Dual functions of empathy: is empathising behaviour involved in the management of our social position?

Christine Spencer, Gary McKeown

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


The desire for affiliation and the pursuit of social status are thought to be two fundamental drivers of human behaviour (Kenrick et al. 2010). It is proposed that the display of empathic behaviour allows individuals to achieve these goals simultaneously. Whilst the facilitative role of empathy in the formation of social bonds is well documented, its potential role in the management of an individual's relative social position has been less explored. We propose that, through empathy, individuals manage their social status by signalling the possession of high levels of "social fitness", defined as the ability to skilfully navigate the social environment. Dyadic recordings involving different status dynamics were sourced from two existing audiovisual databases. These consisted of status-matched pairs of friends, in addition to pairs of strangers who were assigned conversational roles, whereby one interactant assumed the role of an "expert" in a particular area, whilst the other was labelled a "novice". 16 one-minute clips were generated at minutes five to six for each dyad. Lab assistants scored each person's level of empathic effort every 20 seconds, obtaining satisfactory inter-coder reliability, before computing an average score per clip. Groups of online coders then rated each person's level of social fitness.
Online participants were asked to rate each person's level of social status, relative to that of an average member of the population. As predicted, interactants perceived to be successful in navigating the social environment effectively, primarily by displaying strong empathic behaviour and social fitness, were perceived to possess a significantly higher degree of social status. These results support the notion that empathic behaviour is involved in managing an individual's position in the social hierarchy, whilst simultaneously facilitating social bond formation. The influential role of non-verbal engagement and conversational behaviour in signalling interpersonal skill, status and dominance is discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 04 Apr 2018
EventConsortium of European Research on Emotion - Glasgow, United Kingdom
Duration: 04 Apr 201805 Apr 2018


ConferenceConsortium of European Research on Emotion
Abbreviated titleCERE 2018
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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