Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Gillian Barker


The broad aim of this dissertation is to present an alternative approach to empathy research. The three main questions raised are: What is empathy? How do its component psychological processes become active and operate together? How did empathy evolve? In answering these questions, most researchers have started from a conventional approach that can be described as focusing on short-term phenomena “inside the head” of an individual, evidence that is gathered exclusively in a laboratory environment, and neurocognitive processes that are universally shared by all humans.

A problem with the conventional approach is that it makes social and normative issues in empathy research very difficult to analyze, let alone resolve. Issue such as: which contextual and social variables affect whether empathy occurs or not? Why do conflicting assessments of when empathy has occurred arise? And how should we decide between them? Resolving these issues on the conventional approach is hard because it ignores many important variables affecting empathy. There is a need for rethinking empathy in way that will more fully integrate the normative and environmental variables that affect its interactive complexity.

My approach integrates three such variables. Namely, the environmental contexts of agents and targets, their values, and the motivational stances they adopt towards each other. In the first paper, I attempt to sort out disagreements about what empathy is. I then argue for an account of empathy that emphasizes care and other values. In the second paper, I explore the consequences of unconscious emotions for an account of empathy’s theory of empathic accuracy. In the third paper, I criticise evolutionary psychological accounts of empathy, and propose an enlarged theoretical framework that renders the account I develop in the first two papers consistent with recent advances in evolutionary theory, computer science, evolutionary biology, and philosophy.

The three papers of this dissertation present a more detailed causal explanation of empathy that enables us to better predict when it will occur. It sketches a new evolutionary explanation of empathy. And it creates a theoretical space for the analysis of normative and environmental variables that will arguably be important for studying empathy going forward.