The relationship between empathy and attachment in the adolescent population

Chana Meier Gelb, Pace University


Early parent-child interactions are believed by theorists to impact interpersonal functioning throughout the lifespan (Bowlby, 1973, 1980). This impact has been observed and studied in infants, young children and adults. Very few studies have examined this connection in an adolescent population. The present study investigated the role of attachment in the adolescent's capacity for empathy. Seventy-eight students from a private school participated. The capacity for empathy was assessed through the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) which yielded scores for both affective and cognitive forms of empathy. The quality of attachment for mother, father, and peers was assessed through the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA). This measure yielded separate scores for attachment in the relationship to mother, father, and peer. The relationship between the two measures, IRI and IPPA was assessed. Results partially supported the hypotheses. Results indicated that the affective aspect of empathy was correlated with attachment to parents, but not to peers, while the cognitive aspect of empathy was not found to correlate with attachments. Adolescents who reported secure attachments primarily with mother, but also with father, also reported greater ability to empathize with another's situation. Analysis of variance examined gender differences in attachment and empathy. As predicted, females demonstrated higher levels of affective empathy. The hypothesis that males would demonstrate greater cognitive empathy was not supported. Gender differences were present in attachment levels. Overall, female adolescents reported the highest levels of attachment. There was no significant difference between male and females' reported attachment to mother, only a trend of significance in difference between male and females' reported attachment to father, and a significant difference between male and females' reported attachment to peers. Results partially support the hypothesis that attachment styles would differ. There was a relationship in style of attachment intrafamilially, but not extrafamilially. Thus, there were similar levels of attachments for mother and father, but not for parent and peers. The central hypothesis was that the security of attachment would correlate with the adolescents' degree of empathy. Results supported object relations and attachment theories, suggesting that children and adolescent's dyadic-parental relationships strongly influence their internal views of the world, which are strongly associated with their ability to relate to others. Future research should further involve the variable of ego development, which would add information regarding the individual's capacity to rate their attachments and empathy, yielding more accurate results. Future research should further also implement an experimental design that can test the causality of the proposed model.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Social psychology

Recommended Citation

Gelb, Chana Meier, "The relationship between empathy and attachment in the adolescent population" (2002). ETD Collection for Pace University. AAI3026549.



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