Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Annmarie Cano


The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which a perspective-taking instruction would promote empathic behaviors in couples, resulting in better emotion regulation and greater pain tolerance during a cold pressor task. Based on empathy and intimacy theories, it was expected that observers who were instructed to take the perspective of their partner would feel and express more empathy, and that their partners would have better pain and pain tolerance compared to a control group. A sample of 128 undergraduate romantic couples participated where one partner was randomly assigned to complete the cold pressor task while the other partner sat close by and observed/interacted freely. Couples were first randomly assigned to: a) an empathy group in which observers were privately instructed to take the perspective of the pain participant (n = 65), or b) a control group in which observers received only a description of the task (n = 63). Trained raters coded empathic and nonempathic observer behaviors during the pain task. Despite the fact that observers in the empathy group reported feeling greater empathy and concern, they did not demonstrate greater empathic behaviors during the task. Still, they communicated their empathy to pain participants, as pain participants in the empathy group reported both significantly lower pain severity and feeling more understood than did those in the control group. When collapsing across groups, pain participant catastrophizing and observer invalidation were related to greater pain severity, but in different ways. Observers with greater stoic beliefs felt and behaved less empathically. The results of this study support theories of couples emotion regulation and intimacy in conceptualizing pain couples' interpersonal interactions: empathy for pain is an intimacy-enhancing behavior which is related to improved pain. The empathy manipulation was simple, brief, and effective. Interventions for pain should aim to increase partners' empathic behaviors to support successful emotion regulation in the face of pain. These results can also be applied to other individuals who interact with people with pain, such as medical professionals.