Date of Award

8-2006

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Psychology

Major Professor

Deborah P. Welsh

Committee Members

Cheryl Travis, Lowell A. Gaertner, Heather A. Hirschfeld

Abstract

This dissertation describes a study that seeks to understand the role of empathic accuracy in adolescent romantic relationships. Such relationships are important in their own right and play a central role in shaping the general course of development in adolescence. Five specific questions are examined in this project. First, is there a gender difference in empathic accuracy? Second, does empathic accuracy improve over the course of a relationship? Third, does empathic accuracy improve with age? Fourth, is empathic accuracy related to relationship satisfaction? Fifth, is an individual’s hiding something when discussing disagreements related to a decrease in the partner’s empathic accuracy?

To explore these questions, we use data collected from 101 middle adolescent and 105 late adolescent dating couples. We use observational coded data gathered from recorded conversations whereby couples discuss an issue of disagreement in their relationship as well as survey data. To accomplish these analyses in a way that controlled for non-independence of partner-members’ responses (which violate the assumptions of techniques such as multiple regression, and thus artificially inflates error terms), data were examined with hierarchical linear modeling. Although the ability of an individual to correctly infer the thoughts and feelings of their partner was very similar for males and females, we found that, overall, females were slightly more empathically accurate than their male partners. Relationship length was unrelated to empathic accuracy and age was only loosely associated. Controlling for age, we found that relationship satisfaction was significantly associated with empathic accuracy for males with a significant trend for females. Finally, females’ reports of "hiding something" was negatively associated with males’ empathic accuracy.

These results using a global measure of empathic accuracy are complimented by findings with four component dimensions: connection, conflict, uncomfortable, and being persuaded. We found complex, gender-linked differences in empathic accuracy and its relation to relationship satisfaction and a partner’s report of "hiding something." Specifically, when females reported higher relationship satisfaction, they were more likely to accurately perceive their partners’ negative feelings and behaviors (conflict, persuading, and discomfort) with a significant trend in perceiving their partners’ feelings of connection. However, for males, higher relationship satisfaction was negatively associated with the accurate perception of feelings of connection and positively associated with accuracy in perceiving conflict. We also found that males were less accurate at perceiving conflict when their partner reported "hiding something."

Findings and implications are discussed within the frameworks of a number of different paradigms, including developmental and social psychology, and feminism. Recommendations are made for discussing results in relation to the demands of interaction protocols and for more nuanced measurement systems.

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