Enhancing empathy and theory of mind

Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2012). Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. Journal of cognition and development, 13(1), 19-37.

Abstract:

This quasi-experimental study assessed the levels of theory of mind (understanding others’ various mental states) and empathy (matching the emotional state of another) in students who took acting classes versus art or music classes. Two studies took place, one of high school students and one of elementary students. In the acting classes for both studies, several sessions were videotaped in order to analyze how the teachers were responding to comments made by students and initiating comments to students based on their work. Students in the acting and visual arts/music groups of both studies completed a series of pre- and post tests to measure theory of the mind and empathy. These measures included but are not limited to the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, the Strange Stories Test, and the Index of Empathy for Children. The answers from the pre- and post- tests as well as the videotaped sessions were analyzed by a group of researchers. The study found that elementary students who studied acting increased in empathy but not theory of the mind while the high school acting students increased in both measures over the ten-month period. The visual art/music high school students also increased in empathy and theory of mind, but at a less significant rate.

Key Findings:

Elementary students showed an increase in empathy associated with ten months of acting training, but no increase in theory of the mind. The high school acting students, however, showed an increase in both empathy and theory of the mind over the same ten months. The music and visual arts student control group at the high school level also increased their scores in empathy and theory of mind, but at a less significant interval than the acting students. The content analysis of the teaching videos showed that explicit instruction in empathy was almost never done by the high school teachers while explicit instruction in theory of the mind was more common. In the elementary classroom there was little explicit instruction in either empathy or theory of the mind. Because both studies showed an increase in empathy and the high school students also showed an increase in theory of the mind, researchers concluded that acting training may enhance students’ skills in empathy and theory of the mind.

Significance of the Findings:

This study suggests that training in acting increases social-cognitive skills in children at various stages of development. The more significant increases in social cognitive skills at the high school level than at the elementary school level contributes to research demonstrating that theory of mind and empathy continue to develop throughout adolescence. The content analysis of the teaching videos demonstrates that even without explicit training in theory of mind or empathy both social cognitive skills were still being conveyed to the students through the acting training.

Methodology:

Researchers completed two congruent studies, one with high school students with an average age of 14 and one with elementary students with an average age of nine. The elementary students chose to participate in either an acting or visual arts group, both of which met weekly for a 90-minute after-school activity. The high school students were freshmen at one of two arts high schools majoring in either acting or visual art or music and received nine hours a week of arts instruction. The students were seen both at the beginning of the year and ten months later at the end of the year.

During each of the visits the students completed a series of measures on theory of mind and empathy in order to assess their level of empathy and theory of mind. These measures included tests created by the researchers, like the Fiction Emotion-Matching task, and previously used tests like the Empathic Accuracy Paradigm and the Basic Empathy Scale. The answers from the pre and post-tests were statistically analyzed in order to discover correlations. The acting classes for both the elementary and high school students were also videotaped to analyze the verbal comments made by teachers to students as they related to empathy and theory of mind.

Limitations of the Research:

Because the studies took place in schools, true randomization couldn’t be achieved. Instead, the researchers worked with students who were already enrolled in either acting or arts classes. Also, the videos and photographs that the children viewed in the measures for theory of the mind and empathy may not have been realistic enough for the children to respond to them in depth. It is also possible that the lack of increase in the elementary school children’s theory of the mind was due to the limited amount of acting instruction compared to the high school group.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Does acting training increase empathy and theory of the mind in adults? Do professional adult actors demonstrate higher levels of theory of the mind than adults in other professions? How is empathy changed based on visual arts training?