Newswise — Empathic anger, not sympathy, is an effective motivator when it comes to getting college students involved in community service to address social issues.

That’s the finding of research conducted by Appalachian State University Professor Robert G. Bringle and two undergraduates who surveyed more than 250 college students regarding factors that motivate them to become involved in altruistic causes.

Bringle gave an oral presentation of his research “I’m So Angry I Could … Help! The Nature of Empathic Anger” at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference held May 7 in Birmingham, England.

“This all grew out of my work as an educator wanting to increase students’ civic involvement,” he said of his research. Bringle, the Kulynych/Cline Visiting Distinguish Professor in Appalachian’s Department of Psychology, is a former executive director of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Center for Service-Learning.

Bringle is interested in the various motives for students’ community service activities and how educators can facilitate the development of students’ “habits of the heart” or lifelong interest in civic involvement.

“Empathy in the social psychology literature is a very robust predictor of those who help others,” Bringle said. “As you might imagine, those who have more sensitivity to others are more likely to help.”

While conducting a literature review of research on empathy, senior psychology major Ashely Hedgepath, one of Bringle’s students, found two key references to empathic anger, which Bringle explained is the idea that empathy isn’t limited to experiencing another person’s emotion, such as happiness, surprise or sadness. “We looked at individuals who have an empathic or emotional response to something they see or hear that results in anger rather than sadness and how they act to help the victim in response to that anger,” he said.

Bringle and Hedgepath revised an existing psychological scale to measure students’ responses to empathic anger.

“What we found was that people who scored higher on empathic anger were people who were more inclined to approach their community involvement from the point of view of social justice advocacy and systemic change rather than a charity model,” Bringle said.

Channeling emphatic anger may be a way to increase students’ involvement in service-learning in higher education. “Individuals who get angry with what they see and who want to do something about it are more inclined to try to change the system,” Bringle said.

“Should this be an educational goal?” Bringle asked. “We need to conduct more research on that.”

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British Psychological Society’s annual conference