Differentiation of Personal Distress and Sympathy in Children and Adults

Nancy Eisenberg, Mark Schaller, Richard Fabes, Denise Bustamante, Robin M. Mathy, Rita Shell, Kelly Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


The goals of this study were (a) to determine whether we could differentiate between sympathetic and distress reactions using facial and heart-rate markers as well as self-report indices; (b) to examine age and sex differences in markers of the two different modes of affective response; and (c) to examine the relations of questionnaire indices of empathy, parental attitudes toward the expression of emotion, and participants' social presentational concerns to indices of sympathy and distressed responding. Third and sixth graders and adults were induced to experience sympathy and distress with mood induction procedures. Heart-rate change differed across the two inductions, as did facial expressions (for sadness and sympathy, but not distress, facial expressions) and self-reported reactions (especially for females). Females exhibited more facial sympathy and reported more distress than males. The various markers of emotional response generally related predictably to questionnaire indices of empathy. There was some support for the notion that parents who encourage the expression of emotion by their children have children who score high on empathy and are relatively unlikely to experience personal distress in sympathy-evoking contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)766-775
Number of pages10
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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