2011. Vol.2, No.9, 925-930
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.29139
Ethnocultural versus Basic Empathy: Same or Different?
Chato Rasoal1, Tomas Jungert1,2, Stephan Hau3, Gerhard Andersson1
1Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden;
2Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada;
3Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.
Received September 27th, 2011; revised October 28th, 2011; accepted November 29th, 2011.
The concept of ethnocultural empathy has been put forward as a variable that could explain tolerance between
individuals and groups of different ethnic and cultural background. However, it is not clear if ethnocultural em-
pathy is distinct from basic empathy. In this study we investigated the association between basic empathy, as
measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1983) and ethnocultural empathy, as measured by the
Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (Wang et al., 2003). We also explored the question of whether a set of back-
ground variables would predict the two forms of empathy. We investigated if there were different predictors of
ethnocultural and basic empathy, and if the two constructs are distinct. Results showed that the two forms of
empathy were correlated and that largely similar predictors were found for the two constructs. A confirmatory
factor analysis failed to confirm two separate constructs. Implications of the findings for the measurement of
empathy are discussed.
Keywords: Empathy, Ethnocultural Empathy, Culture, Contact Hypothesis
Ethnocultural empathy is defined as empathy that is directed
towards people from racial and ethnic cultural groups different
from one’s own ethnocultural group (Wang et al., 2003). The
importance of an awareness of cultural factors for people who
work with diverse populations is shown in several studies (Dy-
che & Zayas, 2001; Kim, Kaplowitz, & Johnston, 2004; Mercer
& Reynolds, 2002; Rasoal, Jungert, Hau, Edvardsson-Stiwne,
& Andersson, 2009; Ridley & Lingle, 1996). Moreover, basic
empathy, defined as the reactions of one individual to the ob-
served experiences of another (Davis, 1983; Siu & Shek, 2005),
is held to be equally important in general interpersonal encoun-
ters and in professional settings (Alterman, McDermott, Cacciola,
& Rutherford, 2003; D’Ambrosio, Olivier, Didon, & Besche,
2009; De Corte, Buysse, Verhofstadt, Roeyers, Ponnet, &
Davis, 2007; Duan & Hill, 1996; Hojat, Mangione, Kane, &
Gonnella, 2005; Rasoal, Eklund, & Hansen 2011).
In order to take cultural differences into consideration, there
is a need to consider measures that test cultural empathy and
test the ability to treat culturally-different individuals. One such
measure is the Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (SEE), which
aims to measure “ethnocultural empathy” (Wang et al., 2003).
This construct was developed from theories on general and
cultural empathy by Wang et al. (2003) who claimed that it is a
distinct concept from that of basic empathy. The validity of
four subscales of the SEE; Empathic Feeling and Expression,
Empathic Awareness, Acceptance of Cultural Differences and
Empathic Perspective Taking was tested. Correlational analyses
were used with four subscales from the Interpersonal Reactivity
Index (IRI; Davis, 1983); Empathic Concern, Perspective Tak-
ing, Fantasy and Personal Distress. Significant correlations in
the low-to-moderate range (r = .18 to .54) were found for each
subscale of the IRI and each factor of the SEE including the
total SEE score. The correlations between the SEE and IRI total
scores were not reported. The study by Wang et al. (2003) was
conducted in a college setting with undergraduate students.
Demographic characteristics were reported as homogenous,
with few significant correlations. Wang et al. suggested that
women were more ethnoculturally empathic than men and
found that non-whites had higher scores than white participants
on the SEE. In another study, gender differences on the SEE
were also confirmed (Cunidiff & Komarraju, 2008).
An important question, when considering ethnocultural em-
pathy, is how distinct the concept is from a more basic empathy.
Basic empathy is defined as a unipolar construct that has a mul-
tidimensional (affective and cognitive) component (Davis,
1983). Studies have found that basic empathy is predicted by
age, gender (DiLalla, Hull, & Dorsey, 2004; Eisenberg & Len-
non, 1983; Endresen & Olweus, 2001; Pastor, 2004; Schieman
& Van Gundy, 2000) and finally, education (Alligood, 2007;
Spencer, 2004), with higher education being associated with
higher levels of empathy.
In the paper by Wang et al. (2003) SEE was moderately cor-
related with basic empathy, as measured by the two subscales
on the IRI. They still concluded that the SEE measures a unique
construct. In the present study we wanted to explore this asso-
ciation further. From a theoretical point of view, Pettigrew’s
(1998) contact hypothesis could be used to inform the search
for predictors of ethnocultural empathy. This theory predicts
that as a result of contact, negative attitudes held by an in-group
member vis-à-vis an out-group member would, under certain
conditions, alter so that it is less negative. In an interpersonal
context, increased contact would promote and encourage
friendships to develop between individuals belonging to differ-
ent social groups. Consequently, members of different groups
would increase their perceptions that they are more alike and
reduce their perceptions of out-group homogeneity.
In this study, we had three aims.
First, we wanted to investigate the association between basic
empathy, as measured by the IRI, and ethnocultural empathy, as
measured by the SEE. We also included a measure of social
desirability. We explored the idea that a set of background
variables could predict the two forms of empathy. This is im-
portant as there is a possibility that there are different predictors
C. RASOAL ET AL.
of ethnocultural and basic empathy, and a question as to
whether the two constructs are distinct. We decided to test for
predictors of basic and ethnocultural empathy. Two predictors
were derived from previous work on empathy because age and
gender have been found to correlate with basic empathy (Davis,
1983). More specifically, females and older ages are associated
with higher degrees of empathy. Two other predictors were
added and were hypothesized to correlate with ethnocultural
empathy. Initially, we tested conditions of upbringing, in terms
of size of the city where the participant had been raised. This
has been found to correlate with tolerance towards other minor-
ity ethnic groups, in line with the contact hypothesis (Enberg,
Kälvemark, & Ohlander, 1998; Pettigrew, 1998).
Second, we tested the importance of ethnic diversity in pri-
mary and secondary school. Again, according to the contact
hypothesis, we assumed that more ethnic diversity in the school
environment would be predictive of a higher level of reported
ethnocultural empathy. We hypothesized that gender and age
would be predictors of IRI and potentially of SEE because age
and gender have been found to correlate with basic empathy.
Finally, in line with the contact hypothesis, we predicted that
only ethnocultural empathy would be predicted by ethnic diver-
sity in the school.
Third, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis in which
the subscales of the SEE and IRI were entered to test if the two
constructs of ethnocultural empathy and basic empathy were
distinct. Our prediction was that they would be separated.
Participants and Procedure
There were 788 participants from undergraduate and secon-
dary schools in Sweden. Ages ranged from 15 to 48 years (M =
24.3, SD = 5.9). Participants completed questionnaires in large
groups in class. In the questionnaires we asked the participants
about their gender, age, ethnicity, size of the city where they
grew up, the degree of ethnic diversity in their primary and
secondary schools and their native language. The response rate
was 66%. In all, 553 participants were female (70%) and 235
were male (30%). Most of the respondents described them-
selves as ethnic Swedes (see Table 1 for further descriptions).
The anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents were
guaranteed and participation was on a voluntary basis. They
could withdraw from the study at will. It took participants ap-
proximately 20 minutes to complete a questionnaire.
The questionnaire was made up of a booklet, which consisted
of 85 items in total, and consisted of four parts:
1) Questionnaire on demographics.
2) The Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (Rasoal, Jungert, Hau,
& Andersson, 2011; Wang et al., 2003), which is intended to
measure intellectual and emotional expressions of empathy,
aimed at people and groups who have an ethnic background
different from one’s own. The SEE is a 31-item, forced-choice
self-report measure that produces an overall score and four
subscale scores (see Appendix); Factor 1: Empathic Feeling and
Expression (EFE); Factor 2: Ethnocultural Empathy Awareness
(EA); Factor 3: Acceptance of Cultural Differences (AC); and
Factor 4: Empathy Perspective Taking (EP) (Wang et al., 2003).
In this study we focus on the SEE-total score. Wang et al. (2003)
reported an internal consistency of α = .91. In the sample, the
internal consistency was α = .87. Scores for the SEE are ob-
tained by adding item scores. Higher scores indicated a higher
Demographic characteristics of the sample (N = 788).
Variable Frequency in % (N)
Male 29.8 (235)
Female 70.2 (553)
Latin American 0.8
Age 15 - 19 13.0
Age 20 - 23 45.7
Age 24 - 28 25.5
Age 29 - 33 6.5
Age 34 - 48 9.3
City (e.g., Stockholm) 33.0
(50000 inhabitants or more) 18.8
Place of growth
(less than 50000 inhabitants) 48.1
With most Swedes 74
Mixed ethnicity 21.7 Primary school
With most non-Swedes 4.2
With most Swedes 60.4
Mixed ethnicity 37.1 Secondary school
With most non-Swedes 2.5
level of ethnocultural empathy. The Swedish translation of the
SEE has been previously validated on an independent sample
(Rasoal et al., 2011).
3) Respondents also completed the Interpersonal Reactivity
Index (IRI: Davis, 1996), which includes 28 items and is de-
signed to tap four separate dimensions of basic empathy. We
used the total score of the IRI in the analyses, but in a confir-
matory factor analysis, we used the subscales (see Appendix).
Factor 1: Fantasy (FS); Factor 2: Perspective Taking (PT);
Factor 3: Empathetic Concern (EC); and Factor 4: Personal
Distress (PD). Both the internal (alpha coefficients for total IRI,
which ranged from α =.70 to .78 for the subscales) and the
test-retest reliabilities (from .61 to .81 over a period of two
months) could be regarded as acceptable (Davis, 1983). In the
present study the alpha was α = .73.
4) Finally, we administered the Impression Management
Subscale (IMS: Paulhus, 1988). The IMS has 20 items and is
designed to measure the desire to create a favourable impres-
sion on others. This last scale was included because we sus-
pected that some students might be worried that their responses
could be associated with racism and discrimination (Paulhus,
1988). All of the items were rated on a five-point Likert-type
scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). The items
were phrased both positively and negatively to balance any
potential response bias. Negatively-phrased items were re-
C. RASOAL ET AL. 927
versed in the scoring. Paulhus (1988) reported a coefficient
alpha of .79 for total IMS. In this study the alpha was .70.
Multiple regression analysis was conducted using SPSS 16.0
in order to find out which (predictor) dependent variable best
predicts basic empathy and ethnocultural empathy. For the
confirmatory factor analysis we used EQS 6.1 to test the higher
order factor structure of the SEE and the IRI using the sub-
scales of the measures.
In Table 2, we present descriptive statistics and intercorrela-
tions between the empathy scales and the impression manage-
Next, we computed two, multiple linear regressions. In the
first one we used the total score on the ethnocultural empathy
(SEE) and in the second one we used the total score of the basic
empathy (IRI) as (criterion) dependent variables. Five (predic-
tors) independent variable were entered into the linear regres-
sion using the “enter” method (see Table 1 for a description).
The model, with SEE as a dependent variable, showed that
gender, place of growth and age were significantly related to
higher ethnocultural empathy (see Table 3).
We also tested the same set of variables as predictors of basic
empathy (IRI). This second, multiple regression equation was
also important, with a significant contribution of gender, place
of upbringing and age (Table 4).
Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA )
A CFA was used to test if a higher order, two-factor structure
would be obtained. The first factor specified the four subscales
of the SEE (Wang et al., 2003). The second factor included the
four subscales of the IRI (Davis, 1983). We used EQS 6.1
(Bentler, 2006) to specify the expected factor loadings. We
used the fit indices that Hu and Bentler (1999) recommend in
order to evaluate model fit for this study. These fit indices in-
clude the standardized root mean square residual (SRMR), the
comparative fit index (CFI), the root mean square error of ap-
proximation (RMSEA), and the Satorra-Bentler χ2. Results
showed that the fit of the proposed two-factor model was poor
(Satorra-Bentler χ2/df = 46.7, CFI = .60, RMSEA = .24, 90% =
(0.23; 0.25), SRMR = .26).
In this study we investigated the association between basic
empathy as measured by the IRI and ethnocultural empathy as
measured by the SEE. Second, we explored whether a set of
background variables could predict the two forms of empathy.
We found a significant, strong correlation between basic and
ethnocultural empathy, suggesting that the two factors overlap
substantially. We failed to find any differential predictors, again
suggesting that the two forms of empathy are similar. Finally,
we used CFA to test the higher order factor structure and found
that the two measures were not distinct.
Turning to our first question, our data do not concord with
Wang et al. (2003) who regarded ethnocultural empathy as a
unique construct. On the contrary, it could be that an underlying
empathy factor influences the ratings on both the SEE and the
IRI. This did not alter the conclusion that the two constructs
Descriptive statistics and inter-correlations between ethnocultural
empathy (SEE), basic empathy (IRI), and impression management scale
(IMS) (N = 788).
M (SD) SEE IRI IMS
SEE 3.48 0.52 - .65** .20**
IRI 3.32 0.38 .21**
IMS 2.87 0.49
**P < .001.
Multiple regression analysis predicting ethnocultural empathy from
background variables (N = 788).
Independent variableR squareAdj. R square β t p
Gender –.19 –5.60.00**
Place of growth .13 3.66.00**
Primary school .07 1.71.08
Secondary school .06 1.43.15
F(5.777) = 13.68; **P < .001.
Multiple regression analysis predicting basic empathy from back-
ground variables (N = 788).
Independent variableR squareAdj. R square β t p
Gender –.28 –8.34.001**
Place of growth .14 4.14.001**
Primary school .06 1.61.11
Secondary school .02 0.62.53
F(5.777) = 18.71; **P < .001; *P < .05.
overlap. As social desirability might affect the ratings, both
empathy scales were correlated with the measure of impression
management. The findings suggest that a significant proportion
of variance on the empathy scales can be explained by scores
on the IMS. Wang et al. (2003) found a correlation of r = .23
between the SEE and the measure of impression management
in their validation study. However, the main purpose of this
study was to test if basic and ethnocultural empathy are distinct.
Controlling for scores on the IMS did not alter the correlation
between the SEE and the IRI (r = .64) and hence we do not
believe that social desirability lies behind the association.
Our second aim was to investigate differential correlates of
the two forms of empathy. The multiple regression analysis
revealed that gender, place where one grows up and age were
predictive of both ethnocultural empathy and basic empathy.
This again questions the unique status of ethnocultural empathy.
Participants, who grew up in a small city, were women, were
older, and had higher levels of ethnocultural empathy. However,
contrary to our expectation, the ethnic diversity in the primary
and secondary schools of the students was not a significant
predictor variable of ethnocultural empathy. Overall, our pre-
dictions were not confirmed and no clear differential predictors
Our third aim was to test if ethnocultural empathy and basic
empathy are distinct when defined by their subscales. Results of
C. RASOAL ET AL.
the CFA showed that a two-factor model had an inadequate fit
with the data. There are two possible reasons why a two-factor
model did not fit the data. First, the two measures do not seem
to tap two distinct constructs, which is contrary to what Wang
et al. (2003) claimed. Second, our data set included a rather
homogenous sample, with only students from one university
and secondary schools. However, the CFA, together with the
high correlation between the two scales and the results of the
regression analyses, support the notion that the two scales
measure basically the same variable or share variance with a
third, common empathy construct. Overall, this was not in line
with our hypotheses. To conclude, basic empathy and ethno-
cultural empathy are highly interdependent. However, more
research is needed in this area before we will know how stable
the relationship between the two constructs is. Thus, at this
point, we do not claim that it is possible to translate basic em-
pathy to community empathy at a collective level.
This study raises questions regarding how ethnocultural em-
pathy should be measured. In particular, in light of the signifi-
cant association between impression management and empathy,
it might be that more indirect and implicit measures of empathy
should be used (e.g., Batson, Polycarpou, Harmon-Jones, Im-
hoff, & Mitchener, 1997). On the other hand, more experimen-
tal set-ups are hardly possible to administer in large samples
and therefore we believe that our self-reported findings add to
the literature on ethnocultural empathy. From a theoretical
point of view, we found no support for the contact hypothesis
that experience of ethnic diversity in a school does not predict
Limitations of the Study
There are two main limitations of this study. First we had a
relatively homogenous sample in a university and a secondary
school setting, with most participants being ethnic Swedes.
Future research could incorporate a wider range of participants
with respect to ethnicity and education. Second, we relied on
self-reporting measures that were translated from English into
Swedish. It could be that measures of empathy and, in particu-
lar ethnocultural empathy, do not translate easily to other set-
tings. On the other hand, our measures were generally well
understood and, as Sweden is a multicultural society with a
significant minority of immigrants (20%), it made sense to
measure ethnocultural empathy.
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Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy (SEE, Adapted from
the Original Scale, See Wang et al., 2003)
1) I feel annoyed when people do not speak standard Swed-
2) I don’t know a lot of information about important social
and political events of ethnic groups other than my own.
3) I am touched by movies or books about discrimination is-
sues faced by racial or ethnic groups other than my own.
4) I know what it feels like to be the only person of a certain
ethnicity in a group of people.
5) I get impatient when communicating with people from
other ethnic backgrounds, regardless of how well they speak
6) I can relate to the frustration that some people feel about
having fewer opportunities due to their ethnic backgrounds.
7) I am aware of institutional barriers (e.g., restricted oppor-
tunities for job promotion) that discriminate against racial or
ethnic groups other than my own.
8) I don’t understand why people of different ethnic back0
grounds enjoy wearing traditional clothing.
9) I seek opportunities to speak with individuals of other
ethnic backgrounds about their experiences.
10) I feel irritated when people of different ethnic back-
ground speak their language around me.
11) When I know my friends are treated unfairly because of
their ethnic backgrounds, I speak up for them.
12) I share the anger of those who face injustice because of
their ethnic backgrounds.
13) When I interact with people from other ethnic back-
grounds, I show my appreciation of their cultural norms.
14) I feel supportive of people of other ethnic groups, if I
think they are being taken advantage of.
15) I get disturbed when other people experience misfortunes
due to their ethnic background.
16) I rarely think about the impact of a racist or ethnic joke
on the feelings of people who are targeted.
17) I am not likely to participate in events that promote equal
rights for people of all ethnic backgrounds.
18) I express my concern about discrimination to people
from other ethnic groups.
19) It is easy for me to understand what it would feel like to
be a person of another ethnic background other than my own.
20) I can see how other ethnic groups are systematically op-
pressed in our society.
21) I don’t care if people make racists statements against
other ethnic groups.
22) When I see people who come from a different ethnic
background succeed in the public arena, I share their pride.
23) When other people struggle with ethnic oppression, I
share their frustration.
24) I recognize that the media often portrays people based on
25) I am aware of how society differentially treats ethnic
groups other than my own.
26) I share the anger of people who are victims of hate
crimes (e.g., intentional violence because of ethnicity).
27) I do not understand why people want to keep their in-
digenous ethnic cultural traditions instead of trying to fit into
28) It is difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of some-
one who is ethnically different from me.
29) I feel uncomfortable when I am around a significant
number of people who are ethnically different than me.
30) When I hear people make racist jokes, I tell them I am
offended even though they are not referring to my ethnic group.
31) It is difficult for me to relate to stories in which people
talk about ethnic discrimination they experience in their day to
Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; D avi s, 1983)
1) I daydream and fantasize, with some regularity, about
things that might happen to me (FS).
2) I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less
fortunate than me (EC).
3) I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the “other
guy’s” point of view (PT) (-).
4) Sometimes I don’t feel very sorry for other people when
they are having problems (EC) (-).
5) I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in
a novel (FS).
6) In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-
7) I am usually objective when I watch a movie or play, and
I don’t often get completely caught up in it (FS) (-).
8) I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before
I make a decision (PT).
9) When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind
of protective towards them (EC).
10) I sometimes feel helpless when I am in the middle of a
very emotional situation (PD).
11) I sometimes try to understand my friends better by
imagining how things look from their perspective (PT).
12) Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie
is somewhat rare for me (FS) (-).
13) When I see someone get hurt, I tend to remain calm (PD)
14) Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a
great deal (EC) (-).
15) If I’m sure I’m right about something, I don’t waste
much time listening to other people’s arguments (PT) (-).
16) After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were
one of the characters. (FS)
17) Being in a tense emotional situation scares me (PD).
18) When I see someone being treated unfairly, I sometimes
don’t feel very much pity for them (EC) (-).
19) I am usually pretty effective in dealing with emergencies
20) I am often quite touched by things that I see happen
21) I believe that there are two sides to every question and
try to look at them both (PT).
22) I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person
23) When I watch a good movie, I can very easily put myself
in the place of a leading character (FS).
24) I tend to lose control during emergencies (PD).
25) When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to “put myself
in his shoes” for a while (PT).
26) When I am reading an interesting story or novel, I imag-
ine how I would feel if the events in the story were happening
to me (FS).
27) When I see someone who badly needs help in an emer-
gency, I go to pieces (PD).
28) Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I
would feel if I were in their place (PT).