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The Role of Culture in Affective Empathy: Cultural and Bicultural Differences

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Empathy is essential for healthy relationships and overall well-being. Affective empathy is the emotional response to others’ distress and can take two forms: personal distress or empathic concern. In Western cultures, high empathic concern and low personal distress have been implicated in increased prosocial behaviour (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1989) and better emotion management and peer relations (e.g., Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). Various factors have been examined with respect to affective empathy, but the role of culture has received little attention. Previous work suggests that children from East Asian cultures compared to those from Western cultures experience greater personal distress and less empathic concern (e.g., Trommsdorff, 1995), but no work has specifically examined these differences in adolescents or individuals who identify as ‘bicultural’. The current research examines cultural differences in affective empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980) in an adolescent and young adult sample (n=190) and examines how empathy relates to social-emotional health in bicultural individuals. Consistent with research on children, East Asian adolescents reported greater personal distress and less empathic concern than their Western counterparts. The bicultural individuals’ scores fell in between the East Asian and Western groups, but revealed significant differences from their ‘uni-cultural’ peers, demonstrating shared influences of community and family. Importantly, however, the relationship between affective empathy and social-emotional health in bicultural individuals was the same as for Western individuals. The current results provide an important first step in understanding the different cultural influences on empathic responding in a previously understudied population ‐ bicultural individuals.

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