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The psychophysiological correlates of empathy in couple interactions

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O'Mara, John 2001 , 'The psychophysiological correlates of empathy in couple interactions', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the relationships between physiological linkage and empathy in
dyadic couple interactions. Physiological linkage occurs when the dynamic changes
in the physiology of one person are followed by equivalent changes in the physiology
of another.
The current research emerged from the innovative work of Levenson and
Gottman (1983) who used bivariate time-series analysis techniques to examine
physiological linkage in neutral and conflictual couple interactions. They found that
physiological linkage was negatively correlated (r = -.31) with marital satisfaction
during conflict interactions only, and predicted 60% of the variance in marital
satisfaction. In a later study, Levenson and Ruef (1992) found that strangers rating
the affect of a target spouse were physiologically linked for 28% to 33% of
physiological variables, and that physiological linkage was significantly correlated
with rating accuracy for negative affect only. Levenson and Ruef interpreted
physiological linkage as representing a physiological substrate of empathy.
For the current research a three stage model of empathy was developed to
provide a conceptualisation of the empathic process and guide the selection of
measures for empathy. To the neutral and conflict interactions used in the earlier
studies a third positive interaction was added. Tum-taking, rather than naturalistic
interactions, were used to aid empathic listening. It was hypothesised that, when non
distressed couples listen empathically to each other: (a) physiological linkage would
occur where the physiology of the listener follows the physiology of the speaker; (b)
physiological linkage would be predictive of perspective-taking (i.e., empathic listening)
and, (c) marital satisfaction; and (d) perspective-taking would be correlated
with marital
satisfaction.
Results supported these hypotheses: (a) Significant physiological linkage
occmTed for 38% of physiological measures during neutral discussions, 42% during
happy, and 41 % during discussions of conflict. The direction of linkage was that the
listener consistently followed the speaker; (b) physiological linkage predicted up to
55% of the variance in perspective taking ability; (c) and up to 51 % of the variance in
marital satisfaction, and (d) perspective-taking was positively correlated with marital
satisfaction for six of nine comparisons (ps < .01).
The results indicated that physiological linkage occurs when spouses listen
empathically and extended the findings of Levenson and Gottman (1983) to the
expression of neutral and positive affect. Support was also provided for the proposed
model of empathy and Levenson and Ruef's (1992) contention that physiological
linkage signifies the feeling component of empathy.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:O'Mara, John
Keywords: Interpersonal communication, Social perception, Empathy
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2001 the author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Tasmania, 2001.

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