how it is expressed in the individual (i.e., as a trait or ability). Any separation in the theorizing of a construct should be clearly reflected and labeled in the literature, however this has not always been the case with empathy. The objective of the present study is to propose a taxonomy of empathy that defines the construct in terms of decoding or encoding, as well as separates trait empathy from empathic ability. Participants were measured over the course of ten weeks on a variety of psychosocial measures including personality and trait measures, interpersonal accuracy, as well as two measures of empathy (i.e., the Davis IRI (Davis, 1983) and the Empathy Scale (Hogan, 1969)). Using a multitrait-multimethod structure (Campbell & Fiske, 1959), we determined that both the Empathy Scale and the Davis IRI were predictive of empathy trait tendencies, and were not predictive of interpersonal accuracy ability. The Perspective-Taking and Fantasy subscales displayed high correlations with decoding while Personal Distress, Empathic Concern, and Hogan’s Empathy correlated strongly with encoding measures. Therefore, researchers must take precautions in choosing a theoretically relevant empathy scale in order to be able to assess the construct in a more valid way, and help to alleviate the confusion and damage that results from researchers assuming that measures such as the Davis IRI, for example, are predictive of empathic abilities.
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