Transforming youth through the power of games.



Grounded in core principles of positive psychology, iThrive is facilitating the development of engaging, evidence-based digital games that help teens more successfully navigate the path to adulthood.

Adolescence is an immensely stressful time as teens struggle to find their identity, develop healthy relationships, navigate increasingly demanding academic environments and complicated social situations, and discover what role they wish to play in their communities. iThrive is a bold new approach to reaching teens that will help adolescents not just survive, but thrive, by repurposing a medium most of them already favor – digital games.

By teaching skills such as empathy, gratitude, resilience, persistence and mindfulness, positive psychology-informed activities can provide adolescents with tools for addressing the various stressors that confront them at school, at home, and in their communities.

iThrive is taking a three-pronged approach to creating a vibrant, cooperative, data-driven eco-system to strengthen adolescent well-being with games.

  • Involve Youth as “Prosumers”: iThrive is involving youth and youth organizations in all activities, including inspiring a new generation of youth game developers with the principles and techniques of positive psychology. We are partnering with leading youth organizations so that adolescents and those who work with them every day are integrally involved in supporting the developing, testing, and improvement of games, and their use in a broader context of youth support.
  • Pushing forward the Practical Science:  iThrive is building a community of youth development and mental health experts, leaders in the psychology of gaming, and game development experts, including partners from leading universities, to develop an efficient, rapid learning and dissemination system that includes a clear positive psychology framework, metrics, and real world testing for game developers to use.
  • Facilitating Game Development: iThrive is seeking to find and support games that are effective at promoting positive psychology. We will work with game developers to provide the positive psychology research expertise, exposure, investment, youth involvement and testing,  and other factors needed to create effective games (while developers keep their IP). Activities may include public competitions, creative game idea generation, education, public gatherings, co-development of games, and sharing of processes, proposals, and game development practices. The result will be a new and constantly improving system of games that strengthen and support adolescents. iThrive is a non-profit initiative of CRI and will not itself create or own games.

The iThrive Team

Dorothy Batten, President, D.N. Batten Foundation

Dorothy Batten drives the overall strategy and direction for iThrive. Through the foundation, she makes grants to support innovative approaches to tackle mental health and environmental conservation issues, as well as supporting community programming in Charlottesville, VA. Ms. Batten serves on the board of the Women’s Initiative, the Focused Ultrasound Surgery Foundation, the Amazon Conservation Association, the Alumni Board of Trustees and the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia.  She served for 10 years as a Director of Landmark Media Enterprises LLC.  Previous board experience includes involvement with the University of Virginia Arts Council, University of Virginia Art Museum, Norfolk Academy, Peabody School, and the Paramount Theater. She received her master’s degree in counseling from Capella University, her MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia, and her B.A. in Economics and Business from Hollins University.

Susan Rivers, PhD, Executive Director & Chief Scientist

Susan oversees the strategic direction for iThrive. Adopting a creative leadership style, she supports the talented and passionate iThrive team in their collective efforts to use evidence-based games to help teens thrive. A social psychologist, she uses her expertise in emotional intelligence and designing social and emotional learning interventions to inform the development of game-based interventions and establish a collaborative and innovative network of teens, game developers, psychologists, affective scientists, funders, and investors. She has published extensively in scholarly journals and books, is the co-author of several curricula on social and emotional learning, and speaks at national and international conferences and events.

Jane Lee, Director of Production & Ambassador of Fun

Responsible for production of iThrive assets and products, Jane is in charge of making sure iThrive’s core activities are accomplished on time and within budget, utilizing principles of project management. With a background in research and evaluation, Jane has worked with youth on several grant-funded programs studying substance abuse and teen pregnancy prevention. Her research interests include adolescents and “Third Culture Kids.” An active gamer, Jane is thrilled to combine two of her passions.  Jane was born in Australia, attended high school in Singapore, and received her B.A. in Psychology from Syracuse University.

Heidi McDonald, Creative Director & Head Troublemaker

Heidi has her fingers on the pulse of the gaming industry, forges connections with prominent leaders and movers in the gaming world, and is a developer who has made award-winning games so knows what goes into creating them. She directs iThrive’s efforts to create engaging games for teens. She also plans iThrive’s events that bring game developers together to learn how to include positive psychology concepts into their work. She is a sought-after speaker at gaming conferences, with a wide following—and some of the highest speaker ratings at the 2016 Narrative Summit at the Game Developers Conference.

Michelle Bertoli, M.A., Director of Content & Lead Science Writer

Michelle delves into the scientific literature and translates research on positive psychology and adolescence into video game narratives, project proposals, and guides for game developers and others who are invested in teen thriving. Michelle brings to iThrive years of experience researching and writing about psychology, social and emotional learning, and positive youth development in peer-reviewed scholarly outlets, grant proposals, presentations, and educational curricula.

Positive Psychology



Perspective taking, emotional literacy, and compassion.

Learn More!



Sense of appreciation and goodwill, disposition of act, pay forward.



Pathways thinking, making meaning from adversity, hope and persistence



Present focus, awareness, reduced judging


We have our winners!

Congratulations to the following teams and their games for winning the iThrive Empathy Challenge!

1st Place – ShapeQuest – A Quest To Help Battle Social Anxiety


2nd Place – Guide


3rd Place – Dreamers Paradise


And thank you to everyone else who participated!

Click here to see a list of all participants.

For it’s second year, iThrive is partnering with Games4Health to invite gaming and health teams from across the globe to develop games that strengthen adolescent well-being through digital game applications of empathy.

The contest is open to developers worldwide, with no entry fee. Each team must contain at least one student; games must be digital and available to play on the web, and in English.

During the competition, iThrive experts will provide guidance to competing teams on empathy, and how its elements may be applied to transformational games for adolescents. iThrive and the Sorenson Center are assembling a team of well-known game developers and youth development experts to judge the contest.

Winners and finalists of the iThrive Empathy Challenge will qualify for additional mentoring and support throughout the spring and summer to prepare them for potential display in iThrive’s “Psyched Up” Arcade, which will have a presence at multiple respected gaming conferences. This support will include mentoring from experts in psychology and game development, ongoing diverse playtesting, promotional support by iThrive partners, and coaching for entrepreneurs who wish to commercially release their products as tools that build positive emotional capacity in adolescents.

Submissions for the iThrive Empathy Challenge are due March 11th 2016, and winners will be announced March 31, 2016.

Judging Panel


Sheri Graner Ray

Sheri Graner Ray started as a designer in the game industry in 1989 and has worked for such companies as Schell Games, Electronic Arts, Sony Online Entertainment, Cartoon Network, and many others. She has worked on many award winning titles such as Daniel Tiger, Star Wars Galaxies, Nancy Drew, Ultima, and GeoCommander. She is author of the book Gender Inclusive Game Design, Expanding the Market, and is one of the game industry’s leading experts on gender and computer games. She established and chaired the first Women and Games conference held in the US, was one of the founding members of WIGI and established the IGDA’s Women In Games Special Interest Group. In 2005, she was awarded the IGDA’s Game Developers’ Choice award for her work in gender and games. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the IGDA and the IGDA Foundation. Currently she is the CEO and Founder of Zombie Cat Studios, Inc. in Austin Texas


 Sam Lewis

Sam Lewis has over 30 years experience in the game industry. His design credits start with paper games and include the DC Heroes, BattleTech, Renegade Legion, Earthdawn and Shadowrun lines. These lines included board games, pen and paper RPGs as well as CCGs.  He also was series editor for 3 novel lines, and produced CG segments for the BattleTech cartoon show.  Starting in 1995, Sam ran Kesmai Corporation’s live service, GameStorm. He also was a producer for  At Sony Online Entertainment, Sam worked on Star Wars Galaxies both as a senior systems designer and content designer. While at Cartoon Network, he was the lead designer for  FusionFall and worked with both US and Korean based teams. In his latest project, Sam was a senior systems designer for Elder Scrolls Online where he was in charge of all non-combat systems. In 2013 Sam retired and started hiking the Appalachian Trail. 600 miles later he decided to take a break and help out in friends at Big Noise Games.

Some Things We Have Done

Remember Me – Kevin Rivera
In the Summer of 2015 iThrive helped lead Columbia College Chicago’s High School Summer Institute Intro to Game Development course. During this class, the students learned how to develop video games and designed them around key positive psychology elements. One of those games was Remember Me. Here is what the developer, Kevin Rivera, has to say about the game:

Remember Me is a simplistic free roaming world with 5 simple objectives that each explain the story little by little. The game is supposed to resemble someone battling depression and feeling like life is repeating, desolate, and broken.”

If you are on a Windows machine, you can download and play Remember Me here.

24 Hour Game Jam

Game Jam!

iThrive sponsored Columbia College Chicago’s annual 24 hour game jam in May 2015! Here is a video highlighting the event.

Recent News
Centerstone Research Institute Names Susan Rivers as iThrive Executive Director
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Centerstone Research Institute Names Susan Rivers as iThrive Executive Director

Rivers will provide strategic direction and manag

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We Updated Our RFP!
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For immediate release: Nashville, March 11, 2016 -- On February 22, 2016 the iThrive Initiative issued an RFP for the development of electronic games and game modifications that advance empathy in adolescents. All the relevant information to respond

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The iThrive Empathy Challenge is LIVE!
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iThrive has a challenge in the University of Utah's Games4Health Competition again this year! People from anywhere can enter, as long as at least one student is on each team. Digital games must be playable on the web, and in English. Competitors can earn

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iThrive Workshop: December 2014
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In December 2014, iThrive held its inaugural workshop during the annual mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. This half-day event brought together leaders from the gaming industry, adolescent mental health experts, and teens—including those listed below—to e

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Batten Foundation and Centerstone Research Institute Launch iThrive, Announce Competition for Game and App Developers : February 2015
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Unique initiative to foster development of digital games and apps to engage youth and promote mental and emotional well-being Nashville, TN – The D.N. Batten Foundation in partnership with Centerstone Research Institute (CRI) launched iThrive, an initi

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Nod to iThrive in Forbes Online article “Playing Media Games With Wellbeing (And I Don’t Mean Dr. Oz)” July 2015
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"...One particularly interesting initiative is called iThrive. According to Dorothy Batten, its leader (and a part of cable royalty as the daughter of Weather Channel founder Frank Batten), iT

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Contact Us

For more information about the iThrive iniative, please contact iThrive manager, Jane Lee, using the form below.

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Possible Games

Media contents are consumed widely by all age groups, and the consumption of violent media, especially for children and teenagers, becomes a concerning issue accompanying the increased accessibility to digital media. At the same time, there exists a general downward trajectory in altruism, charity, and empathy, while on the other end of the spectrum, an increasing trend is observed for selfishness13. The effects brought by the consumption of violent content in various types of media have been widely investigated for decades. Video games, unlike movies and television, rewards players with visual or auditory stimuli for successful completion of in-game tasks. Gamers, encouraged by reinforcing feedbacks, gradually learn to adopt their in-game behaviors7. Violent and antisocial behaviors, once rewarded and reinforced, may produce negative influence on gamers, and the negative effects are found to be stronger for violent video games than for other types of media such as television programming2,15.

As reviewed by Happ and Melzer8, among the negative effects of violent video games are increases in aggressive behavior9, aggressive cognition bias1, hostility attribution bias5, and physical health risks4. Prosocial behaviors are found to be negatively correlated with playing violent games16, so are helping behaviors and empathic responses6,10,16. Violent video games furthermore desensitize players to violence. And perhaps the most intimidating aspect of violent video games is that these provide the highest satisfaction as compared to other types of video games14, thus propelling self-rewarding gaming experience.

One specific vein of research focuses on how violent video games interact with empathic responses. Different levels of empathy and situational factors lead to different emotional and behavioral responses when people are exposed to various types of video games. Embedding a notion of empathy in players before playing prosocial games facilitates their prosociality after game. A similar augmenting effect, however, is found for antisocial behaviors after gamers play violent game, which means that being empathic helps them to identify with violent game contents and with in-game avatar8. Watching empathy-themed video clips increases players’ emotional concern for their in-game opponents, and prompt players to reflect more on their in-game behaviors if they play perpetrator, rather than victim, roles. Empathy clips also enhance prosocial behaviors if players control avatars in victim roles, even within the context of violent games8. Here the complexity in the relationship between violent video games and empathy, as well as the condition-specific influence of empathy on gamers, become observable and deserve further studying.

Video games beyond the violent category, such as educational games, provide a multitude of beneficial effects12. Likewise, prosocial games prime players with prosocial concepts17, which might well transform into prosocial behaviors in reality. Video games in general have been shown to facilitate both cognitive abilities and behavioral responsiveness3. Violent video games, despite their negative implications for social behaviors, can promote the sense of justice and empathic responses for victims3. Empathy trait can be enhanced11, and with self-rewarding nature of video games, this form of media has great potential in empathy training. Though inconclusive, the following games are what might contribute to the development of empathic and prosocial behaviors:

  • Brothers

August 7, 2013, Starbreeze; Consoles, PC, Android and iOS


We believe Brothers has the potential to facilitate empathy development because it requires the player to put him/herself in the shoes of more than one character, and to experience gameplay from multiple points of view. Players begin to empathize with the brothers, not just because of the situation they find themselves in narratively, but also because they understand the level of cooperation that’s required between the characters, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

  • Gone Home

August 15, 2013, Fullbright; PC


We believe Gone Home has the potential to facilitate empathy development because it allows players to empathize with a character as they uncover her story and find out what happened to her, and in the process, they learn about that character’s struggle with sexual identity in a way that’s poignant and relatable.

  • Journey

March 13, 2012, thatgamecompany; PS3 and PS4


We believe Journey has the potential to facilitate empathy development because players must learn to relate to characters in a unique type of narrative where language is not a tool they have available. Players must try harder to understand each other as a result, culminating in a beautiful and unusual manner of experiencing a story.

  • Never Alone

November 18, 2014, E-Line Media; PC, Consoles


We believe Never has the potential to facilitate empathy development because the strong narrative helps players understand life from a Native American’s point of view. Seeing the world in a different way is one way to build empathy with others.

  • Papers, Please

August 8, 2013, Lucas Pope; PC and Android


We believe Papers, Please has the potential to facilitate empathy development because the player’s interactions with other characters build empathy. Players are presented with sets of really sad circumstances where they can choose to help the character or not, but helping the character comes at a cost, so the occasions when the player can help without losing the game are limited. We also believe that Papers, Please has a strong and memorable narrative that makes the game engaging.

  • Papo Y Yo

August 14, 2012, Minority Media (Vander Caballero); PC and PS3


We believe that Papo Y Yo has the potential to facilitate empathy development because of how characters must cooperate in order to complete the story, and because it has a great narrative with memorable interactions and character quirks that affect the gameplay. Furthermore, it offers a glimpse into South American culture and allows people from other countries to experience life in another part of the world.

  • To The Moon

November 1, 2011, Freebird Games; PC


We believe that To the Moon has the potential to facilitate empathy development because of the narrative, which requires the player to understand the mind of its main character in order to successfully meet the end goal of the game. This game is also important because while it does not advertise itself as a game about autism, players are exposed to a character with autism whom they come to understand and have empathy for (because they see how the condition manifests over time, and experience the main character’s need to care for the character with autism).

  • Undertale

September 15, 2015, Toby Fox; PC


We believe that Undertale has the potential to facilitate empathy development because it gives players a choice between violence and non-violence; and the non-violent choices involve empathizing with the enemy in order to help the enemy overcome whatever is upsetting them. It involves building friendships with others, which involves empathy.

  1. Anderson, C. A., & Carnagey, N. L. (2009). Causal effects of violent sports video games on aggression: Is it competitiveness or violent content?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 731-739.
  2. Anderson, C. A., Gentile, D. A., & Buckley, K. E. (2007). Violent video game effects on children and adolescents: Theory, research, and public policyOxford University Press.
  3. Bavelier, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Brain training: Games to do you good. Nature494(7438), 425-426.
  4. Borusiak, P., Bouikidis, A., Liersch, R., & Russell, J. B. (2008). Cardiovascular effects in adolescents while they are playing video games: A potential health risk factor? Psychophysiology, 45(2), 327-332.
  5. Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2002). Violent video games and hostile expectations: A test of the general aggression model.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(12), 1679-1686.
  6. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 489-496.
  7. Gentile, D. A., & Gentile, J. R. (2008). Violent video games as exemplary teachers: A conceptual analysis.Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(2), 127-141.
  8. Happ, C., & Melzer, A. (2014). Empathy and violent video games: Aggression and prosocial behaviorPalgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.
  9. Konijn, E. A., Nije Bijvank, M., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). I wish I were a warrior: The role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys.Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 1038-1044.
  10. Krahe, B., & Moller, I. (2010). Longitudinal effects of media violence on aggression and empathy among german adolescents.Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(5), 401-409.
  11. Manger, T., Ole-Johan Eikeland, & Asbjornsen, A. (2002). Effects of social-cognitive training on students’ locus of control.School Psychology International, 23(3), 342-354.
  12. Murphy, R., Penuel, W. R., Means, B., Korbak, C., Whaley, A., & Allen, J. E. (2002). E-DESK: A review of recent evidence on the effectiveness of discrete educational software. Palo Alto, CA: SRI International.
  13. Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., & Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial behavior: Multilevel perspectives.Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 365-392.
  14. Persky, S., & Blascovich, J. (2007). Immersive virtual environments versus traditional platforms: Effects of violent and nonviolent video game play.Media Psychology,10(1), 135-156.
  15. Polman, H., de Castro, B. O., & van Aken, M. A. G. (2008). Experimental study of the differential effects of playing versus watching violent video games on children’s aggressive behavior.Aggressive Behavior, 34(3), 256-264.
  16. Sheese, B. E., & Graziano, W. G. (2005). Deciding to defect: The effects of video-game violence on cooperative behavior.Psychological Science, 16(5), 354-357.
  17. Whitaker, J. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). “Remain calm. be kind.” effects of relaxing video games on aggressive and prosocial behavior.Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(1), 88-92.

Enhancing Empathy

Enhancing empathic behaviors has its value in promoting social relationships and personal well-beings, as well as preventing violent and offending interpersonal behaviors5. However, there are two realms of empathy training: prison populations receive empathy interventions to prevent them from future assaults, while the more generalizable empathy training involves daily exercises such as mindfulness interventions. Though not applicable to general readers, the criminal empathy interventions mostly involve re-exposure to victim experiences such as damage reports by victims, offense reenactments, and awareness training for the results of offence. Some of the training programs also invoke interpersonal-skill training and promote general empathy, using training paradigms like forgiveness therapy or role-taking5. These training programs certainly share components with generalizable trainings of empathy, though the procedures and efficacies can be greatly different from training designed for everyday life environments.

Mindfulness meditation fosters empathy and manages stress, by combining emotional and cognitive dimensions in training. A spectrum of meditation methods, such as progressive relaxation, sitting meditation, and yoga, help people to attend to the present moments. Mindfulness training also helps to improve self-reflection, and importantly, promote people to suspend judgement toward the self and the others. An eight week intervention study showed strong downward trends in personal distress and fantasy subcomponents of empathy, while demonstrating upward trends for both empathic concern and perspective taking1. Another study demonstrated the effect of mindfulness training in reducing anxiety and overall psychological distress while increasing empathy9. Mindfulness desensitizes people from experiencing stress in highly emotional situations and helps them to stay in the moment. As a result, people become more perceptive of others’ situations, thus fostering empathic behaviors. This training also helps people to better accept their own internal emotions, rather than denying them, thus making room for perceiving others’ emotions and situations9.

Other studies have used cognitive and behavioral trainings to facilitate empathic behaviors4,8. An example is reinforcing appropriate empathic responses in social interactions8. Inductive questionings such as “how do you feel if you were the other party”, instead of power-assertive commands, help to increase empathic behaviors in children2. However, one important aspect of empathy training is the motivating factor of the training program, as the training effect would likely deteriorate if behavioral and cognitive trainings are discontinued; mindfulness training, on the other hand, fosters empathy through tuning information processing strategies, which is likely to have a long lasting effect1. Looking within and beyond empathy training, computer-assisted learnings, such as video interactions and virtual reality learning environments, demonstrate more effective training outcomes than conventional trainings, and motivate people to actively embrace the training programs4,6,7.

Longer intervention course does not necessarily make the intervention more effective3: the efficacy of training programs depends on multiple aspects of evaluation, such as immediate results, lasting performances, and training costs. An ideal intervention program would be a low cost but effective training paradigm that involves naturalistic design, while at the same time motivates people to continue training themselves even after intervention period ends. And one format of training seems to fit such criteria: games.

  1. Beddoe, A. E., & Murphy, S. O. (2004). Does mindfulness decrease stress and foster empathy among nursing students? Journal of Nursing Education, 43(7), 305-312.
  2. Block‐Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2007). The case for mindfulness‐based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present‐moment awareness increase capacity for perspective‐taking and empathic concern? Journal of marital and family therapy33(4), 501-516.
  3. Brunero, S., Lamont, S., & Coates, M. (2010). A review of empathy education in nursing. Nursing Inquiry17(1), 65-74.
  4. Cheng, Y., Chiang, H., Ye, J., & Cheng, L. (2010). Enhancing empathy instruction using a collaborative virtual learning environment for children with autistic spectrum conditions.Computers & Education, 55(4), 1449-1458.
  5. Day, A., Casey, S., & Gerace, A. (2010). Interventions to improve empathy awareness in sexual and violent offenders: Conceptual, empirical, and clinical issues.Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(3), 201-208.
  6. Kennedy, H., Landor, M., & Todd, L. (2010). Video interaction guidance as a method to promote secure attachment.Educational and Child Psychology, 27(3), 59-72.
  7. Lloyd, J. W., Forness, S. R., & Kavale, K. A. (1998). Some methods are more effective than others. Intervention in School and Clinic33(4), 195-200.
  8. Schrandt, J. A., Townsend, D. B., & Poulson, C. L. (2009). Teaching empathy skills to children with autism.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(1), 17-32.
  9. Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E., & Bonner, G. (1998). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(6), 581-599.


Outcomes of Empathy

The proliferation of research in the outcomes of empathy makes it impossible to fully review all the benefits of empathy. Instead, we here summarize only a small portion of the beneficial outcomes related to empathy from cognitive, emotional, and behavioral perspectives. These three perspectives cover most of the outcomes that have implications for daily life.

Cognitive processes refer to the way people process information around them, and high empathy affects individual cognitive processing strategies. People who have higher empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, tend to be nervous around people because they are sensitive about being liked by others9. Similarly, higher scores on the fantasy component of empathy, the ability to emotionally identify with fictional characters, correlate with higher sensitivity toward others’ perception of the self5. Individuals with higher perspective taking abilities are better at matching the target persons with corresponding verbal descriptions, as a demonstration of the cognitive component in empathy2. Higher personal distress, or the part of overwhelming emotionality during empathic episodes, is correlated with higher social dysfunction, which involves more self-oriented rather than other-focusing reactions to the stress of external social agents5. The four subcomponents of empathy lead to differing types of information processing in people. For emotional outcomes related to empathy, people with higher empathic concern typically experience more shyness and social anxiety. They are also more likely to experience less loneliness5. Empathy is associated with higher self-esteem and lower self-reported anxiety9. Self-reported anxiety should be differed from social anxieties, as the former roots in self-oriented experiences, while the latter refers to the sensitivity toward others in social environments. A high score on the fantasy component of empathy tends to be correlated with higher emotional vulnerability5. High trait empathy people are more likely to participate in experiments that evoke feelings of sympathy and compassion, indicating a preference for them to experience emotions related to understanding and feeling for others15. Empathy is furthermore related to emotional intelligence, which is a factor that stands beyond strictly emotional outcome but is nevertheless related to how one evaluates his or her own emotions in a metacognitive sense11.

Behaviorally, people with high levels of empathic concern typically have higher self-control16 and defer gratification9, which furthermore promotes prosocial behaviors. A wide range of prosocial behaviors associated with empathic concern include positive view toward animals17, volunteer services18, returning incorrect change20, allowing people to move ahead in lines, helping the homeless, becoming less aggressive, donating to charity, having higher self-esteem, and having higher life satisfaction11. Perspective taking is related to lower levels of social dysfunction, such as shyness and boastfulness, and is related to higher other-oriented sensitivity5 and volunteerism12,13. Having a high level of empathy helps to prevent antisocial behaviors since people will be more likely to know the harm and distress brought to others by these behaviors. Highly empathic people are less likely to bully others, while more likely to help victims of bullying6. The ability of comprehending and being able to convey accurate and compassionate understanding of another’s emotional experience often lead to a deepening sense of intimacy and greater satisfaction among individuals3. For adolescents, those who demonstrate higher levels of empathy evidence higher interpersonal competence, lower aggressiveness, and less discordant friendships relative to adolescents with lower levels of empathy21. Empathy is an important predictor of marital adjustment10, and couples who are able to understand the thoughts and feelings of their partners perform more relationship-enhancing behaviors, such as accommodation8.

The benefits of being empathic are certainly not limited to the above brief summary, but a lack of empathy is related to narcissism19, a personality trait that in the long run can harm social connections4, school grades, and work performance7,14. Low empathy is also related to several personality disorders such as schizotypal personality disorder and compulsive personality disorder1.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Personality Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.dsm18
  2. Bernstein, W. M., & Davis, M. H. (1982). Perspective-taking, self-consciousness, and accuracy in person perception.Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 3(1), 1-19.
  3. Block-Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. (2007). The case for mindfulness-based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness increase capacity for perspective-taking and empathic concern?Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 501-516.
  4. Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: Norton.
  5. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.
  6. Gini, G., Albiero, P., Benelli, B., & Altoè, G. (2007). Does empathy predict adolescents’ bullying and defending behavior? Aggressive Behavior, 33, 467-476.
  7. Judge, T. A., LePine, J. A., & Rich, B. L. (2006). Loving yourself abundantly: Relationship of the narcissistic personality to self- and other perceptions of workplace deviance, leadership, and task and contextual performance.Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 762-776.
  8. Kilpatrick, S. D., Bissonnette, V. L., & Rusbult, C. E. (2002). Empathic accuracy and accommodative behavior among newly married couples.Personal Relationships,9(4), 369-393.
  9. Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis.Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198.
  10. Long, E. C., & Andrews, D. W. (1990). Perspective taking as a predictor of marital adjustment.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(1), 126-131.
  11. O’Brien, E., Konrath, S. H., Grühn, D., & Hagen, A. L. (2013). Empathic concern and perspective taking: Linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span.The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 68B(2), 168-175.
  12. Oswald, P. A. (2003). Does the Interpersonal Reactivity Index Perspective Taking scale predict who will volunteer time to counsel adults entering college? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97, 1184-1186.
  13. Paterson, H., Reniers, B., Vollm, B. (2009). Personality types and mental health experiences of those who volunteer for helplines. British Journal of Guidance Counselling, 37, 459-471.
  14. Robins, R. W., & Beer, J. S. (2001). Positive illusions about the self: Short-term benefits and long-term costs.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,80(2), 340-352.
  15. Smith, K. D. (1992). Trait sympathy and perceived control as predictors of entering sympathy-arousing situations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 207-216.
  16. Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271-324.
  17. Taylor, N., & Signal, T. D. (2005). Empathy and attitudes to animals. Anthrozoös, 18, 18-27.
  18. Unger, L. S., & Thumuluri, L. K. (1997). Trait empathy and continuous helping: The case of voluntarism. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12, 785-800.
  19. Watson, P. J., Biderman, M. D., & Sawrie, S. M. (1994). Empathy, sex role orientation, and narcissism. Sex Roles, 30, 701-723.
  20. Wilhelm, M. O., & Bekkers, R. (2010). Helping behavior, dispositional empathic concern, and the principle of care. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73, 11-32.
  21. Worthen, M. F. (2000). The role of empathy in adolescent friendship. Dissertation Abstracts International: section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 61(2-B), 1116.

Reflecting Changes in Empathy

The multidimensional nature of empathy prompts psychologists to develop measurements that capture the individual components of empathy. However, due to disagreements over a core definition of empathy, some of the existing empathy measures differ substantially, reflecting the distinctive views for the components of empathy. The most widely used self-reporting measure of empathy, though not without debate, is the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI)3,7. The development of this measure is based on the idea that all components of empathy are conceptually different but interdependent. The questions for the IRI are organized under four subcomponents: perspective taking, empathic concerns, fantasy, and personal distress, with 7 questions measuring each of the four subcomponents.

Perspective taking describes people’s ability to imagine others’ point of views, and a typical question for measuring this cognitive aspect of empathy is “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”. The respondents answer this question by stating the degree to which the statement in question describes them using a response scale ranging from “[that] does not describe me well” to “[that] describes me very well”. This response scale is used across all questions in the IRI. The empathic concern scale taps into the extent to which people feel emotional connected with others, and a representative item for measuring the emotional component of empathy is “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”. The fantasy scale uses questions such as “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel” to measure people’s tendency to emotionally identify with fictional characters. The personal distress scale has questions such as “I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a very emotional situation” to measure how well people can handle the ongoing, emotionally-charged situations. The four subscales are not combined to form a composite scale, but instead are reported as 4 separate subscales.

IRI has been well-validated and it has shown good reliability1,2,3,5. Different components of IRI have shown interesting relationships with other measures of psychological constructs. For example, perspective taking correlates with social functioning, social competence, self-esteem, and sensitivity toward others. Empathic concern is related to emotionality, non-selfish concerns, anxiety, and shyness. Neither perspective taking nor empathic concern are correlated with intelligence. The fantasy scale is related to verbal intelligence, emotional reactivity, and sensitivity to others. Personal distress is strongly associated with lower self-esteem, poor interpersonal functioning like shyness and social anxiety, as well as with self-oriented measures of sensitivity, fearfulness, uncertainty, and vulnerability4.

Other, less commonly used, measures of empathy include measures that focus specifically on cognitive understanding (such as the Hogan Empathy Scale6), or on empathic concern (such as the Emotional Empathy Scale,8). The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire is a relatively recent measure that attempts to find the common empathy factor underlying multiple empathy scales to achieve a unidimensional scale for measuring empathy9.

  1. Carey, J. C., Fox, E. A., & Spraggins, E. F. (1988). Replication of structure findings regarding the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development.
  2. Cliffordson, C. (2001). Parents’ judgments and students’ self-judgments of empathy: The structure of empathy and agreement of judgments based on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17, 36–47.
  3. Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 1980, 10, p. 85.
  4. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126.
  5. Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press
  6. Hogan, R. (1969). Development of an empathy scale. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 33, 307-316
  7. Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2010). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198.
  8. Mehrabian, A., & Epstein, N. (1972). A measure of emotional empathy. Journal of Personality, 40(4), 525-543.
  9. Spreng, R. N., McKinnon, M. C., Mar, R. A., & Levine, B. (2009). The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire: Scale development and initial validation of a factor-analytic solution to multiple empathy measures. Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(1), 62-71.

Empathy Definition

Empathy is often considered a building block of morality in that it’s associated with strengthened interpersonal relationships (both friendships and romantic relationships), reduction of prejudice, decreased bullying, and increases in helping behaviors. Empathy influences how people function inter-personally: taking the perspective of the other party in conflict might avoid escalation of the situation, while viewing pictures of suffering in child refugees promotes charitable behaviors. People talk about empathy, and the media write on empathy, but what exactly is empathy?

Dividing the idea of empathy into multiple components offers an intuitive way to conceptualize what empathy means5,7,9. There are debates among researchers regarding which components best characterize empathy: is it a cognitive process for imagining the internal state of others, or an emotional approach enabling us to feel what others are feeling8,12? The most widely embraced current conceptualization focuses on empathy as the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings, which contains both a cognitive component and an emotional component. Perspective taking is the cognitive component of empathy that measures people’s tendency to imagine others’ point of views. Emphatic concern, on the other hand, refers to the tendency to experience similar emotional responses to others1,2,3,8. These two components are not without controversies: emphatic concern sometimes involves characterizing people’s other-oriented feelings of sympathy for others’ misfortunes3, which narrows empathy’s scope of functioning and aligns empathy closer to sympathy.

Other components, championed by various scholars, have received less consensus in research. Some researchers propose a fantasy component that describes people’s tendency to identify imaginatively with fictional characters in books or movies10. Other researchers focus on personal distress, which involves self-oriented distressful feelings such as anxiety or unease, during others’ misfortunes3. The extent to which these additional components reveal consistent information about how empathic people are is still under exploration, though multiple studies illustrate their relationships with other components of empathy3,8.

The mixed results regarding empathy reflect the differences among the multiple conceptualizations of empathy6. Is empathy a trait that describes the relatively stable ability for each person to understand the emotional states of others, or a temporary state of functioning that arises when the situation calls? Are empathic responses automatic or consciously generated4? The answers are certainly not definitive, but what excites researchers are the possibilities of scientific investigation from various perspectives that tackle different questions.

  1. Behrends, A., Müller, S., & Dziobek, I. (2012). Moving in and out of synchrony: A concept for a new intervention fostering empathy through interactional movement and dance. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(2), 107-116.
  2. Coke, J. S., Batson, C. D., & McDavis, K. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(7), 752.
  3. Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 1980, 10, p. 85.
  4. Day, A., Casey, S., & Gerace, A. (2010). Interventions to improve empathy awareness in sexual and violent offenders: Conceptual, empirical, and clinical issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(3), 201-208.
  5. Deutsch, F., & Madle, R.A. (1975). Empathy: Historic and current conceptualizations, measurements, and a cognitive theoretic approach. Human Development, 18, 267-287.
  6. Duan, C., & Hill, C. E. (1996). The current state of empathy research. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43(3), 261.
  7. Feshbach, N. D., & Roe, K. (1968). Empathy in six-and seven-year-olds. Child Development, 39(1), 133-145.
  8. Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2010). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198.
  9. Mehrabian, A., & Epstein, N. (1972). A measure of emotional empathy. Journal of Personality, 40(4), 525-543.
  10. Stotland, E. (1978). Empathy, fantasy and helping. Sage.
  11. Williams, L. K. (1996). Caring and Capable Kids: An Activity Guide for Teaching Kindness, Tolerance, Self-Control and Responsibility. Innerchoice Publishing, Spring Valley, CA.
  12. Wispé, L. (1986). The distinction between sympathy and empathy: To call forth a concept, a word is needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2), 314.