Quantifying Empathy During Narrative Writing

A collaborative effort between researchers at the Knowledge Construction Lab Leibniz-Institut fuer Wissensmedien and the Department of Psychology at Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen, Germany, explore the possibility of using narrative writing as a practice for modifying empathy levels associated with individuals in particular situations. This research seeks to understand the practice of perspective-taking and empathy and their implications for stigmatized behaviors where individuals are believed to be acting irresponsibly. Stigmatized behaviors often include things like smoking, unhealthy eating, or drug abuse. In this study, the research collected examines narrative writing as a means to increase empathy toward individuals perceived to be experiencing COVID-19 infection due to individual recklessness. The researchers argue that a more positive attitude toward these individuals may reduce the alienation of groups regularly stigmatized in the health field. This research can provide insights for technical communicators and educators who want to establish pedagogy on empathy through narration.

A unique element of this research is its methods for assessing and analyzing the complex and abstract act of empathy. Conducting two separate tests, the team established three hypotheses to test for and utilized the Saarbrückener Persönlichkeitsfragebogen (SPF), a German version of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), to measure empathy and perspective-taking before and after narrative writing. This index consists of four subscales: (1) perspective taking, (2) empathetic concern, (3) fantasy, and (4) personal distress, but only perspective and empathetic concern are considered in this study. Utilizing poor COVID-19 protocols as the stigmatized behavior, the researchers had participants write narrative texts about scenario-based individuals demonstrating poor COVID-19 behavior, while the control group wrote about an unrelated topic. Additionally, researchers measured attitude and attribution using a feeling thermometer and scaled questionnaire before and after the narrative writing tasks.

This research showed increases in empathy measures and perspective-taking across both studies. Writing scenario-based narrative texts about a “person” improved the attitude toward the “person” written about while writing about other topics did not. Researchers concluded that perspective-taking and attitude can be influenced by narrative writing practices and can be a valuable tool for medical training in the treatment of patients. This study explores the importance of narrative writing and its possible role in teaching and improving empathy in an individual. This research is a valuable demonstration in quantifying empathy growth utilizing various methods that can be duplicated and tested. This information is helpful to the technical writing community since empathy is a function of excellent technical communication in user-centered designs. While empathy as an idea is a great tool for technical communicators it is generally unclear how to go about “improving” and “engaging” in empathy. What exactly does that look like and how do you measure it? This research presents one viable option for implementing a practice of empathy building through narration. 


The Impact of Narrative Writing on Empathy, Perspective-taking, and Attitude: Two randomized Controlled Experiments on Violations of Covid-19 Protection Regulations, by Bientzle M, Eggeling M, Kanzleiter M, Thieme K, Kimmerle J.

Viewpoint Written by Laura Soran, Texas State University

Edited by Jonna Sharp, Texas State University

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