Empathy as a cognitive inhibitor of interpersonal aggression

Deborah R. Richardson, Georgina S. Hammock, Stephen M. Smith, Wendi Gardner, Manuel Signo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

203 Scopus citations


The studies presented in this paper examined empathy, especially perspective taking, as a potential inhibitor of interpersonal aggression. The theoretical rationale for these investigations derived from Zillmann's [(1988): Aggressive Behavior 14: 51–64] cognitive excitation model. Study 1 revealed that dispositional empathy correlates negatively with self‐reported aggression and with conflict responses that reflect little concern for the needs of the other party. Empathy also was positively related to constructive responses to interpersonal conflict (i. e., those that do involve concern for the needs of the other party). In Study 2, perspective taking was manipulated with instructions to subjects prior to participation in a reaction‐time task designed to measure aggression. When threat was relatively low, subjects who were instructed to take the perspective of the target responded less aggressively than did those who had been instructed to focus on the task. Study 3 examined the effect of dispositional perspective taking on verbal aggression. Threat was manipulated in terms of the combination of provocation and gender of the interactants. As predicted, perspective taking related to aggression inhibition under conditions of moderate threat–for males under low provocation and females under high provocation. These effects were predicted and explained in the context of the cognitive‐excitation model. © 1994 Wiley‐Liss, Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)275-289
Number of pages15
JournalAggressive Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1994
Externally publishedYes


  • aggression
  • empathy
  • interpersonal conflict
  • sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology(all)


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