Reinforcing Concern and Compassion Versus Distress and Fatigue in Empathic Responses to Psychosocial Stress

This is an early post to gather ideas about a project proposal I am developing.

My goal is to distinguish underlying processes and and response patterns in empathic distress and empathic concern/compassion. Batson, Fultz, and Schoenrade (1987) regard empathic distress and empathic concern as two qualitatively distinct emotional responses to another person that also produce different empathic responses. Empathic distress can be a barrier to other-directed concern, care, and helping behavior.  By contrast, the literature on compassion suggests that in the experience of compassion people are calm and put their own emotions, thoughts, and needs aside in service of another, which could be a precursor to altruistic action. Executive functioning and control is an essential feature of the mature capacity for empathy. Recent studies by Tania Singer indicate that emotional congruence (shared affect) and perspective-taking may be inversely related. Thus, the ability to “feel what someone else feels” (emotional congruence)  may obscure or interfere with the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling and to take their perspective (perspective-taking).

Hypothesis 1: While empathizing, there is an arc in emotional response to psychosocial stress that increases in intensity in congruence with the target. I hypothesize that in the case of empathic concern/compassion, the intensity of these emotions eventually becomes regulated as the empathizer calms down and uses executive processes to assess the target’s situation and respond appropriately. Using electroencephalography (EEG) we can measure activity in the prefrontal cortices to explore executive functioning and emotional regulation.

Hypothesis 2: I hypothesize that individuals who are calmer when assessing a target will have greater empathic accuracy, will perform better on perspective-taking tasks, and will exhibit greater fairness/inclusion and prosocial helping behavior than individuals who are more distressed.

Hypothesis 3: Physiological feedback and interoception-awareness levels will be mediators for emotional response and regulation, which will also mediate the trajectory towards empathic distress or empathic concern.

Hypothesis 4: The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and differentiate between one’s own emotions in response to a target from the target’s emotions is crucial in preventing empathic distress and fosters other-directed empathy and compassion.

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