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Increased empathic distress in adults is associated with higher levels of childhood maltreatment

Sci Rep. 2023 Mar 11;13(1):4087. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-30891-7.


While many studies investigated basic facets of empathy, less is known about the association with early life adversity (ELA). To investigate a possible association of empathy with ELA, we assessed self-reported ELA, using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ), the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI) for mother and father, and empathy, using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), in a sample of N = 228 (83% female, agemean = 30.51 ± 9.88 years, agerange = 18-60). Further, we measured willingness to donate a certain percentage of study compensation to a charity as an index of prosocial behavior. In line with our hypotheses that stated a positive association of empathy with ELA, increased levels of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and emotional and physical neglect were positively correlated with personal distress in response to others’ suffering. Likewise, higher parental overprotection and lower parental care were related to higher personal distress. Furthermore, while participants with higher levels of ELA tended to donate more money on a merely descriptive level, only higher levels of sexual abuse were significantly related to larger donations after correction for multiple statistical tests. Other facets of the IRI (empathic concern, perspective taking and fantasy) were not related to any other ELA measure. This suggests ELA only affects levels of personal distress.

PMID:36906595 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-023-30891-7

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