ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (6): 892-904.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.00892

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Associations between empathy and negative affect: Effect of emotion regulation

GUO Xiao-dong1,2, ZHENG Hong1,2, RUAN Dun1,2, HU Ding-ding1,2, WANG Yi1,2(), WANG Yan-yu3, Raymond C. K. CHAN1,2   

  1. 1Neuropsychology and Applied Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, CAS Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
    2Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3School of Psychology, Weifang Medical University, Weifang 261053, China
  • Published:2023-06-25 Online:2023-03-10
  • Contact: WANG Yi


Empathy refers to understanding, inferring and sharing others’ emotional states, which can be divided into affective and cognitive components. Although empathy contributes to prosocial behaviors and harmonious interpersonal relationships, it also increases an individual’s negative emotional experiences and affect distress. Emotion regulation, the psychological process of managing one’s own emotions, has been found to be closely associated with empathy. Cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression are two commonly used strategies to regulate emotions, of which cognitive reappraisal is effective in reducing negative emotional experiences while expressive suppression is usually correlated with more affective distress. However, the roles of emotion regulation strategies in the empathic response are still unclear.

We conducted two studies to investigate the roles of emotion regulation on the negative affect related to empathy using self-report questionnaires and experimental task respectively. Study 1 administered the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE), the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ), and the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS-21) to 442 college students. The moderating effects of cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression on the association between empathy and negative affect were examined separately. Study 2 adopted the Chinese version of the Empathic Accuracy Task (EAT) to further examine the effect of emotion regulation (i.e. cognitive reappraisal) on cognitive empathy and affective responses. The EAT requires participants to continuously rate targets’ emotional valence in video clips as a second person and rate emotional valence and arousal of both targets and themselves after each video. Seventy-five participants (33 for Experiment 1 and 42 for Experiment 2) were recruited to perform the EAT under two conditions, i.e., naturally viewing without any instructions and applying cognitive reappraisal while viewing the scenarios. Paired sample t tests and repeated-measure ANOVA were performed to examine the effect of cognitive reappraisal on task performance.

As shown in Figure 1, findings from Study 1 showed that affective empathy was significantly correlated with higher levels of anxiety (r = 0.14, p = 0.003) and stress (r = 0.14, p < 0.001), while empathic concern was correlated with less anxiety (r = -0.28, p < 0.001), stress (r = -0.27, p < 0.001) and depression (r = -0.22, p < 0.001). However, when participants endorsed cognitive reappraisal more frequently, such positive association between affective empathy and stress was reduced (β = 1.48, Wald = 5.22, p = 0.022), while the negative association between empathic concern and anxiety was strengthened (β = 0.66, Wald = 4.73, p = 0.030). Cognitive empathy was significantly correlated (or marginally significantly) with reduced depression (QCAE-CE: r = -0.08, p = 0.096; IRI-PT: r = -0.11, p = 0.019; IRI-FS: r = -0.10, p = 0.034). Expressive suppression strengthened the negative association between cognitive empathy and depression (β = 1.77, Wald = 5.32, p= 0.021). Moreover, negative correlations between cognitive empathy and anxiety (β = 1.33, Wald = 4.67, p = 0.031) as well as stress (β = -0.37, Wald= 4.43, p= 0.035) emerged for participants endorsing cognitive reappraisal more frequently. Findings from Study 2 showed that task performances of the EAT were significantly improved when participants endorsed cognitive reappraisal strategy compared to the condition of naturally viewing. Specifically, under the cognitive reappraisal condition participants scored higher empathic accuracy (Experiment 1: t = -2.27, p= 0.030, Cohen’s d = 0.40; Experiment 2: F(1, 40) = 4.13, p = 0.049, η2 = 0.09), experienced less negative affect (Experiment 1: t = -2.68, p= 0.012, Cohen’s d = 0.47; Experiment 2: F(1, 40) = 29.20, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.42) in reaction to others’ affect distress, and experienced more positive affect in reaction to others’ positive emotions (Experiment 1: t = -10.9, p< 0.001, Cohen’s d = 1.90; Experiment 2: F(1, 40) = 31.54, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.44) (see Table 1 & Figure 2).

Taken together, the findings from these two studies suggested that both cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression play a protective role in the associations between empathy and negative affect, and the endorsement of cognitive reappraisal would improve task performance on both cognitive and affective empathy. Our findings shed light on the psychological mechanisms of empathy and provide new approach for improving individuals’ social cognitive ability, especially for early intervention in clinical and subclinical populations.

Key words: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, cognitive reappraisal, expressive suppression, negative affect