Date of Award

6-22-2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

William Meil, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David LaPorte, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Krzysztof Kaniasty, Ph.D.

Abstract

Prior research has implicated the frontal lobes and associated executive functions in clinical populations showing impairment in empathy, including those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, and fronto-temporal dementia. Limited research has investigated executive abilities and variability in empathy in the normative population. The current investigation evaluated empathy and executive functioning in 219 male and female college students. Empathy was evaluated using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980), Baron-Cohen’s Theory of Mind in the Eyes test (2001), and a variant of Happe’s (1994) Strange Stories test. Executive functions were assessed using verbal and figural fluency and the Trail Making Test Part A and B (Lezak, Howieson, & Loring, 2004). The results of this study found that affective empathy scores on the Theory of Mind in the Eyes test and the Personal Distress Subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index were found to have small but significant correlations with scores on the Trail Making Test part B, a measure of executive functioning and mental set switching. These results may reflect tendencies for affective empathy to be more sensitive to subtle fluctuations in executive functioning abilities. While the correlations observed in this study were significant they were not robust, given that executive abilities among college students likely do not mirror those among the general population, further research with a less restricted sample appears necessary.

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