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Measuring Linguistic Empathy: An Experimental Approach to Connecting Linguistic and Social Psychological Notions of Empathy

  • Author(s): Kann, Trevor
  • Advisor(s): Yokoyama, Olga T
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation investigated the relationship between Linguistic Empathy and Psychological Empathy by implementing a psycholinguistic experiment that measured a person’s acceptability ratings of sentences with violations of Linguistic Empathy and correlating them with a measure of the person’s Psychological Empathy. Linguistic Empathy demonstrates a speaker’s attitude and identification with a person or event in an utterance (Kuno & Kaburaki, 1977; Kuno, 1987; Silverstein, 1976; Yokoyama, 1986). This identification is represented in the utterance through a speaker’s unconscious/automatic selection from grammatically valid options that convey pragmatically different attitudes. On the other hand, Psychological Empathy is a social psychological notion that allows a person to understand and experience the emotional reality of others. The capacity for Psychological Empathy is known to differ among individuals, and assessment of this capacity is often implemented in a clinical setting to indicate those at risk of conditions with deficits of Empathy, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. This study measured Psychological Empathy with the Empathy Quotient test, which was designed for both clinical and non-clinical settings (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).

This study extended the notion of Linguistic Empathy from a linguistic phenomenon that is represented in speech to a measurable trait in an individual. The measure of Linguistic Empathy specifies the individual’s capacity to notice and rate sentences that are grammatically valid but contain unnatural violations of Linguistic Empathy phenomena (e.g., I met Nancy versus Nancy met me). The results of the experiment showed that Linguistic Empathy is a measurable and systematic trait, and that it has a significant positive correlation with Psychological Empathy. This correlation suggests that despite their disparate theoretical origins, Linguistic and Psychological Empathy share a common information processing component. One important clinical application of the results is to use a test of Linguistic Empathy as an unbiased screen for individuals at risk for a deficit of Psychological Empathy.

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