MEi:CogSci Conferences, MEi:CogSci Conference 2011, Ljubljana

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Empathy and Prosocial Behavior across the Lifespan
Martin Freundlieb

Last modified: 2011-06-08


!Empathy and Prosocial Behavior across the Lifespan.
Considering empathy as a construct to account for a sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other (shared representation hypothesis) [1], this study will effectively follow the three component cognitive affective model, which divides the phenomenon of empathy into a) the ability to discriminate and accurately label the feelings of other's (emotion recognition), b) the complex mechanism to change the point of view between the self and the other (perspective taking) and c) the ability to adequately respond to the perceived emotional stimulus by another (affective responding) [2]. As most of these components have been tested primarily on infants or young adults, it seems immanently important to extend the already acquired data also to older age groups in order to capture a representative picture of modern societies. This study will take such a more comprehensive outlook by recruiting age groups in the whole range from 25 to 75 years.
Embedded in the framework of this project, the particular contribution of the author will be to focus on the affective response part of the above sketched model. More specifically, it has been suspected that an empathic experience can lead to feelings of sympathy (concern for the other) or personal distress (concern for the self), thereby triggering two different motivational states and -assumingly- behavioral outcomes [3]. To further test this hypothesis, the conducted experiments will be designed in a way so that these motivational differences will be successfully divided at their joints.
For this purpose, participants will be exposed to short video clips showing patients undergoing a palpably painful (medical) treatment. Extensive self reports gathered online (e.g., subjectively rated uncomfortableness and willingness to give help in such a situation vs. shifting one's attention) are going to be supplemented with psychometric questionnaires (concerning emotional contagion and prosocialness) following the video clips, to ultimately elicit the intensity (strong/weak) and focus (self/other) of the empathic experience. Probands will be recruited in groups of age, starting of with subjects between 25 and 35 years to subject groups that are 65 years and older.
The author expects that the degree of empathic concern will positively affect prosocial behavior and is interested to find out if/how age is going to modulate that link. It is suspected that the overall project will elicit general gender differences in helping tasks as well as an incline in specific prosocial behavioral responses both with age (e.g., general willingness to donate money), which especially need to be controlled for in the extensive (sociodemographic) statistical returns.
[1] Decety, J., Ickes, W., The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.
[2] Hoffman, M. L., Affective and Cognitive Processes in moral internalization, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982.
[3] Decety, J., Lamm, C., Empathy versus Personal Distress: Recent Evidence from Social Neuroscience, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.