This week I took the Empathy Quotient (EQ) test. I know many of you have been waiting for this one. Next week we’ll do something less technical and more fun, but this week, I’m gonna hit you with a lot of background info. The EQ and the 2004 study that it was originally used in created a firestorm of controversy that never really died down.
The Empathy Quotient (EQ) test is intended to be a measure of your ability to understand how people feel and to respond appropriately. The questions on the EQ are based on the following definition of empathy:
“Empathy is the drive or ability to attribute mental states to another person/animal, and entails an appropriate affective response in the observer to the other person’s mental state.” (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004)
This definition encompasses both cognitive empathy (perspective taking/attribution) and affective empathy (emotional response to another’s emotional state). Although many autistic people have described distinct variations in their perceived levels of cognitive and empathic empathy, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright state that cognitive and affective empathy are too difficult to untangle and therefore must be looked at as a whole.
A subsequent 2005 study by Muncer and Ling challenged this belief by sorting 23 of the 40 EQ questions into three domains: cognitive, emotional reactivity, and social skills. To give you an idea of what types of skills fall into each domain, here are the top 5 most relevant questions for each:
- I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively
- I am good at predicting how someone will feel
- I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable
- I can easily work out what another person might want to talk about
- I can sense if I am intruding, even if the other person does not tell me
- I do not tend to find social situations confusing
- I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation
- I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite
- I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they do not understand it first time
- Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them
- I tend to get emotionally involved with a friend’s problems
- Seeing people cry does not really upset me
- I really enjoy caring for other people
- I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film
- If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that is their problem, not mine
The 2005 study tested the 23 domain-specific EQ questions for gender differences. The emotional reactivity domain had the greatest gender differences, the cognitive domain had fewer differences and the social skills domain showed no differences in scores along gender lines. The authors theorized that emotional reactivity may be strongly rooted in the “willingness of an individual to express emotion” (drive) rather than the ability to understand another person’s emotional state.
This raises the question of how alexithymia (emotional dysfunction), which affects many people on the spectrum, might impact EQ scores. Many people on the spectrum experience alexithymia, making them less willing or able to express emotion due to challenges in regulating and processing feelings. Perhaps it isn’t that autistic people can’t understand the emotions of others, but that the cost of responding appropriately is too high.
Gender Bias Revisited
If you’ve been following Take-a-Test Tuesday closely, you’ve seen the discussion of gender bias in other screening instrument studies. The EQ study was heavily weighted toward males, with 65 males and 25 females in each group. That’s more than twice as many males as females in a study of a trait that is known to have gender differences in scoring.
Traditionally males score significantly lower than females on self-reported measures of empathy. On top of that, the EQ study had significantly more control group women than men with above average scores (>54) and 14% of control group males in the EQ study scored in the AS/HFA range.
Now consider that this study was used to test:
- whether adults with high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) have lower EQ scores
- whether the EQ is inversely correlated with the AQ (i.e. the “more autistic” you are, the “less empathetic” you are)
- whether the EQ inversely correlates with the Friendship Questionnaire (i.e. the “more autistic” you are, the less reciprocity and intimacy you’ll report having in relationships)
- for sex differences in empathy
Baron-Cohen used the low EQ scores of the HFA/AS group as support for his theory that HFA/AS is an “empathy disorder.” The researchers subsequently conducted interviews with many of the HFA/AS study participants and reported that while they had difficulty knowing that their actions hurt another person, they did feel bad about it when such instances were pointed out to them, and therefore “are not like unfeeling psychopaths.” (As I write this, I’m envisioning the tops of my autistic readers’ heads flying off. Repeatedly. Sorry.)
This study is also used as evidence to uphold another of Baron-Cohen’s theories (extreme male brain theory), further calling the motivation of the study design into question.
So, now that we’ve gotten ourselves all worked up about the questionable science underlying the EQ, let’s actually take the darn thing.
Pros and Cons of the EQ
- Scoring of slightly/definitely choices is weighted
- Filler questions attempt to reduce repetitiveness
- Clinically tested in both ASD and non-ASD populations
- Measures cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity and social skills but doesn’t provide subscale scores
- May be gender biased
- May exhibit bias toward developer’s theory of autism
- Probably longer than it needs to be (a 15-item version has shown similar outcomes)
- Self-reported measures of empathy often have poor correlation with tests of empathic accuracy (i.e. we tend to think we’re either more or less empathetic than we are)
Taking the Test
When you take the EQ, you may question the relevance of some of the items. That’s because 40 are related to empathy and 20 are filler questions meant to be a distraction from the repetitive nature of the empathy questions. Only the 40 empathy-related questions count in the scoring; the 20 filler questions score a zero no matter how you answer them.
You can take the test here. There are 60 questions. Unlike some of the other tests we’ve taken, this test gives 2 points for a “definitely” answer and 1 point for a “slightly” answer so degree matters.
Scoring the Test
Possible scores range from 0 to 80. The average NT scores from two different studies were 47 and 50 for women and 41 and 42 for men. The average aspie score is 20.
A general scoring guideline:
- 0-32 = below average
- 33-52 = average
- 53-63 = above average
- 64-80 = significantly above average
I got a 12. The Scientist got a 48. I’ve taken the EQ twice in the past, and got an 8 and a 10. I jokingly told The Scientist this past week that I’m now 50% more empathetic.
If you get a ridiculously low score on this test, keep in mind that it’s measuring a few different things and conflating them into one “empathy” score, which isn’t very accurate. After reading the Muncer study, I wish the test returned subscale scores for cognitive, emotional reactivity and social skills. I’d like to know which of the areas I actually scored some points in.
The Bottom Line
The evidence for the EQ as a unidimensional measure of empathy is weak. Aspies tend to score low on the EQ, but what that means is unclear.