Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Edelyn Verona, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brent Small, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joseph Vandello, Ph.D.


empathy elicitation, five-factor model, personality traits, trait empathy


The study of trait empathy and the experience of empathy has implications for psychopathologies, the enactment of prosocial behaviors, and inhibition of aggression. For the most part, studies on empathy have been limited to the examination of trait empathy and/or empathy-related prosocial behaviors. However, to better understand how trait empathy may translate into empathy-related behaviors, it is important to find the best ways to elicit and measure state empathy, as well as characterize the relationship between trait and state empathy. Additionally, research into the relationship between normal-range personality traits and empathy on both a trait and state level has largely been limited to research with physician empathy, indicating the need to examine relationships between personality traits and state empathic reactions. The current study sought to fill these gaps in the literature through exploring the efficacy of a set of empathy-eliciting film clips and further characterizing the nature of empathy responses by examining the role that individual differences in trait empathy and normal-range personality traits play in responses to the clips.

In the present study, undergraduate students completed a film clip task and reported their state affect at baseline and following each film clip. Repeated measures ANOVAs were used to compare self-reported emotional responses to a set of film clips selected to elicit empathy (showing persons in distress) with responses to negative affect non-empathy (i.e., negative control) clips and neutral clips. These analyses would help validate whether the empathy clips elicited a greater degree of endorsed empathy adjectives (e.g., sympathetic, compassionate), relative to baseline, than the other two types of clips. Further, relationships between individual differences in trait empathy and five-factor model (FFM) personality traits and these state empathic responses were examined using mixed model ANOVAs. Finally, the extent to which FFM personality traits accounted for variance in relationships between trait and state empathy was examined with hierarchical regression to determine whether general personality measures may be used to predict state empathy rather than using face-valid empathy-specific trait measures.

Overall, results showed support for the efficacy of the empathy clips for uniquely eliciting empathy. The results also showed expected relationships between trait and state empathy, with trait cognitive empathy showing the most consistent relationships with state empathic responses to the empathy clips. The latter is likely related to the nature of the film clip task, where the ability to interpret individuals’ emotional states (perspective taking) and the degree to which participants become involved in story characters’ experiences (fantasy) are essentially tied to emotional reactions to the clips. Although the FFM personality trait of openness to experience showed significant relationships with state empathic reactions to the clips, agreeableness did not, which was inconsistent with predictions. Additionally, general personality traits did not account for a significant proportion of the variance in the relationship between trait and state empathy, suggesting that personality measures cannot be used in place of trait empathy measures in predicting state empathy.

This research produced an effective film clip stimulus set that may be used to elicit empathy in a lab setting and expanded upon the limited literature on the association between state empathy and individual differences in trait empathy and normal-range personality. The findings also lent methodological insight that may be used to improve future empathy elicitation studies.