Study Measures Empathy

by Melanie A. Farmer

Kevin Ochsner would have been a good shrink. As a child, he was curious about why his family and other people acted in certain ways. Later as a graduate student, he said, “I came to realize that I was actually spending a lot of my mental waking life trying to understand why I or others had the emotional experiences that we did.”

To his surprise, it was the research side of psychology that captivated him. “I woke up in the middle of the night and just had this idea that I needed to study emotion,” said Ochsner. “I wasn’t sure what aspect of emotion, I just thought, ‘I have to figure this out.’”

The human brain

Now, as an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, he researches topics such as empathy and emotional regulation. In doing so, he uses techniques more typically used by cognitive neuroscientists, such as functional brain imaging.

Ochsner is currently working on a study, with graduate student Jamil Zaki and their colleague Niall Bolger, on what capacity people have to accurately understand how someone else feels.

A self-described naturally empathic person, Ochsner realizes that not everyone can easily relate to other people’s feelings and emotional experiences. He’s interested in figuring out how some people can create a deeper connection with others, something beyond casual chemistry.

“For a long time, people thought that was all you need to be accurate, to just kind of resonate on the same emotional wavelength as someone and if you had that you would know what they were feeling,” he said. “But it turns out, on average, people are not very accurate...The reason they’re not very accurate is it really depends on what information the other person is expressing.”

In their first study on this topic, Ochsner and colleagues asked about 50 participants ranging in age from 18 to mid-20s to share personal emotional experiences in front of a video camera, documentary filmstyle. Alone in a room, talking straight into a camera focused on them from the waist up, they shared their stories, which ranged from memories of losing a loved one to the end of a relationship.

Afterward, these “target” participants watched each video and continuously rated how they felt while recalling each memory on a scale from very positive to very negative. Separately, “perceiver” participants watched the tapes and judged how positive or negative they thought each target person felt in the videos.

The match between what targets reported they felt and what perceivers thought targets were feeling provided an empirical measure of the accuracy of empathic feelings. Whether or not a perceiver was empathically accurate depended on how emotionally expressive the target in the video was.

Ochsner used a radio analogy to explain these data, comparing perceivers and targets to a radio antenna and a transmitter. You need, “an emotional transmitter that’s broadcasting with enough power, and then you need an antenna that’s sensitive enough to pick up those signals,” he said. “If the transmitter sends stronger and stronger signals, as long as the antenna has the right kind of sensitivity, it will pick up stronger and stronger broadcasts.”

Ochsner, one of seven Columbia teachers recently honored with the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award, studied psychology at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign and completed his graduate work at Harvard University. He did his post-doctoral research both at Harvard and Stanford University before joining the Columbia faculty five years ago as an assistant professor.

Ochsner and colleagues eventually want to use the data from the empathy study to develop programs on how to train people to be more empathic. He is currently collaborating with researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center to study empathy accuracy in children with autism spectrum disorders. In this regard, one of their most recent findings might be useful. They found that positive emotion is communicated more by what one says whereas negative emotion is communicated better through one’s facial expressions. Ochsner and Zaki intend to use the data from this research—still in the early stages—to enhance social functioning by teaching people, including individuals with autism spectrum disorder, how to pick up on emotional cues.

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