Knowing What Others Know, Feeling What Others Feel: A Controlled Study of Empathy in Psychotherapists

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There has been considerable interest in assessing whether psychotherapists have enhanced abilities in empathy and whether those abilities influence treatment outcomes. However, to date, studies have been hindered by inconsistent definitions of empathy and a reliance on assessment via self-report. The unique aim of this study was to ascertain the empathic abilities of psychotherapists using a multidimensional battery consisting of objective and self-report measures. We compared 19 therapists and 19 well-matched control subjects on several measures of empathy. On tests emphasizing the cognitive aspects of empathy, therapists were no different from controls when making inferences based on facial expressions but were significantly better when making inferences based on language. On a test emphasizing the emotional aspects of empathy, therapists did not report to be more empathically concerned than controls; however, on a test of emotion regulation, they reported less personal distress in response to the distress of others. In sum, therapists were better able to interpret the verbal cues of others and described themselves as more emotionally controlled in response to tense interpersonal situations.

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