Explicating the role of empathic processes in substance use disorders: A conceptual framework and research agenda

Suena H. Massey*, Rebecca L. Newmark, Lauren S. Wakschlag

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations

Abstract

Issues. Elucidating the role of empathic processes in developmental pathways to substance use disorders could have important implications for prevention. Approach. We searched the biomedical and social sciences literature to determine what is known about empathy and psychopathological manifestations of severe lack of empathy in the initiation, development and maintenance of psychoactive substance use. Thirty-seven empirical studies were identified and formally reviewed. Key Findings. Adults with alcohol and stimulant use disorders exhibited detectable impairments in both cognitive and affective empathy, measured behaviourally, neuroanatomically and by self-report, relative to controls. There were no developmental studies specifically designed to test the role of empathy in substance use pathways, but several studies that included measures of empathy suggest that empathy may be protective. Studies on severe empathic deficits were mixed regarding a unique role of empathy in substance use trajectories, independent of interpersonal style, impulsivity and social deviance. Implications and Conclusions. In the context of findings and methodological limitations of this review, we recommend more rigorous examination of empathy across the spectrum of substance use behaviour. Future work should utilise the following: (i) prospective assessment of empathic capacity in substance abusers during and following treatment; (ii) large, developmentally based prospective designs beginning prior to substance initiation incorporating multiple measures of empathy; (iii) assessment of the moderating role of gender, race and ethnicity; and (iv) prospective study of empathy in children at elevated risk for substance use disorders. [Massey SH, Newmark RL, Wakschlag LS. Explicating the role of empathic processes in substance use disorders: A conceptual framework and research agenda.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)316-332
Number of pages17
JournalDrug and Alcohol Review
Volume37
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 2018

Keywords

  • callous–unemotional
  • empathy
  • psychopathy
  • substance abuse
  • theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health(social science)

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