Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Kevin Larkin

Committee Member

Julie Hicks Patrick

Committee Member

Amy Gentzler


The purpose of the current study was to examine the association between dispositional (trait) empathy and autonomic reactivity during dyadic interactions among women enrolled in undergraduate psychology courses. The primary research question was: do individuals who are deemed higher in dispositional empathy according to self-report exhibit differential autonomic reactivity patterns during a task in which they are asked to comfort another student experiencing emotional distress than those who are deemed lower in dispositional empathy? The literature on this relation has been mixed and has utilized photos or videos to evoke emotion; thus this study sought to examine the relation between empathy and autonomic reactivity using an in vivo interaction between a participant and a confederate. Measures of heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (HRV), and blood pressure (BP) were recorded continuously during two separate interactions (the comfort task and a neutral interaction) and displays of empathy and prosocial behavior were coded. Self-reported measures of state affect, interpersonal goals, and task appraisals were also measured. Results revealed very few differences between women higher and lower in dispositional empathy. Women in the higher empathy group displayed more social network support behaviors like offering to spend time with the confederate or sharing that they can personally relate to the situation and reported encountering the types of interactions used in this study more frequently than women in the lower empathy group. Several differences were observed between the comfort and neutral tasks. Specifically, although HR responses were higher in response to the neutral than comfort tasks, the neutral task was associated with lower self-reported ratings of negative affect, stressfulness, and difficulty, than the comfort task. Although findings failed to confirm study hypotheses, several methodological issues were uncovered that should be considered in future empirical work examining the positive and negative impact of empathy.