Individual differences in empathy and facial expression recognition: Theoretical and clinical implications

University of Manchester

Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

Project Description

Understanding what others are feeling is central to empathy, which plays an important role in prosocial behaviour and is a key predictor of clinical outcomes in psychological therapy (Elliott, Bohart, Watson & Murphy, 2018). Previous research has shown that some of us are more empathetic than others, although many people can be taught to be more empathic, which has important implications for how we train therapists and other clinical professionals (Teding van Berkhout & Malouff, 2016; Guthrie, Hughes & Brown, 2018).

Accurately recognising emotional facial expressions is an initial step to empathic responding and previous research has found a positive relationship between self-reported empathy and expression recognition (e.g., Beley & Yuille, 2010 but see Alharbi et al., 2020). The extent to which individual differences in emotion recognition ability contribute to empathy and empathic behaviour is not well understood, however. One issue with research in this area – and research on empathy more generally – is that it often relies on self-ratings of empathy, which may or may not be related to the actual ability to determine how other people are thinking, feeling, and reacting. There is a need for more ecologically valid tests of empathic ability in order to answer important clinical (e.g., are empathy training packages for clinicians effective?) and basic science questions (e.g., what is the relationship between emotion recognition and empathic ability?).


In this project we will build on our existing work to develop a new, more ecologically valid, test of empathic ability, and use it to (1) enhance our theoretical understanding of individual differences, emotional components of empathy and their measurement; and (2) provide a more objective assessment of the relationship between empathy and important clinical outcomes like response to psychological therapy.

Funding Information

This 3-year full-time PhD is open to candidates able to provide evidence of self-arranged funding/ sponsorship and could commence from September 2021 onwards.

Applications are invited from self-funded students. This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website. For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website.

Eligibility Requirements

Candidates are expected to hold, or obtain, a minimum upper second class undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, clinical neuroscience, clinical psychology, neuroscience, or another related discipline. A Masters degree in a relevant subject would be an advantage.

Application Process

Any enquiries relating to the project and/or suitability should be directed to Dr Karen Lander ([email protected]). Applications are invited on an on-going basis but early expression of interest is encouraged.

For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website ( Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor. On the online application form select PhD Psychology.

Supplementary Information

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. The full Equality, diversity and inclusion statement can be found on the website .


Alharbi, S.A.H., Button, K., Zhang, L.S., O’Shea, K.J., Fasolt, V., Lee, A.J., DeBruine, L.M. & Jones, B.C. (2020). Are affective factors related to individual differences in expression recognition? Royal Society Open Science, 9.
Besel, L.D.S., & Yuille, J.C. (2010). Individual differences in empathy: The role of facial expression recognition. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 107-112.
Elliott, R., Bohart, A.C., Watson, J.C., Murphy, D. Therapist empathy and client outcome: An updated meta-analysis. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2018 Dec;55(4):399-410. doi: 10.1037/pst0000175. PMID: 30335453.
Guthrie, E., Hughes, R., & Brown, R. J. (2018). PI-E: An empathy skills training package to enhance therapeutic skills of IAPT and other therapists. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 34, 408-427.
Teding van Berkhout, E. & Malouff, J.M. (2015). The Efficacy of Empathy Training: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 32-41.

To apply for this PhD, please use the following application link: