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Emotions play an essential role in human communication and the ability to perceive others emotional signals is called empathy. The main aim of this study was to test hypothetical associations between personality traits and empathy scores, according to the Big Five (Thompson, 2008) and individuals’ performance on a behavioural measure of empathy through the Eye Test (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). Correlation analysis, mean and standard deviations were calculated of the results of 76 SIM-UOW students that took part in this study which concluded in results that did not prove the hypotheses.
Relationship between Personality, Emotional Recognition and Empathy
Empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings. It can be seen through pro-social acts such as valuing another’s welfare and emotions (Batson, Eklund, Chermok, Hoyt & Ortiz, 2007) where the quality of interpersonal behaviour is the ability to respond appropriately to others’ emotions (Del Barrio, Aluja & Garcia, 2004). We studied personality trait ratings and the ability to interpret facial expressions, conducted through questionnaires such as NEO-FFI test – a revised NEO PI-R (Costa & McCrae, 1992), which is a self-report, to map out personality attributes according to the Big Five (Thompson, 2008) and Baron-Cohen’s revised Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste & Plumb, 2001). Empathy is affected by many factors (e.g., different facets of empathy, prosocial behaviour or temperament) and one of them is personality. In this study, we explored how much of a big role personality plays in the empathy of a person through the correlation with its traits. It is important to study the level of empathy in a general society and understand people’s personality in lieu of the recent studies that highlighted the declining levels of empathy in societies (Konrath, O’Brien & Hsing, 2011; Anderson & Konrath, 2011). The ability to empathise is an important factor in day to day interactions and influences the development of moral reasoning and an effective control of aggression (Del Barrio, Aluja, Garcia, 2004). This is an impending problem as a society that lacks empathy is a corruptive society as people do not stop to think of others’ feelings before themselves.
The Big Five consists of the basic traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness which are said to be closely linked to an individual’s disposition (Hartmann, 2006). Agreeableness reflects cooperation, social harmony and getting along with others. This trait is dimension of interpersonal behaviour, and represents the quality of interaction with people (Costa, McCrae, & Dye, 1991). Both agreeableness and empathy share attributes related to interpersonal skills, for example altruism and social behaviour (Caprara, Alessandri, Giunta, Panerai & Einsenberg, 2010). For individuals that score higher in agreeableness, they are able to take the perspective of others more easily and to communicate better with others. This is supported by the study between medical student’s agreeableness and preference for ”person-oriented” specialties (i.e., focusing on patient rather than techniques) (Borges & Gibson, 2005). In this case, the ability to recognise emotions well in the eye test is an indicator that the person is highly empathetic as the individual is able to imaginatively understand a person’s feeling through the eyes.
Adding on, Openness also might play an important role in the recognition of emotion. Open individuals tend to be intellectually curious and sensitive to aesthetics and inner feelings (Costa & McCrae, 1991). Empathy has a component of understanding the other, which also means the capability to understand other people, and an ability to grasp the emotional and personal conditions of others (Costa & Magalhaes, 2011). In a nutshell, Openness to experience brings about the necessary sensitivity and insightfulness for others.
In previous researches, Hall stated that women indeed have a higher accuracy on facial expression recognition than men (Hall, Hutton & Morgan, 2010). These findings which suggests there is difference in the ability to empathise between men and women. Hall also noted that women were faster and more accurate in their expression recognition compared with men, and women looked more at the eyes than men (Hall & Matsumoto, 2004). Baron-Cohen suggested that women are more likely to be high empathisers compared with males and in the case autism; this gap is exaggerated (Hall, Hutton & Morgan, 2010). Hence, gender might affect the results of empathy of individuals.
The aim of this study is to explore how important is personality traits in determining corresponding levels of empathy. Hence after having reviewed the studies, three hypotheses were derived. Firstly, Agreeableness should highly correlate with high scores in the Eye test. Secondly, Openness to experience should moderately correlate to high scores in the Eye test. Thirdly, women should score higher in the Eye test as research showed that they are better at decoding facial expressions and emotions. This explores the relationships between an index of empathy, through being able to recognise the emotions well in the test, and the different personality traits in a class of SIM-UOW psychology students.
A total of 76 first year psychology students participated in this study as a course requirement. Participants were aged 19 – 25 years old (M =22 years, SD = 2).
Participants completed NEO FFM personality measure and Empathy scale.
Personality. Participants completed a 60 item questionnaire assessing personality. This questionnaire involved the presentation of 60 statements (e.g., I am not a worrier. I often feel inferior to others), 12 for each scale from the NEO-FFM Test (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Participants were asked to read each statement carefully and each statement mark the option that best represents their opinion. Responses were scored on a five-point scale ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree. The 60 items were used to create scores for Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Extraversion.
Empathy. In this study, empathy was assessed using the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task’ develop by Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, and Jolliffe (1997). This task involved the presentation of 36 human eyes depicting a number of different facial expressions. Participants were instructed to ‘choose which word best describes what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling’ from five possible options. A total score of empathy was calculated by summing the number of correct responses for each participant. Higher scores are reflective of higher empathy.
Participants completed this study in their first-year psychology tutorials. The questionnaire took approximately 20 minutes to complete.
Table 1 shows descriptive statistics in terms of Pearson’s correlations between empathy and personality traits.
The relationship between personality and emotional empathy (results reported as Pearson correlations)
(Reading the Mind in the Eyes)
Openness to Experience
* p < .05
The empathy scores for each personality trait were normally distributed and an alpha level of 0.5 was used to evaluate all statistical tests. Although all of the results hold relatively weak correlation (i.e., r < 0.3), when tested against a p <.05 and n=76, the traits of Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism have a significant relationship with Empathy. While Agreeableness and Conscientiousness have a positive significant relationship, Neuroticism is found to have a negative significant relationship. Hence, this brought about two conclusions. My first hypothesis is rejected as although there is a significant relationship between Agreeableness and empathy, it did not highly correlate with empathy. My second hypothesis is also rejected as openness to experience have no significant relationship with empathy as it have a very low r = .01.
To test out or last hypothesis, we have collated the mean and standard deviation results of both females (M= 26.50, SD= 3.202) and males (M=25.42, SD=3.463) in the class. Although the mean suggested that females have done slightly better in empathy test, there was a non-significant effect for gender on empathy results, t(74) = -1.336, p = .294. This also rejected my last hypothesis.
In this study, I explored if there were any link between the Big Five personality traits (Thompson, 2008) and performance on the Eyes test (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) as a measurement of empathy. As seen with the above results, contrary to expectations, the three hypotheses derived from literature reviews were rejected in this sample study as none of the results showed any significant difference or strong correlation as was hypothesized. Correlations with performance on the Eyes test showed that only three traits of personality (i.e., Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism) had significant relationships with empathy, albeit weak correlation.
Alternative arguments could explain the findings of this study that does not support proposition. Firstly, a study has shown that prosociality and empathy is actually situational based and not a consistent attribute. The Eye test does not get to account for such variety of situation as it is only based on reading one’s eyes (Graziano, Habashi, Sheese & Tobin, 2007).
In our study, there was no trend in terms of sex difference or female superiority performance which does not echo with previous studies. One possible reason why the sex difference did not reach significance could be because the sex ratio of the class was highly disproportionate, where females dominated the males by a large ratio. This, together with the effect size is relatively small makes the chance of detecting a sex difference low. Future analyses should utilize samples with males and females equally represented. On the other hand, our findings is consistent with few studies including one by Alaerts, Nackaerts, Meyns, Swinnen and Wenderoth (2011) which have proven that gender has no advantage when it comes to emotional recognition on the eye test.
To add on, another contributing limitation of our study that could have caused the unexpected results is our sample size. Our sample size was of 76 students only. This small sample could have caused greater inaccuracy. To add on, students took part in this study after having done a test, hence not in the optimum state to test personality traits. Students should have been in a calmer state.
Another reason why the studies did not coincide with hypotheses could be that the hypotheses were derived from literature review of the western culture. Cultural differences might arise as Asian and Western society might not have the same level as empathy or emotional recognition skills. Research has not been done hitherto on this matter hence future researchers can consider this viewpoint. Although there has been no evidence that Singaporeans are less empathetic, many studies have shown the existence of in-culture advantage. Due to the western nature of the test, Asians are less likely to do as well as would be expected of westerners. (Adams et al., 2009; Soto & Levenson, 2009). It is hence inaccurate to derive a study of another culture and use that pattern of results to hypothesise our study as Asians might not have the same characteristics to implement the same pattern of results to.
Although the big five personality stays relatively constant throughout, level of Agreeableness might change as the individual age. However, this may not mean that the individual would score lesser for the Eye test as he was previously able to tell emotions of others. For example, studies of young children have founds connections between positive affect and empathy-related responding in young children (Volbrecht et al., 2007), and others have found that inhibition is related to empathetic behaviours in toddlers (Young, Fox, & Zahn-Waxler, 1999). Given the complex development of empathy throughout childhood, previous literature indicates that temperament’s relationship to empathy is important to empathy’s conceptualization. In addition, although personality stays relatively constant, B.F. Skinner did note that personality could change over time in due of things that take place in life such as the type of responses they receive for their action. This was the case of Rhianna in the study of personality by BBC Child of Our Time. Rhianna scored highest in Agreeableness when first measured at two years old and lowest amongst all eight years later. She reasoned that she realises being too empathetic and caring for others would lead to being taken advantage of. Agreeableness is said to be the least inherited trait but most affected by what we learn (Jang, Livesley & Vernon, 1996). The current sample was composed of undergraduate students who were predominantly younger adults, and thus may not generalize to other populations. Although research has primarily focused on children or young adults, future research is needed to determine changes in empathy (inclusive of various aspects i.e. emotional and cognitive) throughout adult development because thus far, the research in this area is unclear (Gruhn, Rebucal, Diehl, & Luney, 2008).
There is also another limiting factor in which our sample are restricted to all being psychology students. This rigid sample brings about an inaccurate study when applying personality traits and empathy to a generally unbiased population.
The next limitation is that measuring empathy itself is a vague and arduous task. One explanation for these findings is that as a test of cognitive empathy, the Eyes test is an incomplete measure of empathy and thus cannot give a completely accurate assessment of empathy as a construct. It is recommended in future research that alternative measures of empathy be used to demonstrate a relationship between performance-based cognitive measures of empathy (such as the Eyes test) and other alternative methods of empathy. The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test has the disadvantage that it was created from photographs of actors expressing specific emotions, but it is unknown whether the expressions were spontaneous or posed (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001). There are differences in the spontaneous expression of emotions and forced emotions (Frank, Ekman & Friesen, 1993). This may hinder empathic accuracy in individuals identifying emotions in the use of this test (Johnston, Miles, & McKinlay, 2008). Given the overall inconsistent findings with empathy measures in relation to personality, future researchers may use a different personality measure when examining the relationship between personality and empathy to further explore these relationships.
This could include Interpersonal Reactivity Index , Empathy Quotient or temperament. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) is a self-report measure designed to assess both cognitive and emotional constructs of empathy. The Empathy Quotient (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004) is a self-report measure of empathy. The test-retest reliability of the scale was high in both the original scale development (r = .97), and other studies (r = .84) (Lawrence et al., 2004). Its consistency was also high (Î± = .83 to .92) (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). The possibility that temperament and empathy have a reciprocal relationship in affecting each other should also be considered. Based on the current research, temperament seems to be consistently theoretically related construct to empathy, and thus may be a possible candidate as a predictor of empathetic behaviours. Examining empathy in the context of other psychological constructs may better inform the understanding and underlying mechanisms of empathy in its conceptualization. Temperament could be tested using The Adult Temperament Questionnaire (Evans & Rothbart, 2007) which is a 77-item questionnaire designed to assess four factors of temperament. To conclude this point, when different facets of empathy are measured using various types of test, it does help to give a more accurate perception of one’s empathy level.
This study and the observed results on personality traits and their correlation to empathy could be useful to places like hospitals, social help centres or places of a more empathetic line of work and are looking to employ or to learn more about their staffs’ empathy and personality to aide in giving the best into their job.
To conclude, future work should rely upon multiple methods and informants across situations to minimize bias due to a sole measure and have advantage of shared method variance. Moreover, these results need to be corroborated in different types of participants as well as in different cultural contexts. This would help to reach the aim of highly correlating certain personality traits with empathy.
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