Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Michael Pratt

Advisor Role

Thesis Supervisor


Empathy, the ability to understand and experience the emotions of others, has yet to be investigated from a narrative or life story perspective. The purpose of the present study was, therefore, to examine the ways in which emerging adults and adolescents, through their self-defining stories, process and come to extract meaning from their personal empathic and non-empathic experiences. Twenty-nine adolescents (14–17, M=15.28, SD=.99), and 31 emerging adults (18–20, M=18.23, SD=.56) narrated stories about their empathic (times when they felt sad for someone, times when they put themselves in someone else’s shoes) and non-empathic experiences (times when they didn’t experience those events) and completed measures of dispositional empathy (IRI, Davis, 1994) and perceptions of family parenting (Barber et al., 2005). Participants’ narratives were coded for level of meaning-making (the extent to which either simplistic or complex experiences had important implications for one’s sense of self), empathic identity (the extent to which participants viewed their stories as demonstrating empathy), prosocial engagement with others, other-oriented feeling depictions, type of perspective-taking process, and narrative quality (represented as detailed, highly specific, serious experiences occurring in the distant rather than recent past). Participants’ positive empathic experiences, compared with their negative experiences, were found to produce more sophisticated insights into the self, a stronger sense of self as empathic, greater prosocial engagement, and a higher level of narrative quality (for vivid/specificity and event severity). Age differences were also present in that emerging adults compared with adolescents were found to extract more meaning from their experiences, incorporate a stronger sense of self as an empathic person from their narratives and display greater prosocial engagement. Dispositional empathy was found to predict a stronger sense of self as an empathic person and greater prosocial engagement. Preceptions of family authoritative parenting, particularly adolescents’ perceptions of their fathers as authoritative, were found to predict dispositional empathy on the questionnaire, consistent with past research. However, stronger perceptions of maternal authoritative parenting were found to relate to more sophisticated meaning, a stronger sense of self as an empathic person, and greater prosocial engagement. These results suggest that type of empathic experience, personality dispositions, perceptions of maternal authoritative parenting and age all play an important role in understanding stories of one’s empathic experiences. This study further provides support for a narrative framework as a useful tool in examining the unique, personal empathic experiences of individuals.

Convocation Year


Included in

Psychology Commons