Affective Empathy in Children: Measurement and Correlates
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Empathy is a construct that plays a pivotal role in the development of interpersonal relationships, and thus ones ability to function socially and often professionally. The development of empathy in children is therefore of particular interest to allow for further understanding of normative and atypical developmental trajectories. This thesis investigated the assessment of affective empathy in children aged 5-12, through the development and comparison of a multimethod assessment approach. Furthermore this thesis evaluated the differential relationships between affective empathy and global behavioural problems in children versus the presence of early psychopathic traits, such as callous-unemotional traits. The first component of this study incorporated; a measure of facial expression of affective empathy, and self-reported experience of affective empathy, as measured by the newly designed Griffith Empathy Measure - Video Observation (GEM-VO) and the Griffith Empathy Measure - Self Report (GEM-SR); the Bryant's Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents (1982) which is a traditional child self-report measure; and a newly designed parent-report of child affective empathy (Griffith Empathy Measure - Parent Report; GEM-PR). Using a normative community sample of 211 children from grades 1, 3, 5, and 7 (aged 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, & 11-12, respectively), the GEM-PR and the Bryant were found to have moderate to strong internal consistency. As a measure of concurrent validity, strong positive correlations were found between the mother and father reports (GEM-PR) of their child's affective empathy, for grades 5 and 7, and for girls of all age groups. Using a convenience sample of 31 parents and children aged 5 to 12, the GEM-PR and the Bryant demonstrated strong test-retest reliability. The reliability of the GEM-VO and the GEM-SR were assessed using a convenience sample of 20 children aged 5 to 12. These measures involve the assessment of children's facial and verbal responses to emotionally evocative videotape vignettes. Children were unobtrusively videotaped while they watched the vignettes and their facial expressions were coded. Children were then interviewed to determine the emotions they attributed to stimulus persons and to themselves whilst viewing the material. Adequate to strong test-retest reliability was found for both measures. Using 30% from the larger sample of 211 participants (N=60), the GEM-VO also demonstrated robust inter-rater reliability. This multimethod approach to assessing child affective empathy produced differing age and gender trends. Facial affect as reported by the GEM-VO decreased with age. Similarly, the matching of child facial emotion to the vignette protagonist's facial emotion was higher in the younger grades. These findings suggest that measures that assess the matching of facial affect (i.e., GEM-VO) may be more appropriate for younger age groups who have not yet learnt to conceal their facial expression of emotion. Data from the GEM-SR suggests that older children are more verbally expressive of negative emotions then younger children, with older girls found to be the most verbally expressive of feeling the same emotion as the vignette character; a role more complimentary of the female gender socialization pressures. These findings are also indicative of the increase in emotional vocabulary and self-awareness in older children, supporting the validity of child self-report measures (based on observational stimuli) with older children. In comparing data from the GEM-VO and GEM-SR, this study found that for negative emotions the consistency between facial emotions coded and emotions verbally reported increased with age. This consistency across gender and amongst the older age groups provides encouraging concurrent validity, suggesting the results of one measure could be inferred through the exclusive use of the alternate measurement approach. In contrast, affective empathy as measured by the two measures; the accurate matching of the participant and vignette character's facial expression (GEM-VO), and the accurate matching of the self reported and vignette character's emotion (GEM-SR); were not found to converge. This finding is consistent with prior research and questions the assumption that facially expressed and self-appraised indexes of affective empathy are different aspects of a complex unified process. When evaluating the convergence of all four measures of affective empathy, negative correlations were found between the Bryant and the GEM-PR, these two measures were also found to not converge with the GEM-VO and GEM-SR in a consistent and predictable way. These findings pose the question of whether different aspects of the complex phenomena of affective empathy are being assessed. Furthermore, the validity of the exclusive use of a child self report measure such as the Bryant, which is the standard assessment in the literature, is questioned. The possibility that callous-unemotional traits (CU; a unique subgroup identified in the child psychopathy literature) may account for the mixed findings throughout research regarding the assumption that deficiencies in empathy underlie conduct problems in children, was examined using regression analysis. Using the previous sample of 211 children aged 5-12, conduct problems (CP) were measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ; Goodman, 1999), and the CU subscale was used from the Antisocial Process Screening Device (APSD; Caputo, Frick, & Brodsky, 1999). Affective empathy when measured by the GEM-PR and the Bryant showed differing patterns in the relationship between affective empathy, CU traits and CP. While the GEM-Father reported that neither age, CU traits nor CP accounted for affective empathy variance, the GEM-Mother report supported that affective empathy was no longer associated with CP once CU traits had been partialled out. In contrast, the Bryant reported for girls, that CU traits were not found to have an underlying correlational relationship. It can be argued from the GEM-Mother data only that it was the unmeasured variance of CU traits that was accounting for the relationship between CP and affective empathy found in the literature. Furthermore, the comparison of an altered CU subscale with all possible empathy items removed, suggests that the constructs of CU traits and affective empathy are not synonymous or overlapping in nature, but rather are two independent constructs. This multimethod approach highlights the complexity of this research area, exemplifying the significant influence of the source of the reports, and suggesting that affective empathy consists of multiple components that are assessed to differing degrees by the different measurement approaches.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Applied Psychology (Health)
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