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Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Brenda Lundy Jackson


Department of Psychology

University Affiliation

Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne


Variations in levels of empathic concern have been attributed to a variety of factors including early familial relationships (Leerkes & Crockenberg, 2006). One measure of relationship quality during childhood involves the formation of a secure attachment, which develops within the context of warm and sensitive care-giving (Ainsworth et al., 1978). The formation of a secure attachment has been linked to higher levels in empathy in children (Kestenbaum & Sroufe,1989). Decreased levels of empathy in insecurely attached children may reflect more self-focused emotions (Ainsworth et al., 1978), which may render it difficult to consider the emotional needs of others (van der Mark et al., 2002). Hazan and Shaver (1987) theorized that adult relationships may reflect attachment representations from childhood. Thus, it is plausible that adults with securely attached representations may demonstrate more empathic concern than those who hold more insecure representations. The purpose of the present research was to explore adult attachment representations in relation to self-focused (personal distress) and other-focused (perspective-taking, empathy) emotions. It was hypothesized that secure attachment representations would be associated with less distress, more perspective-taking and higher levels of empathic concern. By contrast, fearful representations were expected to be associated with more distress and, in turn, less perspective-taking and empathy. Participants included two hundred twenty-five undergraduates who completed the Relationship Scale Questionnaire, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. Analyses revealed a significant positive relationship between secure attachment representations and empathic concern, and this relationship was mediated by lower personal distress and more perspective-taking, in serial (R2=.24, F(3,193)=26.37, p<.001,(95% CI: [0.048 to 0.983. By contrast, both fearful and preoccupied representations predicted more personal distress, followed by less perspective-taking, and in turn, less empathic concern (R=.23, F2(3,199)=26,38, p<,001,(95% CI: [-0.590 to -0.056]; R2=.24, F(3,197)=25,96, p<,001,(95% CI: [-0.043 to -0.002], respectively). Finally, the negative relation between dismissive representations and empathic concern was direct, without mediation by distress or perspective-taking.


Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences

Personal Distress Mediates the Relationship between Adult Attachment and Empathy

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