Techniques for Measuring Empathetic Responses in Pre-Healthcare Students vs. Non-Pre-Healthcare Students

Chase Travis Brower


In a world with evolving healthcare systems, healthcare professionals are expected to experience and project empathy to a greater degree than they were in the past. The goal of this study was to determine the effectiveness of different techniques for measuring physiological and perceived empathy, as well as to compare data from pre-healthcare (PH) students vs. non pre-healthcare (NPH) students to determine if there were disparities between the two groups. Physiological empathy was assessed using facial electromyography (EMG) to record data from the Zygomaticus major (ZM), Corrugator supercilii (CS), and Orbicularis oculi muscles (OO). The ZM muscle is generally associated with positive emotions, while the CS muscle is generally associated with negative emotions. The OO muscle has been shown to respond to some positive emotion as well as pain-related empathy, and may be another useful measure in empathy studies. Facial EMG has been shown to reflect neurological empathetic responses through fMRI studies. Data were also collected using galvanic skin response (GSR). Perceived empathy was assessed using the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy, which was administered both prior to and following a viewing of media that was designed to elicit an emotional response. Participants were also instructed to report perceived empathy using a push-button. While participant self-report may be useful, it is important to note that these results may be subject to bias and are best used in conjunction with the physiological measures. Results showed that there were no significant differences between PHP and NPH students on any measures of physiological or perceived empathy. The OO muscle was shown to correlate strongly with both the ZM and CS muscles. The correlation was stronger between OO and ZM in the positive affective state (r = .701), and stronger between OO and CS in the negative affective state (r = .864). This finding suggests that the OO muscle responds to both positive and negative emotions, and is not likely to be a useful measure for inferring an individual’s affective state.


Empathy; Physiological Measures; Healthcare; Biopac; Neuroscience; Psychology

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