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Monday, June 26, 2023

Characterizing empathy and compassion using computational linguistic analysis

Yaden, D. B., Giorgi, S., et al. (2023). 
Emotion. Advance online publication.


Many scholars have proposed that feeling what we believe others are feeling—often known as “empathy”—is essential for other-regarding sentiments and plays an important role in our moral lives. Caring for and about others (without necessarily sharing their feelings)—often known as “compassion”—is also frequently discussed as a relevant force for prosocial motivation and action. Here, we explore the relationship between empathy and compassion using the methods of computational linguistics. Analyses of 2,356,916 Facebook posts suggest that individuals (N = 2,781) high in empathy use different language than those high in compassion, after accounting for shared variance between these constructs. Empathic people, controlling for compassion, often use self-focused language and write about negative feelings, social isolation, and feeling overwhelmed. Compassionate people, controlling for empathy, often use other-focused language and write about positive feelings and social connections. In addition, high empathy without compassion is related to negative health outcomes, while high compassion without empathy is related to positive health outcomes, positive lifestyle choices, and charitable giving. Such findings favor an approach to moral motivation that is grounded in compassion rather than empathy.

From the General Discussion

Linguistic topics related to compassion (without empathy) and empathy (without compassion) show clear relationships with four of the five personality factors. Topics related to compassion without empathy are marked by higher conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Empathy without compassion topics are more associated with introversion and are also moderately associated with neuroticism and lower conscientiousness.  The association of low emotional stability and conscientiousness is also in line with prior research that found “distress,”a construct with important parallels to empathy, being associated with fleeing from a helping situation (Batson et al., 1987) and with lower helping(Jordan et al., 2016;Schroeder et al., 1988; Twenge et al., 2007; and others).

In sum, it appears that compassion without empathy and empathy without compassion are at least somewhat distinct and have unique predictive validity in personality, health, and prosocial behavior.  While the mechanisms through which these different relationships occur remain unknown, some previous work bears on this issue.  As mentioned, other work has found that merely focusing on others resulted in more intentions to help others (Bloom, 2017;Davis,1983;Jordan et al., 2016), which helps to explain the relationship between the more other-focused compassion and donation behavior that we observed.

In sum, high empathy without compassion is related to negative health outcomes, while high compassion without empathy is related to positive health outcomes. These findings suggest that compassion may be a more important factor for moral motivation than empathy.  Too much empathy may be overwhelming for high quality care.  Care about feelings, don't absorb the sharing of feelings.