The more expressive people are, the better they are at understanding the feelings of others according to a study by researchers at The University of Aberdeen published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience.
The results of this study may help to develop ways to improve social communication skills in children with autism.
A new questionnaire was devised to find out how expressive actions used to communicate are related to how good we are at understanding other people’s feelings. Results showed that people who use a lot of expression and gesture in their social communication are more empathic than those who are less expressive.
Dr Justin Williams who led the research said: “We all use imitation of others as a way of understanding each other and by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, we can relate and understand, or empathise with others. Autism is characterised by a problem in the development of this ability to imitate others.
“Empathising is a skill associated with the experience and expression of actions such as gesture and facial expression. Children with autism have difficulties in these kinds of social communication. The results of this study suggest that it may be possible to promote empathic ability using drama-type activities that teach social actions like facial expressions and gestures.
“Imitation and ultimately, empathy is a pivotal mechanism that is a fundamental component in understanding others – without it, it can be very difficult to develop and maintain social relationships so it is important that we find ways to help those who have difficulties with these skills, such as those with autism.
“Empathy is about not just appreciating feelings of others but actually understanding them as well. People with autism are often very empathic in terms of picking up emotions of others but the difficulty is in understanding other peoples’ feelings and also in expressing their feelings to others.
“Our study supports the view that being empathic is heavily reliant on having an awareness of bodily sensations and being able to express emotion in actions such as gesture and facial expression. Being empathic really is about being “touchy-feely”.
About this neuroscience and addiction research
Funding: This research was funded by The Northwood Charitable Trust and was completed in collaboration with researchers from The University of Edinburgh.
Source: Wendy Skene – University of Aberdeen Image Credit: The image is adapted from the University of Aberdeen press release Original Research: Full open access research “Perceiving and expressing feelings through actions in relation to individual differences in empathic traits: the Action and Feelings Questionnaire (AFQ)” by Justin H. G. Williams, Isobel M. Cameron, Emma Ross, Lieke Braadbaart, and Gordon D Waiter in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. Published online October 20 2015 doi:10.3758/s13415-015-0386-z
Perceiving and expressing feelings through actions in relation to individual differences in empathic traits: the Action and Feelings Questionnaire (AFQ)
Empathy is usually conceived of as independent of the non-verbal behaviors which mediate its experience, though embodied cognition theory predicts that individual differences in action representation will affect empathic traits. The “Actions and Feelings Questionnaire” (AFQ) was designed to capture individual differences in self-awareness of own and others’ actions, particularly those associated with feelings, which we predicted would correlate with levels of empathic traits. A pilot 30-item questionnaire included items on perceptual sensitivity to action, imitation, action imagery, and gestural and facial expression. It was completed by a sample of 278 adults (mean age 21.2 years; 189 females, 89 males) along with the 15-item Empathic Quotient (EQ) Questionnaire. Total scores on the final 18-item questionnaire showed strong internal coherence (Cronbach’s alpha of 0.81) and test-retest reliability (ICC=0.88), marked effect of sex and highly significant correlation with EQ. The questionnaire was administered to participants in an fMRI study investigating the neural correlates of facial imitation. Total AFQ score correlated with activity in somatosensory cortex, insula, anterior cingulate, and visual cortex. The AFQ shows promise as a brief and simple self-report measure sensitive to variability in the self-awareness of actions associated with feelings. It suggests that much of the variability of empathic traits in typical populations is accounted for by variance in this capacity. We suggest that being more empathic really is about being “touchy-feely,” and this questionnaire provides a novel measure of action-based empathy.
“Perceiving and expressing feelings through actions in relation to individual differences in empathic traits: the Action and Feelings Questionnaire (AFQ)” by Justin H. G. Williams, Isobel M. Cameron, Emma Ross, Lieke Braadbaart, and Gordon D Waiter in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. Published online October 20 2015 doi:10.3758/s13415-015-0386-z