The Roles of Theory of Mind and Empathy in the Relationship between Dysphoria and Poor Social Functioning
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The current research, across three studies, examined two social practices that involve processing and responding to others’ emotions, theory of mind (ToM) and empathy, and how they relate to dysphoria and the social impairments associated with dysphoria over time. Mildly depressed, or dysphoric, individuals, have been found to have heightened ToM when identifying others’ emotions, despite reporting widespread social impairments (Harkness et al., 2005). The first study (Chapter 2) examined if and how ToM is a mediator in the relationship between dysphoria and social functioning. Attribution style, specifically the internalizing attribution bias, was hypothesized to play a role. The interaction between ToM and internalizing attribution bias was independently associated with social functioning. For internalizing attributors, higher ToM was related to better social functioning, but no relationship was observed between ToM and social functioning among non-internalizing attributors. The second study (Chapter 3) examined the relationship between ToM and empathy, addressing the debate surrounding cognitive and affective aspects of ToM and empathy. Affective ToM and cognitive empathy both have been described as processes involving cognitive inferences about others’ emotions. Current results supported this link, showing that a specific component of empathy, perspective-taking, was related to ToM. Although ToM was associated with some aspects of empathy, empathy remained a separate construct that includes both cognitive and emotional responding to others’ emotions. Chapter 4 shifted focus to empathy to examine how this social practice relates to dysphoria and social functioning. The last study first examined how empathy relates to dysphoria. Results showed that only personal distress, one component of empathy, was associated with greater dysphoria. The final study also examined if the empathy x emotion regulation interaction mediates the relationship between dysphoria and social functioning. Different patterns were observed for different emotion regulation types. The interaction between maladaptive, but not adaptive, emotion regulation strategies and empathy was correlated directly with social functioning. For individuals with negative cognitive emotion regulation strategies, greater empathy was associated with better social functioning, a relationship not present for individuals who do not use negative cognitive emotion regulation. Finally maladaptive, but not adaptive, emotion regulation significantly predicted social functioning after controlling for dysphoria.