Does empathy have a cost? Diverging psychological and physiological effects within families

Erika M. Manczak*, Anita DeLongis, Edith Chen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Objective: Parental empathy is associated with a host of beneficial psychosocial outcomes for children. However, less is known about the effects of being empathic for parents. The current study tested the hypothesis that, although parental empathy may be beneficial to children both psychologically and physiologically, it may take a physiological toll on parents. Method: The current study examined psychological and physiological correlates of parental empathy in 247 parent-adolescent dyads. During a baseline laboratory visit, parents and adolescents provide blood samples from which markers of systemic inflammation, including interleukin 1-ra, interleukin 6, and C-reactive protein, were assayed. Parents completed self-report questionnaires of empathy, well-being, and self-esteem, and also reported on their child's emotion regulation. Following the laboratory visit, adolescents completed 2 weeks of daily diary reporting on their emotion regulation abilities. Results: In adolescents, parental empathy was significantly associated with both better emotion regulation and with less systemic inflammation. For parents, being empathic was associated with greater self-esteem and purpose in life, but also with higher systemic inflammation. Conclusions: These findings reinforce the importance of simultaneously considering both psychological and physical health-related effects of psychosocial traits and suggests that empathy may have diverging effects across providers and recipients of empathy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-218
Number of pages8
JournalHealth Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


  • Adolescent development
  • Emotional control
  • Inflammation
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Relationship quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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