Individual differences in empathy in Danish university students: A cross-sectional study

Elisabeth Assing Hvidt*, Sonja Wehberg, Christina Maar Andersen, Jens Søndergaard, Anders Larrabee Sonderlund

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background: Empathy is widely recognized as a multi-dimensional construct, involving emotional and cognitive components. These may cause distinct experiences and behaviors that can be both beneficial and deleterious to individuals’ well-being and mental health. Aim: We wished to examine the association between emotional and cognitive empathy of Danish university students as measured by the multidimensional Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) and study major, sex, age, and parental status. Additionally, we aimed to gauge the validity of the Jefferson Scale of Empathy – Student version (JSE-S) as a measure of primarily cognitive empathy in the context of medical majors by comparing JSE-S scores with IRI cognitive scores. Methods: In our national, cross-sectional study, conducted in October 2020, we used survey data from students in their first, third, and final study year. All students from University of Southern Denmark were invited to fill out IRI, and all medical students at Denmark’s four medical educations were additionally invited to fill out the JSE-S. Associations were estimated by linear regression models. Results: Of 14,072 invited, 2,595 students completed the questionnaire. Health majors scored statistically significantly higher on cognitive empathy than students from other study majors. The JSE-S correlated significantly with the cognitive empathy subscales of the IRI. Furthermore, the effects found in relation to sex, age-, and parental status were significant. Conclusion: Our study results show that large differences in empathy exist between university students and study majors. Overall, our results highlight (1) the relevance of investigating empathy as a multidimensional versus a global construct in young adult populations (including university students) and (2) the importance of focusing on differences in empathy across different student characteristics.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Social Psychiatry
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)113-121
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2023.


  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Denmark
  • Empathy
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Students, Medical/psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Universities
  • Young Adult


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