Are self-report cognitive empathy ratings valid proxies for cognitive empathy ability? Negligible meta-analytic relations with behavioral task performance

Psychol Assess. 2019 Aug;31(8):1062-1072. doi: 10.1037/pas0000732. Epub 2019 May 23.


Empathy is widely regarded as relevant to a diverse range of psychopathological constructs, such as autism spectrum disorder, psychopathy, and borderline personality disorder. Cognitive empathy (CE) is the ability to accurately recognize or infer the thoughts and feelings of others. Although behavioral task paradigms are frequently used to assess such abilities, a large proportion of published studies reporting on CE use self-report questionnaires. For decades, however, a number of theorists have cautioned that individuals may not possess the metacognitive insight needed to validly gauge their own mindreading abilities. To investigate this possibility, we examined the aggregate relations between behavioral CE task performance and self-report CE scale scores, as well as with self-report affective empathy scale scores for comparison. Meta-analytic results, based on random effects models, from 85 studies (total N = 14,327) indicate that self-report CE scores account for only approximately 1% of the variance in behavioral cognitive empathy assessments and that, perhaps equally importantly, this relation is not significantly different from that demonstrated by affective empathy scores. Effect sizes were not moderated by self-report empathy domain, gender composition, unisensory versus multisensory behavioral stimuli presentation, child versus adult samples, or by normative versus clinical/forensic samples. Effect size estimates were not markedly affected by publication bias. These results raise serious concerns regarding the widespread use of self-report CE scores as proxies for CE ability, as well as the extensive theoretical conclusions that have been based on their use in past studies. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Self Report*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires / standards*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires / statistics & numerical data
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult