The relationship between life history variables and measured empathic capacity in allied health students



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The purpose of this study was to determine if significant relationships could be found between life history (biographical) variables and measured empathic disposition in entering allied health students. The social psychological literature suggested six hypotheses concerning developmental antecedents of empathy which could be tested through use of a biographical inventory and an objectively scored empathic disposition scale devised by Hogan (1969). A 50-item biographical inventory was constructed by the author and keyed to yield subscale scores on six variables hypothesized as being related to an empathic disposition. These variables included ordinal position at birth, parental rearing style, cue sensitivity, intellectual achievement, breadth of experience, and childhood extraversion/sociability. The biographical inventory and Hogan Empathy Scale were combined into one research instrument which was administered to 279 entering allied health students in the disciplines of medical records administration, medical technology, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, radiologic technology, and assistant to the primary care physician. Pearson correlation coefficients were determined between each of the previously described variables (except ordinal position) and empathic capacity, resulting in low but significant relationships ranging from .11 to .30. Analysis of variance failed to support a hypothesis that laterborns would demonstrate significantly higher empathic disposition scores than first or only borns. A multiple regression analysis was then employed to determine the combined predictive power of the six antecedent variables, resulting in a multiple correlation of .36. The breadth of experience variable was determined to be the only significant predictor of an empathic disposition after testing the standardized regression coefficients. A factor analysis of the Hogan Empathy Scale yielded three primary facors accounting for approximately 16% of the variance in the item correlation matrix. The factor loadings were very similar to those obtained in a previously reported factor analysis of the Hogan Empathy Scale, supporting an interpretation that tolerance, social-self confidence, and humanistic values are traits underlying an empathic disposition. Additional analyses conducted for heuristic purposes included regression analyses of the antecedent variables on the Hogan Empathy Scale factors, a factor analysis of the biographical inventory subscale scores, and correlation analyses between the identified factors and antecedent variables. A general factor was found among the subscale scores which was interpreted as prosocial development, and this correlated .38 and .19 (both pc.001) with the Hogan Empathy Scale factors defined as social self-confidence and humanistic values, respectively. The results were interpreted as generally supportive of a developmental theory of interpersonal competence proposed by Weinstein (1969), and yielded additional support for the conceptual validity of the Hogan Empathy Scale. While it was anticipated that the results of the study might suggest a practical application for the use of biographical variables in predicting empathic traits among students in the health related professions, the modest predictive accuracy found among the variables suggested that additional study is warranted.