Empathy refers to the traits, or tendencies, of a person to affectively experience emotions of concern at the suffering of others and to cognitively adopt another person’s perspective. Possession of empathy has been assumed to encourage prosocial behavior. The mechanisms by which empathy affects prosocial behavior for adolescent survivors of disaster, however, are unclear. Posttraumatic growth (PTG) was considered a common positive change following trauma events and was identified as having a high prevalence rate in various trauma types. After experiencing natural disasters, individuals with high empathy are more vulnerable to their adverse environment and the traumatic situations of others. This results in more psychological pressure and fear, and these pressures and negative emotions force individuals to think about the meaning of trauma, thus promoting the generation of PTG. The emergence of PTG brings positive behavioral change among survivors after the disaster. Therefore, it was suggested that empathy may exert indirect effects on prosocial behavior through PTG. According to current theories, empathy has different emotional and cognitive components. When individuals empathize with others, these components are activated, which may lead to gratitude and, in turn, result in prosocial behavior. As a moral barometer, gratitude informs the beneficiary that a benefactor has bestowed a gift. The prosocial behavior of a benefactor toward a beneficiary is thought to produce gratitude within the beneficiary. This then stimulates the beneficiary’s prosocial behavior, further strengthening the benefactor’s own prosocial behavior. Furthermore, traumatized survivors with greater empathy may improve communication with others, increase the sense of intimacy, and perceive more support from others—meaning that empathy may lead individuals to have more social support. Social support refers to an individual’s perception of the support provided by others. That perception can be influenced by gratitude. Adolescents with low social support are more likely to interpret other people’s ambiguous actions as aggressive. Thus, stable social relationships seem to promote PTG and prosocial behavior. Taken together, it is possible that empathy can promote prosocial behavior through gratitude, social support, and PTG in post-disaster contexts. The utility of these predictions, however, was unclear. To examine the relation between empathy, gratitude, social support, PTG and prosocial behavior, this study used an interpersonal reactivity index scale, gratitude questionnaire, social support questionnaire, posttraumatic growth inventory and prosocial behavior questionnaire to assess 542 adolescents following Ya’an earthquake. The results indicated that after controlling the trauma exposure, empathy have a positive association with prosocial behavior through the following routes: three one-mediator paths of gratitude, social support and PTG, respectively; three two-mediator paths of gratitude via PTG, social support via PTG and gratitude via social support, and one three-mediator path from gratitude to PTG via social support. These findings suggested that following a natural disaster, adolescent survivors’ empathy may have an indirect and positive relation with prosocial behavior by gratitude, social support and PTG.
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