Empathy is the ability to mentalize someone's mental state of feeling. This ability is important for our everyday life to communicate and interact effectively. However, such ability has been found to be compromised in patients with a wide range of mental disorders including schizophrenia. Recent findings also suggest that empathy can be divided into affective and cognitive components. Affective empathy involves the ability to share someone's emotional experience, whereas cognitive empathy involves the ability to infer someone's emotional states and intentions.
Traditional study concerning empathy in schizophrenia has mainly limited to the unitary construct rather than specifically examining affective and cognitive components. Moreover, most of these works have also focused in patients with established schizophrenia. Little is known about the relationship between these two components of empathy and individuals at-risk for schizophrenia.
To bridge such a gap of knowledge, Drs. WANG Yi and Raymond Chan from the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have worked with their collaborators to examine the interaction of affective and cognitive empathy in individuals with schizotypal traits.
Specifically, they administered a set of checklists to capture empathy, depression, anxiety, stress, and schizotypal traits to more than 1,400 individuals using network analysis, a specific method to tease out the underling association among all these variables.
According th the researchers, the negative dimension of schizotypal traits, i.e. those involving reduced ability to experience pleasurable events, is specifically associated with affective and cognitive empathy. Such a relationship is independent from other variables such as negative affect. The networks we estimated in male and female participants were comparable, although significant gender effects were observed on empathy and negative affect.
Compared with the low schizotypy group, the high schizotypy group showed poorer empathy and more severe negative affect, as well as a network with stronger connections.
These findings provide evidence for a link between psychotic-like experiences and empathy and may have implications for intervention for those patients with established schizophrenia in the near future.
This study was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission Grant, the Beijing Training Project for the Leading Talents in Science and Technology, CAS Key Laboratory of Mental Health of the Institute of Psychology, and the China Scholarship Council.
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