The Cognitive Antecedents of Empathic Responding

  • Ben Cuff

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


There are several shortcomings in the empathy literature that have led to an incomplete understanding of this important social emotion. Specifically, definitions of the term lack consistency, and the majority treatment of empathy as a trait capacity has overshadowed our understanding of empathy as a state variable, and of the relationships between context-dependent cognitions and empathic responding. The purpose of this thesis is to present research into the resolution of these issues. A new conceptualisation of empathy was first developed, based upon a consideration of the published literature. The cognitive antecedents of empathy (agency, blame, perceived power, cognitive empathy, similarity, valuing, perceived need, morality, self-interest, and mood) were then identified and reviewed. As no scale existed to target these variables, a new scale was developed (the Cognitive Antecedents of Empathic Responding Scale [CAERS]). In Study 1 the face validity of the CAERS was established, and the internal reliability of the scale was improved in Study 2. In Study 3, participants‟ (n = 177) cognitions towards a high school bullying victim were measured, finding that that some antecedents (i.e., perceived need, valuing, cognitive empathy, similarity, self-interest, and morality) were more influential on empathic responding than others. The results of Study 4 showed that participants‟ (n = 83) cognitions (especially morality, valuing, agency, and blame) towards an individual depicted in a charity advertisement influenced how much empathy they felt for that target and how likely they were to donate to that charity. In Study 5, a one-trial prisoner‟s dilemma (n = 100) was used to demonstrate that self-interest is also an important factor to consider. A new model of the antecedents of empathic responding was developed from these results, which will serve as a useful starting point for those wishing to enhance the way we encourage empathy in others, especially those working in forensic, healthcare, and charitable contexts.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University

Cite this