How the social brain experiences empathy, Part 2

Relations of Children’s Empathy-related Responding to Their Regulation and Social Functioning
Nancy Eisenberg (Arizona State University)

Empathy is often assumed to be a “moral” emotion, and to have a broad moral relevance. However, a 1982 meta-analysis by Underwood & Moore found no significant relationship between empathy & pro-social behavior such as cooperation & sharing.

Eisenberg argues that empathy-related reactions to play a crucial role in socioemotional & moral development, but earlier methodological models were flawed (based on self-reporting rather than physiological measures; also didn’t differentiate between sympathy & empathy).

Conceptually, useful to distinguish between empathy (an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel) and sympathy (an emotional response stemming from the apprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, which is not the same as the other’s state or condition but consists of feelings of sorrow or concern for the other).

Sympathy should lead to altruism. Personal distress is an aversive state leading to avoidance of needy individuals.


  • Heart rate deceleration: marker of sympathetic concern
  • Heart rate acceleration: marker of personal distress
  • High skin conductance: marker of personal distress
  • Also: facial distress, concerned attention, sadness, self-reported reactions

Validation studies: children & adults exhibited facial concerned attention (or empathic sadness) in sympathey-inducing contexts, and, to a lesser degree, facial distress in situations believed to elicit personal distress.  Also measured heart rate & skin conductance.

In general, markers of sympathy were positively related to prosocial behavior, & negatively related to markers of personal distress.

Sympathy/empathy may account for the emergence of a prosocial (altruistic) personality. Observed prosocial behaviors in 4-5 year olds:

  • spontaneous (without a request)
  • compliant (with request)
  • sharing (giving up an object or space; higher cost)
  • helping (low cost of assistance)

Only spontaneous sharing was related to references to others’ needs in prosocial moral reasoning. Requested prosocial behaviors were related to nonassertiveness & personal distress. Preschool spontaneous sharing related to costly donating or helping in preadolescence & adolescence; self-reported helping/prosociality in mid-adolescence & early adulthood; perspective taking in late adolescence & early adulthood; friend-reported sympathy in the 20s. Relatively few relations between other types of prosocial behavior & later prosocial responding.

Cognitive developmental theorists (e.g. Kohlberg) have claimed that cognition (e.g. perspective taking, abstract reasoning) relates to sympathy & moral reasoning.

Empathy is important in reduction of aggression (Feshbach). Deficits in empathy & remorse are common in individuals with antisocial personality disorders.  Recent results demonstrate relations of sympathy (and sometimes empathy) with moral reasoning, low levels of externalizing problems (e.g. aggression) and with socially appropriate and skilled behavior.

Is sympathy related to self-regulation? Hypothesized: empathic overarousal involving negative emotion -> aversive emotional state -> self-focused personal distress.  Individuals better able to maintain self-regulation exhibit sympathy; individuals less able to maintain self-regulation exhibit personal distress. Personal distress was negatively related to self-reported regulation and to friend-reported coping in college students & elderly.  Two possibilities: regulation may affect both sympathy and outcomes, or regulation may affect sympathy which affects outcomes.

Evidence shows genetics & environment both play a role in empathy & sympathy.

The Benefits and the Costs of Empathy: the Price of Being Human
Jean Decety (University of Chicago)

Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. It involves at least a minimal distinction between self and other. Sympathy refers to feelings of concern for the welfare of others. Empathy is not unique to humans.

Perception of pain in others as a tool to investigate empathy. Pain has adaptive benefits: distinguishes harmful from non-harmful situations. Ubiquitous across cultures. Social nature of pain: expression provides a signal that elicits helping behavior in others. Healthy individuals are predisposed to find distress of others aversive and learn to avoid actions associated with this distress.

Love hurts. Subject is shown pictures of self, loved one, stranger (prime picture). After each prime, subject is shown a picture evoking pain (slicing a cucumber vs. cutting one’s finger). Increased brain activity after picture of self & loved one compared to picture of stranger.

Two different emotional responses to perceiving another  in need. Personal distress evokes egoistic motivation to reduce one’s own aversive arousal. Empathic concern evokes altruistic motivation to have the other’s need reduced.

Shared neural circuits between first-hand experience of pain and perception of pain in others.

Signal increase in the amygdala as a function of perspective-taking.

Language has a powerful effect in emotion regulation. When instructing an individual to take someone else’s perspective, subtle working changes can alter the flavor of the resulting empathic emotion, specifically by affecting the mix of empathic concern and personal distress. Perspective-taking strategy may keep feelings of personal distress at a minimum while still boosting empahtic concern.

Empathy can be too much of a good thing.  Can share too much the negative emotion of others.  Self regulation is important. Attending to others in pain is associated with an aversive response in the observer, underpinned by neural circuits involved in the perception of threat and danger. Anxiety & personal distress are usually associate with aversive, not prosocial behavior. Flight, fight, or freeze responses are adaptive responses to dangerous situations. Doctors and nurses, for example, have to learn to regulate their empathy. Could not take responsibility for the lives of their patients if they were fully aware of their life or death situations. Frees up processing capacities to be of assistance.

Folk conceptions of empathy view it as the capacity to share, understand and respond to the affective states of others. But they can be dissociated. All the neuroscience we have really has to do with how we react to emotions; we don’t really know the mechanisms involved in action. “Mirror neurons are bogus.” DSM-IV says psychopaths lack empathy, but they also lack self-regulation in other ways; we don’t know the mechanism of what they’re missing that causes them to exhibit lack of empathy.  Most papers studying scans of “psychopaths” don’t really study psychopaths; they study college students who score high on tests of anti-sociality. Don’t overestimate what we know.


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