The understanding of what empathy means is explained regarding emotional and cognitive components. Though both of these components try to provide a better understanding of how individuals process, understand and relate to others’ emotions, feelings, thoughts, and life situations, they also work to explore individual differences that impact the way individuals react to those situations, as well as the roles cultural backgrounds take on the development of those reactions. Though the ability to empathize is hardwired into the human brain in the area of the right supramarginal gyrus, an area which allows individuals to separate their emotional states from that of another individual (Riess, 2017), it is also essential to understand and study how different cultural backgrounds affect and also facilitate the process of emotional resonance which results in the building of empathy (Dopierala, Jankowiak-Siuda, & Boski, 2017).
Even though empathy does not require for a specific emotion to be present in any given circumstance, it does require the presence of one that is appropriate (Preti, Vellante, Baron-Cohen, Zucca, Petretto & Masala, 2011). Empathy allows for prosocial behavior (social coherence) to be formed, but a problem is presented as this concept is viewed and experienced differently across different cultures. The understanding of what builds empathy and how this concept varies from culture to culture is especially important in times when the rates of poverty, homelessness, and societal intolerance are increasing. It is also important to recognize the increased social tension that is being experienced in countries around the world and how these conflicts are a reflection of our lack of empathic concern.
In the study conducted by Cassels, Chan, Chung, & Birch (2010), participants were surveyed using The Interpersonal Reactivity Index in order to measure the difference in reported empathic concern between groups that were either classified as being Western or Asian, though the majority of the 190 participants were female, all participants were within the same age range of 19 years old. The data results gathered from this 28 item survey determined that although participants who self-identified as Western had higher indices of emotional empathy, the biggest concern of the study was that aside from being one of the first ones of its kind, the participants were also considered bi-cultural regardless of how they self-identified. Therefore, there might have been other influencing factors on the results. This study concluded that to obtain better results and because the amount of empirical research concerning cultural differences was limited, the results would have to be reconsidered.
In an attempt to expand on previous findings and to differentiate between two cultures, a study previously conducted by Park, Haslam, Kashima, and Norasakkunkit (2016) looked at the differences between two countries, Japan and Australia; Japan being part of a collectivistic culture and Australia part of an individualistic culture. Although their research concluded that the 80 participating members of the collectivistic culture were more likely to develop feelings of empathy than the 80 participants from the individualistic culture, their methods involved manipulating the conditions in which these results were reported as well as the study having been focused on finding a relationship between feeling empathy and feelings of self-humanizing. Although the research by Park et al. (2016) was focused on finding a causal relationship between empathy and ideas of self-humanness, it still provided a foundation for this proposed research study in order to compare a more significant number of cultures and to determine if these different cultures, when no manipulation is present, will still report experiencing feelings of empathy differently from each other. As the study concluded that a lot of the reported results might have been influenced by the participant’s culture and that the impact of cultural differences has not been entirely empirically explored, this proposed research study can help further the topic and find better methods of collecting and interpreting the data when different influencing factors are limited. As explained on the research study conducted by Atkins, Uskul and Cooper (2016), the research as to what forms empathy and how it is expressed has been majorly limited to studies concerning reactions to another individuals’ physical pain, with the results varying between different cultures as they differ in their core ideas of acceptable social behavior, group cohesiveness, social interests, and expectations. It was the first study conducted by Trommsdorff, Friedlmeier, and Mayer (2007) that pointed out the need for empirical research between cultures as their results obtained from their study were conflicting. In their study, they determined that although Western individuals did rate higher for levels of empathy concerning other individuals’ needs, they also rated lower on the personal distress scales than Easterners.
Based on this information, my research question is this is there a significant difference between the way members of a collectivistic culture experience empathy compared to members of an individualistic culture? Moreover, the research hypothesis is that individuals originating from a collectivistic culture will report higher feelings of empathy than those originating from an individualistic society (culture). That is why the purpose of this research study is to build on the idea that individuals’ cultural differences have a significant impact on how people perceive, build and demonstrate empathy based on their cultural background. The research proposal seeks to provide knowledge about how understanding these differences will help create a better system and a better understanding of what societal changes must be made in order to build more empathic individuals and promote greater social cohesiveness and acceptance.