Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings Reduce Empathic Responding1


  • 1

    We are indebted to Youngmee Kim for her invaluable help with the path analyses reported in this manuscript.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Donna Webster Nelson, Department of Psychology, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC 29733.


An experiment was conducted with American college students to determine whether differences in cultural perspectives might act as an impediment to empathic responding. Participants read about targets who experienced distress in a social context and who assumed a perspective that was consistent or inconsistent with norms typical of U.S. culture. When evaluating targets with a dissimilar as opposed to similar cultural perspective, participants exhibited a lack of perspective taking, perceiving those responses as inappropriate, atypical, and dissimilar to their own likely response in that situation. They also tended to attribute dissimilar targets' distress to dispositional as opposed to situational forces, essentially assigning them more blame. Further, emotional empathy, including feelings of compassion and sympathy were lessened with respect to targets whose responses reflected unfamiliar cultural norms. Path analyses indicated that inadequate appreciation of the different cultural perspective could account for much of the reduction in empathic concern. Results suggest that lack of perspective taking with regard to divergent cultural norms may compromise cross-cultural exchanges of tolerance and compassion.