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Affective and physiological responses to the suffering of others: Compassion and vagal activity

  • Author(s): Stellar, JE
  • Cohen, A
  • Oveis, C
  • Keltner, D
  • et al.
Abstract

© 2015 American Psychological Association. Compassion is an affective response to another's suffering and a catalyst of prosocial behavior. In the present studies, we explore the peripheral physiological changes associated with the experience of compassion. Guided by long-standing theoretical claims, we propose that compassion is associated with activation in the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system through the vagus nerve. Across 4 studies, participants witnessed others suffer while we recorded physiological measures, including heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, and a measure of vagal activity called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Participants exhibited greater RSA during the compassion induction compared with a neutral control (Study 1), another positive emotion (Study 2), and a prosocial emotion lacking appraisals of another person's suffering (Study 3). Greater RSA during the experience of compassion compared with the neutral or control emotion was often accompanied by lower heart rate and respiration but no difference in skin conductance. In Study 4, increases in RSA during compassion positively predicted an established composite of compassion-related words, continuous selfreports of compassion, and nonverbal displays of compassion. Compassion, a core affective component of empathy and prosociality, is associated with heightened parasympathetic activity.

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