The form and function of empathy

  • Christine Spencer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores the form and function of empathy. It begins by exploring the ways in which the phenomenon has been traditionally understood, before advocating contemporary arguments about how it should be conceptualised—as a behavioural exchange of emotional information between two people in a social interaction. The thesis also explores a potential evolutionary function of empathy which has yet to be considered. The social fitness hypothesis is proposed—the idea that when people display strong empathic ability—a highly adaptive skill for the formation and maintenance of social bonds—this acts as a marker of high heritable phenotypic quality, signalling that they would make a strong choice of reproductive partner.

The thesis conducts a series of studies to test the social fitness hypothesis. Study 1 firstly explores the link between dyadic empathic behaviour and observer perceptions of social status dynamics. Study 4 explores whether there is a linear relationship between the degree to which people behave empathically towards their interaction partners, and the degree to which they are held in high regard and perceived to have high social status. Study 5 finally explores whether there is a relationship between how empathically people behave and how attractive they are perceived to be by observers.

Before empirically addressing the social fitness hypothesis, the thesis critically evaluates a wide range of techniques and approaches which have been traditionally used to assess empathy. Making no assumptions about empathy’s behavioural form in “everyday contexts”, the thesis defers to the expertise of laypeople in Study 1, asking them to rate the empathic behaviour of people taking part in videotaped conversations. Study 2 and 3 explore whether the observers’ perception of empathy has been guided by specific nonverbal cues or by the holistic action of multiple signals, termed here as “expressivity”. Together these studies raise questions about whether there are specific behavioural cues or sets of signals which universally convey empathic understanding across contexts—an insight which has implications for how empathy should be operationalised in future work. Study 6 and Study 7 are supplementary studies which build on this idea, developing a generalisable coding scheme which can be used to explore the ways in which interpersonal empathy presents in other contexts.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorGary McKeown (Supervisor) & Aidan Feeney (Supervisor)


  • empathy
  • social interactions
  • nonverbal behaviour
  • social status
  • social fitness
  • evolutionary
  • attractiveness

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